Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Studio Visit: Fernando Casas

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Fernando Casas’ teaching schedule in which his current class on “Plato” follows one on the “Philosophy of Art” at Rice University brought a memory of an art historian in a snit because Casas was “teaching Velazquez,” a subject he obviously thought was out of Casas’ field. Knowing Casas to be a gifted lecturer who fills up a class room, it occurred to me that professional envy caused the territorial outburst.

More than Casas’ technical skill and art commercial success, more than his three upcoming simultaneous gallery exhibitions, the thing that inspired my recent studio visit is his reputation as a thinker.

Fernando Casas, The Mirror of Time - Rice University, 2013, Oil on Canvas and mirrors, 90 x 136

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You have a Ph. D, in philosophy and art collectors that span the globe. The philosopher and artist seem easily reconciled in you. Comment on this.

Fernando Casas: Although I am primarily a visual artist, as you said, I studied philosophy and teach it regularly. philosophical ideas have influenced my art to a great extent. I think that a careful examination of the history of art shows that it is, at its very core, a philosophical endeavor, for it is a visual/auditory/etc. articulation of an understanding of who we are, of where we are, of why we are. Hence I do not make that much of a difference between art and philosophy – they are interwoven.

VBA: Should philosophy be defined as the search to understand who we are?

FC: There is no accepted definition of philosophy. One of the first things one learns in a philosophy class is that an important philosophical question much in dispute is the question what is philosophy? I surely don’t have a ready answer for it. Indeed, philosophy is an attempt to know who we are and where we are, but this is not a definition, and is true also of the sciences. This I don’t think is controversial. More controversial I think is my view that art is, likepPhilosophy and science, an endeavor to understand who we are. I hold the view that the great works of art of human history show us, every time anew, who we are, where we are, etc. For this and other reasons I do not make a sharp separation between philosophy and art. Let me explain. El Greco was a philosopher and you can easily read his Neo-Platonic philosophy in his paintings. You can also read Velazquez’s humanism and Rothko’s existential stance in their works. Do we have any doubt that Bacon’s view of human beings is different from, say, Botticelli? Goya’s view of humanity underwent a radical change: it moved from an optimistic Enlightenment inspired view of humanity to a profoundly pessimistic and dark view. This we can see in his paintings. I can go on and on.

VBA: The title of your upcoming show at Gremillion Gallery, The Perfection of Time, announces a primary area of artistic interest, time. The simple fact of three simultaneous gallery presentations exemplifies time, while your installations and related paintings and drawings more complexly bespeak time, some by interacting within and across galleries, so let’s discuss time.

FC: Time is a central notion of philosophy and of science and a most difficult concept to approach artistically, since it has no color, no pitch, no taste, no volume and no smell, and yet we experience it. How? It is the most familiar and yet the most obscure reality, as Augustine pointed out. Yet it is at the very center of who we are; at the very center of all reality. I wanted to bring out some of its puzzling reality and how essential it is in weaving the world that we live in.

VBA: Jesus Christ, Fernando, it took you five minutes to mention Augustine; if you veer into Aristotle you’ll be talking over my head.

FC: Aristotle influenced Augustine on the topic of time as you know.

VBA: Guilt-burdened Augustine, who tells us he “learned to love God late,” delayed his salvation so he could fornicate and otherwise gratify his corrupt nature. It makes me sad Augustine considered the scholarly pursuits he loved to be impious interruptions of prayers for forgiveness.

FC: Augustine was baffled by the notion of time, for surely our experience of time is problematic, in fact, disturbing. For science, time is static and doesn’t change or move. But we experience time as changing, as a Flow. This is undeniable, yet makes no sense at all!

Your reaction to my painting Holding Time - The Rothko Chapel delighted me because you said you saw no differences in the panels, which is precisely the point. Normally we would expect a sequence of images to change slightly like a movie reel, the changes representing the passing of time. But my images are the same. Why? Because I wanted to represent an experience of time closer to reality. How? By challenging your expectations that the images would differ, it helped you to realize there was no difference except that time has passed. The only difference was time and the only thing that changed was time. So you see I confront the viewer with the reality – or unreality – of time, this most perplexing part of all our experiences.

I will explain. The development of serialism in the 20th century opened up space for the representation of time, and the possibility of a viewer having an explicit experience of time. Working with series, I intend for the viewer to experience time itself, that ephemeral element present in every perception, which whenever we attempt to grasp it by any means, it becomes again, a “no-thing.” In a sequence of images, like a movie reel, or Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, spatial arrangements, objects, illumination etc. are the things that change. We don’t see time changing. This is inferred. You can’t logically conclude from my approach that each image represents a different time because of changes in the objects represented, so you realize that the only thing that changed was time itself, and you! That is, the time you took to look at one image, then another, then another. That’s why I have placed mirrors in many of my series.

Fernando Casas, Holding Time - The Rothko Chapel, 2012, Oil on wood and rope, 24 x 95”

VBA: Tiny mirrors in your installations and wall-mounted pieces make the viewer’s reflection an element in the artwork.

FC: I consider the role of those mirrors as the “stitching” of images. In my paintings of sequences of rooms, for example, the viewer sees her reflection in one room then again in the next identical room, the only difference between the two experiences is time has passed. As the viewer moves along those images she is, metaphorically speaking, “stitching” time.

VBA: What’s with the ropes?

FC: Ropes also “stitch” images of successive “moments of time” and symbolize reality emerging from coordinated interplay of many elements, for no single strand runs the length of the rope but all twisted together create a structure of indefinite extension. They are an imperfect allusion to the linear “flowing” of time.

I have more to say about mirrors. During many years of making art, I have created images of other people, i.e. portraits, group portraits, etc. But in this three-gallery exhibit there is not a single image of a person, except for myself. Why is this? Other people do not matter? Exactly the contrary; a viewer finds her image on the mirrors, the reflected images are, as you say, an essential part of the artworks. Now it can be terribly risky to make mirrors part of art because our natural inclination is to fixate on our appearance: How’s my hair? Is my tie crooked? Do I look old? If a viewer focuses only on her appearance, her reflection on the mirror, and ignores the complete work, then my work is dead. My intention is for the viewer to see herself as part of the image that surrounds the mirror, in other words, to see her mirror-image inside the work of art. When this happens, a profound and marvelous example of co-constitution occurs, it occurs because of my contribution and because of the viewer’s “correct” contribution, a new thing emerges and the work of art comes to life. To force correct viewing, and discourage fixation solely on appearance, I use small thin mirrors, sufficient to recognize ourselves, but too thin for a full image, which reflect only pieces of ourselves. So you see Virginia my art illustrates crucial cases of co-constitution, because art exists only when it is experienced. If nobody reads a poem, the poem doesn’t exist; it is just paper and ink. It is the same for the visual arts. Works of art are co-constituted by the artist and the person who experiences them.

VBA: It is stated specifically in your artist statement, co-constitution is the “organizing idea” for the three exhibitions.

FC: This is a wondrous phenomenon, that by virtue of the simultaneous interplay of various factors, a totally new reality emerges.

VBA: I’m feeling remorse over displacing those precious beasts. It’s clear your dogs were banished from indoors for my visit, and find this unacceptable.

FC: Gaia! Karma! Stop that! I can’t allow them to come inside, they would want your attention and it would be impossible to talk. And you’re a woman. You know both of those dogs were rescued from dangerous environments before they came to me. Gaia suffered a horrible accident when she was only months old, and was successfully operated on by the Austin Humane Society, but required a prolonged recuperation, and it was a woman, a foster mother, who took care of her during her recuperation. Since she’s been with me I’ve noticed her special affection for women, probably because of her foster mother.

VBA: Do they sleep with you?

FC: Yes.

VBA: Your elevated skill reveals academic training.

FC: I began young. My parents were lovely. They paid for private lessons, in Bolivia.

Fernando Casas, Dinosaurs’ Tracks, 2009, Oil on canvas with hinges, 64” x 114’

VBA: Say something about the repeated motif of the missing head.

FC: It represents the void in our visual field. The source of our perception is a visual blind spot. Consciousness cannot see itself. After years of mapping the visual world, to find that it is incomplete, was a startling and profound discovery. This is an important element in my art.

VBA: To illustrate the visual field must require rigorous observation.

FC: Years of observing and recording. My pictorial investigations of the visual field began in 1974 when I made a radical shift away from non-objective art because I decided there was much new to be found in representational art. In 1976 I began to artistically analyze the visual effects of binocular vision which helped me understand that our visual perception of the world comes from combined inputs from the left and right eyes, from which our mind “chooses” what we actually experience, selects certain things from the two inputs and organizes them into a unified visual experience. With a bit of effort it is possible to see what the mind normally forces us to ignore, such as the peripheral, to which we are unaccustomed to paying attention. My artworks capture these “hidden” visual realities. They suggest that the “linear perspective” window-like portion of the visual field is artificially narrow and ill conceived, and that by paying careful attention, the larger visual world can be perceived. By 1979 I had progressed to depicting the surrounding “spherical” visual field on a flat image with six equidistant vanishing points. It was then I realized it is possible to create an image of everything that visually surrounds us, except of course, of my own head. But it required several more years for me to accept that the visual world is irreparably incomplete.

VBA: Fernando, if the mind edits down to one visual experience two sets of optical input, does that mean it actually creates the reality we perceive?

FC: Yes, reality gets constructed in the mind. The world that we know is the result of the input that comes from “out there” and the peculiar way that our sense organs and our minds grasp and organize this input. Think, for example, of color, let’s say yellow. Vincent van Gogh had the experience of yellow when looking at sunflowers. I ask you, where is this yellow? Surely not in the sunflower itself! A colorblind person would not see the same flower as yellow. If you see the flower at nighttime, under moonlight, it would look gray. Colors only exist in the minds of the sentient beings that have those experiences; out there are only wavelengths of radiation. The mind plays the same kind of role in our understanding of the world as it does with our experiences of color, sounds, etc. Just as we “see” the world only from the human sensory perspective, we can only “understand” the world with our conceptual categories, with our scientific theories. That’s why I say that reality is constituted by the mind and in this sense also exists only in the mind. I intend for my art to shift the viewer beyond the narrow experience of reality to an extra-ordinary experience.

VBA: Not easily, I read some of your published works on the void in our visual field, and learned that the observer is in a paradoxical relationship to it.

FC: This is remarkable. Any attempt to produce a complete depiction of the visual world fails because visual information comes to an end at a place beyond which nothing can be seen, the void or blind spot, which is “the place” occupied by the presence of the mind that experiences that world, by the observer who in principle is not part of her own visual world, but is certainly a necessary condition for its existence. The visual world is necessarily incomplete because it depends for its very existence on the presence of an observer who does not belong to it. In other words we are conscious observers firmly located inside the visual/spatial world that we experience, and also altogether outside of it.

VBA: Is this some kind of new discovery?

FC: Emmanuel Kant, Satre and others formulated theories on the relationship of the self to perceptual experience and Ludwig Wittgenstein held the view that the metaphysical subject is the limit of the visual world. What is novel about my analysis is it rests on pictorial illustration that used an all-encompassing system of visual representation. My mapping the entire structure of surrounding visual space identified the blind spot, showed the visual world to be incomplete and discontinuous, the self to be by necessity a localized absence, both present in and absent from the visual world.

VBA: Quite amusing to see you sniff at convergent linear perspective. Your writings dismiss that faithful system of spatial representation as invalid. How insolent.

FC: It is a limited way of organizing three-dimensional pictorial space on a flat surface, because it fails to take into account a wealth of fascinating visual phenomena that a careful observer finds in the surrounding visual reality. I altered the system to expand its representational capacity, so it allows an observer to represent her entire visual world using a six point non-Euclidian spherical perspective system.

Fernando Casas, Duality: The Labyrinth of Self-Deception (detail), 2013, Graphite on paper, 76” x 42”

VBA: Pictorial investigations of the visual world got you written about in ARTnews. They called your art “hyper-intellectual.”

FC: They said my art teaches our eyes new ways of looking.

VBA: It’s some distance from Montrose, and the wild bamboo was unexpected, but your home is splendidly designed with living space that flows into multiple studios.

FC: I built it myself, with the help of a friend.

VBA: Everything, plumbing and electrical?

FC: I contracted out the septic tank.

VBA: The painting Dinosaurs’ Tracks seems to signal an additional artistic concern. We see the Fernando figure with the missing head to suggest the discontinuity of the visual field, a curved horizon to indicate the curvature of the visual world that we fail to notice, and certainly allusions to dinosaurs speak of time, but you also appear to be contemplating our ultimately mysterious existence.

FC: I place myself sitting on what probably was a muddy riverbed on which dinosaurs walked millions of years ago leaving a superb track of fossilized prints. Needless to say the painting is an invitation to compare us with the dinosaurs. But the comparison is at least on two levels, one obvious and the other not so. The obvious one is that we humans are also just an animal species, part of the evolutionary process and our life is as precarious as those of the dinosaurs. Cracks on the rocks, chasms, volcanic sediments, craters, etc., emphasize this. And all of these too signal the passage of time. The less obvious comparison and a problematic one is between the fossilized holes of the dinosaurs’ tracks and the “hole” that appears in the painting, in the place where my head is.

VBA: In my opinion the painting expresses precisely what you call the “exquisite finitude and fragility” of life. Dead animals and dark planetary gasses make a similar statement in Laocoon, another piece with a “missing head” Fernando figure. You are referencing another void, the existential one, in that before birth and beyond death there is a blank, about which we know nothing. Now you get to answer my favorite question for philosophers, except those overly Thomistic. How do you feel about the fact that we will never know why we exist?

FC: Yes, we do not know why we exist, have no idea where we come from or where we go after death, if anywhere. But the fact that we don’t know this doesn’t imply that we will never know. Perhaps we will. We don’t know that either. But I see here no reason for despair, life is, or at least it can be, fascinating and full of meaning.

Fernando Casas, Spring - God, 2003, Mixed media on wood, 96” x 40”

Fernando Casas (b. 1946) presents Co-Constitutions in Houston, Texas. The Perfection of Time opens at Gremillion & Co. Fine Art on Thursday January 30--opening reception 6-8 pm. The Limit of the Visual World opens at G Gallery on Saturday February 1--opening reception 6-9 pm. Duality opens at Redbud Gallery on Saturday February 1--opening reception 6-9 pm. All images Copyright B 2014 Fernando Casas – Artist, All rights reserved.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Autumn Knight invokes Robert Rauschenberg at the GAR

Dean Liscum

I wasn't sure what to expect when I drove to Galveston to see Autumn Knight perform The Ghost of Robert Rauschenberg, a piece conceptualized by Eric Schnell and Sallie Barbee, at the Galveston Artist Residency. It was a sunny Saturday in January (1/11/2014) and the appeal of the solitary, windswept beach and the frisson of confronting a ghost was enough to get me in the car. So I went with it.  When I entered the gallery space, it was evident that Knight had crafted a piece that was all thoroughly Rauschenbergian.

The stage with its sand and drift wood recalled the Port Arthur native's childhood environment. The bedsheet-esque backdrops hanging from the ceiling alluded to many of his famous combines, which merged sculpture and painting through found objects and painted images. The casting smacked of Rauschenberg. Flaunting the convention of traditional Noh plays in which male actors play both male and female roles, Knight, an African-American female, played the role of Rauschenberg, a white-Caucasian male. Even the score referenced Rauschenberg. As percussionists Brandon Bell and Craig Hauschildt played xylophones with horsehair bows and the cymbals with their fingers, the original piece by Thomas Dougherty exhibited the influence of the music of avant-garde composer John Cage, one of Rauschenberg's close friends.

I can only imagine Rauschenberg's glee, epitomized by his impish smile.

The performance was a modern Noh play, which is a form of Japanese musical drama that's remained primarily unchanged since 13th century. The fact that it was based on the choreography of Rauschenberg's own Noh play performed when he was collaborating with Cage and others makes it a re-imagining of modern (i.e., Rauschenberg) interpretation of a Noh play.

Given the number of artistic interpretations, the performance could have resulted in no Noh play at all.

I'm not a Noh play expert, but it seemed to adhere to the form. I'd categorize this modern re-interpretation as a Kami mono in which Knight plays the Shite, which is the protagonist in human form. The waki, the Shite's counterpart or foil, is never seen because it is nothing more than Rauschenberg, nothing less than his life.

To this untrained eye, the narrative/conflict played out as man vs. himself\woman vs. herself. (I appreciate the gender ambiguity, but it's tough to write about.)

The Shite, and make no mistake Knight is the SHIT-E in this performance (check out the scowl in the following pic) is born/emerges, ...

struggles, dies, and ...

rises as a ghost to exit stage back...at least that's my somewhat flawed understanding of what transpired.

I was never so sure of the plotline, but Autumn's energy, grace, and concentration was unmistakable and well worth the drive. You can experience it for yourself on March 15, 2014  as the GAR will present the performance second time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Bart Book of the Dead

Robert Boyd

The catalog says it best: "Sketch Klubb is a group of friends who get together every other Saturday morning to draw." It was 12 guys, but one of them, Michael Harwell, recently died. 1,000 Crappy Barts for Michael Harwell plus Klay Klubb is a tribute to their lost compadre.

When you walk into the big back gallery of Box 13, there is a vitrine with an open sketchbook. This is Harwell's sketchbook, and the page we see has 16 drawings of Bart Simpson's head. There are a minimal number of lines in the Matt Groening-designed head of Bart, and Harwell deliberately takes them apart.

Starting from this page, the surviving members of Sketch Klubb--Seth Alverson, Rene Cruz, Russell Etchen, Sebastian Forray, Lane Hagood, Cody Ledvina, Nick Meriwether, Eric Pearce, Patrick Phipps, J. Michael Stovall and David Wang--drew 1000 versions of Bart Simpson, which are on the three walls surrounding the vitrine.

They aren't very memorable drawings. The goal was quantity over quality. This may reflect the ethos of Sketch Klubb. They've put together a few zines and a book before, but I suspect the idea is to get together and draw without having an endgame in mind. Doesn't matter if it's "good."

Not that there weren't a few drawings that were clever. Like this Creature from the Black Lagoon Bart.

Or this Bart who looks a little like Hank Hill crossed with Walter White.

How about an airbrushed Bart with 13 eyes?

Or a sweaty Bart with a beard and boobs for eyes. (There were a lot of mutant Barts in the show.)

The work was hung in a off-hand, unprofessional way--pages curled up in the humidity. But that seemed right. After all, they weren't creating something for the ages--this was a temporary tribute to Harwell that no doubt recalled their casual Saturday morning get-togethers.

Slightly more finished work was on display in the front gallery of Box 13. These were ceramic objects made by Sketch Klubb. None of the work was labeled, so for the purpose of this review, just assume a collective authorship for these bizarre ceramic knick-knacks.

(Thank God the "MAN MILK" jug was empty.)

Some of them are pretty funny, and they seem like a natural extension of the artistic ethos of Sketch Klubb.

The individual artists in Sketch Klubb do a wide variety of work on their own, but as diverse as their styles are, I'd say that what they have in common is an element of humor. The question I have is that was it their sense of humor that drew them together in 2005, or is their sense of humor as artists partly a result of their time together in Sketch Klubb?

I saw this exhibit on opening night. The crowd was boisterous and good humored. I wonder what it would be like to see when the galleries are quiet and unpopulated.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Carlos Hernandez's Gig Posters

Robert Boyd

Live and in Person at the Rice Media Center is a show of gig posters by silkscreen printmaker and Burning Bones Press honcho Carlos Hernandez. The show features walls full of bold, colorful posters, most advertising musical acts that have came through town over the years.

The posters are under glass (or plexiglass), which is not the ideal way to see them because of the reflections on the glass, but it's a necessary evil with work on paper. One could also criticize the clean white walls--these posters would look better in the grungy confines of a rock and roll nightclub or a dorm room wall.

Still, it's nice to see so many at once and to be able to consider them as a body of work.

The art world has problems with this kind of thing. For one thing, these are advertisements. They're fundamentally commercial. There is a client somewhere who commissioned this work. The posters don't have the autonomy that a bona fide work of "fine art" has. They aren't the pure expression of an artist's will. One might think that postmodernism would have swept away these distinctions, but not really. Maybe if we wait a few decades, the art world will come around on this stuff.

Nonetheless, rock posters certainly aren't just advertisements and they have their own art history. It's worth remembering a little of that history because it informs Hernandez's work. In San Francisco in the 60s, a group of artists began making silkscreen posters for rock shows. The one main rule of making a poster was "readability"--the type and the image had to be clear. These artists--people like Victor Moscoso, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin--broke that rule with glee. They created hand-drawn typography that was deliberately difficult to read, for example. They would place two colors together that were the same value, so instead of one color "popping" out from the adjacent color, the colors would have a vibratory effect that simulated a psychedelic experience. Sometimes the posters were hand-drawn, sometimes they featured photos--but the photos rarely were of the bands or singers being advertised. These artists loved to use deliberately antique graphic elements (photos, typography), modernized by being printed with intense fluorescent colors.

The sixties rock poster set the stage for future posters like this, but the idea of the artist-driven rock poster faded in the 70s as rock music became more corporate and less localized. Rock poster art was revived when the punk scene came along, first via cheap xeroxed flyers and later with the return of the silkscreen rock poster. Frank Kozik started designing flyers in Austin in 1981 and is generally credited with reviving the art of silkscreen rock posters. Kozik was not much of an illustrator, but he was a great designer. Like the 60s artists, he loved to dig up old images and recombine it in his posters--in visually arresting and often quite disturbing ways.

Après Kozik, le déluge. Soon every town had its own poster artists doing silkscreen gig posters for the local palais de rock. Here in Houston, Uncle Charlie (Charlie Hardwick) is popular, as is Hernandez.

Around the same time as Kozik was recreating the silkscreened rock poster, Art Chantry was the art director for a music publication in Seattle called The Rocket. He worked with photographers and illustrators in a more-or-less traditional way, but he also started to use old images and old design--design that was, as he put it, uninfluenced by the Bauhaus or Paul Rand. The design of cruddy newspaper ads. He designed posters for rock shows and art shows at Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art where photographic images would not be halftoned, but would instead be reproduced by crude xerography. His work had a witty working-class feel--it was literally grungy and fit right in with the grunge scene in Seattle.

I mention all these artists and designers because you see a lot of their influence in Hernandez's posters. Look at the photo of Andre Williams in the poster above. It seems clear that Hernandez took an existing photo and xeroxed it, creating a rough, high contrast image. And he doesn't even try to stay "in the lines" with the red shape under the photo.

Ditto with this Supersuckers poster. The image looks vintage and slightly sleazy in a coy retro way. The photo (and the background) are reproduced in high contrast and not halftoned at all. (Halftones are a photo-mechanical method for creating print-ready images that show subtle changes in value in a given image.)

While Hernandez doesn't go as far as the San Francisco poster artists, he often uses hand-drawn lettering more for a visual effect than for ease of reading.

His lettering is distinctive. It has a feeling of being carved, as if he were doing woodblock prints or zinc plate engravings.

That "engraving" feeling extends to his drawing as well and is one of the the things that defines Hernandez's work. In addition to the influence of earlier rock poster artists, Hernandez is influenced by José-Guadalupe Posada, the great Mexican printmaker from the early 20th century. This influence was made obvious in his work for Messengers of the Posada Influence at the Museum of Printing History recently, as well as at his annual Day of the Dead Rock Stars exhibits at Cactus Records over the years.

This is what sets his poster work apart. While it is firmly in the tradition of the silkscreen rock poster that began in the 60s, the influence of Posada's Mexican revolutionary printmaking gives Hernandez's work a flavor all its own.

Live and in Person! Gig Posters and Other Printed Matter by Carlos Hernandez is on display at Rice Media Center through January 30.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Burnt Plastic Abstraction by Gil Rocha

Robert Boyd

Abstract art is really hot right now. The CAMH has just completed three abstract shows and is in the process of initiating three more (although one of them, The Rites of Spring, doesn't really have anything to do with abstraction as far as I can tell). Abstract art is big in New York with artists who are working in a style that has come to be called New Casualism. And some of the best Houston artists are abstractionists (and could even be called New Casualists.) I put a couple of them on my top 10 list for 2103 and Betsy Huete selected some abstract paintings for her best-of list as well. The resurgence in esteem of abstract painting has even created a backlash. Everyone's talking about a dyspeptic article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a vast and mostly hopeless takedown of the moneyed art world, which included this paragraph:
Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better. ("Lost in the Gallery Industrial Complex," Holland Cotter, The New York Times, January 17, 2014)
Pretty brutal, but you don't get this kind of censure for an art trend unless it's successful in the first place. This is something I've been thinking about lately: the revival of abstract painting and questions about whether or not this is a good thing.

It was with this on my mind that I walked into Zoya Tommy Gallery for Gil Rocha's show, The Tacos Are Here. Rocha is from Laredo, a Texas border town. Now how an artist survives in Laredo, I don't know. I'm guessing some day job is involved. But looking at this show, I thought that Laredo was lucky to have him there. It's a very interesting exhibit, with some of the stuff edging towards conceptualism, but most of it being abstract "painting." I put "painting" in quotes because the works aren't really painted in the traditional sense.

Gil Rocha, Genesis, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 41 x 55 inches

Rocha is layering cellophane and plastic wrap, then burning holes in it with a blow-torch. This creates a highly colorful surface with white "holes" where the plastic has broken and curled up. The result has the feel of abstract expressionist paintings with all-over compositions. It barely has a sense of space--instead, it speaks almost exclusively to the surface of the canvas. If you discount the materials Rocha uses, it feels very much in line with tendencies in Post-War abstract painting.

Gil Rocha, Los Dulces del Diable, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 24 x 30 inches

Even though the descriptions say "plastic and iridescent cellophane," I find it hard to believe that there isn't some paint in these pieces. If not, Rocha has trained his plastic to look very paint-like.Whatever the material, these "paintings" have a presence on the wall that feels completely convincing. I don't see them as experiments with a particular set of non-art materials, but as complex, beautiful autonomous images.

In her article "ABSTRACT PAINTING: The New Casualists," Sharon Butler comments that some of the painters in this newish tendency "combine non-art materials in their paintings just for the hell of it, work at different scales, employ different color combinations, and experiment with unusual ways of applying paint. With less investment in honing a unique visual language, painters like Kadar Brock, Rebecca Morris, and Jasmine Justice use earlier forms of abstraction the way Rauschenberg used found objects. In the process, there is no room for handwringing about originality; it is simply assumed that it will result from synthesis and recombination. And if it doesn’t, well, isn’t that just as interesting?" This description could easily be applied to Rocha's painting-like works in this exhibit.

Gil Rocha, Los Desaparacidos, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 6 x 5 feet

Rocha's cellophane abstractions combine gorgeous iridescent effects with grungy surfaces. The combination is especially apparent in Los Desaparacidos, where curtains of iridescent green show through a bumpy surface of Monet-like violets and oranges. This pretty-ugly duality is something I've noticed a lot in contemporary abstract painters (Nathan Green, for example). Rocha is not all about making beautiful wall-objects, but he doesn't reject the possibility of doing so. Beauty is an acceptable outcome for him.

Gil Rocha, untitled, 2013, fabric and chrome paint, 45 x 0 inches

This atypical piece, untitled,  is the one that many viewers seemed to love. A maelstrom of fabric folds frozen in space, it's a beautiful object, a trophy for some collector's wall. This aspect of new abstract painting--its collectibility--is one that troubles some people like Holland Cotter. Art in some ways has split into two art worlds. There is art that isn't going to challenge the rentier class that collects it--on the high end, giant Jeff Koons balloon dogs, but abstract paintings are also lumped in here. And there is art that doesn't worry to much about looking good (or even being visual at all) but that engages the world politically and socially (and always from the left)--social practice art, for example, or the photos of LaToya Frasier that were recently shown at the CAMH. It's a battle between the righteous and the pretty.

I dislike this dichotomy because it suggests that an artist has to choose sides. And by even mentioning this dichotomy, I risk being accused of setting up a straw man. And yet this split really exists, and it's pretty easy to see in the Houston art community. So through the lens of this dichotomy, I could look at this exhibit and say that Gil Rocha is just a maker of luxury objects for sale that are void of political meaning. But that would be false. Gil Rocha is also the guy who did the Billboard Project in Laredo.

Gil Rocha, Lluvia de Rezos, 2010

In the Billboard Project, Rocha used a billboard on a public street in Laredo to put up an ever-changing set of images and phrases that addressed local political and environmental issues in Laredo. These are not included in the Houston show, but are on Rocha's website. Maybe in a big city like Houston, it's easy to make a choice to be one kind of artist or another, but in a city like Laredo--about a 20th the size of Houston--flexibility is a virtue. In any case, the Billboard Project shows that it is impossible to pigeonhole Rocha.

I am very interested in new approaches to abstract painting, and I found Rocha's work in this show very stimulating and beautiful (in a grungy way). That would be plenty for one artist, but learning about the breadth of his artistic practice makes Rocha all the more fascinating. I hope this isn't the last we've seen of him in Houston.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Betsy Huete’s Top Ten of 2013

Betsy Huete

With a city as large and diverse and bustling with artistic activity as Houston, it’s easy to stumble upon great work. So as anyone can imagine, it was not difficult for me to come up with a top ten list for 2013. To be totally fair, however, I didn’t start writing for The Great God Pan is Dead until June of this year—which doesn’t mean much except that I was probably paying more critical attention in the second half of the year than the first. Therefore, it’s possible that I may be biased toward the latter half of 2013. At any rate, the following are my top ten pieces exhibited in Houston last year.

10. Bryan Forrester, Imogene (2012), The Big Show at Lawndale Art Center 
Imogene didn’t even hit #1 on my Big Show top five list, so it may be surprising to see it crop up here, in the top ten of everything. But sometimes images stay with a person in unpredictable ways, and this nude, vomiting, tattoo-laden man stuck with me. Vile and rich, Forrester’s photography is lush and personal, and Imogene feels equally fearsome and romantic.

Bryan Forrester, Imogene, 2012, C-print, 24 x 36 inches (courtesy Lawndale Art Center)

9. Katrina Moorhead, Trying to describe the way that space wraps itself around an object (2013), The Bird That Never Landscape at Inman Gallery 
Like a free-wheeling toddler, or perhaps the elderly homeless man with a pink tutu that frequents the Heights bike path, Katrina Moorhead’s work harbors an irreverent autonomy, seemingly unphased by its presence within a laser clean contemporary gallery like Inman. Yet strangely enough, it’s as if the work also depends on it being shown there, as if it requires that very platform to appear as autonomous. It is a bizarre and exciting paradox, and in Moorhead’s most recent solo exhibition, Trying to describe the way that space wraps itself around an object does not disappoint. A skeletal, black glittering bottle rack that looks like it came from a goth version of Claire’s, Trying to describe the way that space wraps itself around an object is strikingly, disturbingly, and simultaneously playful and menacing.

Katrina Moorhead, Trying to describe the way that space wraps itself around an object, 2013, antique bottle rack, powder coating, plasticine, bandage, 20”x19”x20” (courtesy Inman Gallery)

8. Geoff Hippenstiel, Untitled (2012), Winter Garden at Devin Borden 
I saw Hippenstiel’s solo show Territorial Pissings at Devin Borden in early 2013. While they were nice and engaging enough, there was something almost absurdly commanding about his Untitled shown this past December in the group show Winter Garden. Following his modus operandi of extremely thick, smudgy brush strokes, here Hippenstiel employs sickly decadent silvers, pinks, and golds melding together, toppling each other. Despite its confinement to the wall, Untitled ensnares the viewer, somehow making her feel as though she’s trudging through sugary magma.

Geoff Hippenstiel, Untitled, 2012, Oil on canvas, 36” x 48" (courtesy Devin Borden Gallery)

7. Jillian Conrad, Bonsai Radio #1 (2013), Ley Lines at Devin Borden 
When I reviewed Ley Lines earlier in the year, I wrote quite a bit about Conrad’s proclivities for drawing sculpturally, for crafting lines that reside in an anxious place between forming linkages elsewhere and existing as its own object. It’s this uncertainty that makes the work so compelling, and Bonsai Radio #1 is the best example of that liminality. A quiet work, Bonsai Radio #1 feels like it is whispering vital and indecipherable information.

Jillian Conrad, Bonsai Radio #1, 2013, Concrete, brass, rubber, 18”x20”12”

6. Romana Schmalisch, Notation of Efficiency (2013), From Here to Afternoon at the Glassell School 
From Here to Afternoon was a cerebral show that required lots of time and attention from the viewer. Schmalisch’s Notation of Efficiency was one such work—but with an enormous payoff. A dry and intentionally tedious slide show of Laban Lawrence diagrams from an old fashioned projector, she infused the work with subtle yet nevertheless effective humor. And by controlling the cadence of the slides demarcated by remotely audible clicks, she was able to manipulate the viewer in and out of a lull while asking fascinating questions about the conflation of movement, labor, and efficiency.

Romana Schmalisch, Notation of Efficiency, 2013, Slide projection and model (bamboo sphere)

5. Wols, Oui, Oui, Oui (1946-7), Wols: Retrospective at the Menil Collection 
In a recent review I compared Wols’ Oui, Oui, Oui to spelunking into a cave. What makes this painting so enrapturing is not only Wols’ ability to fervently convey a deeply interior language, but also his scrawling attempt to link the work back to an exterior world.

Wols, Oui, oui, oui, 1946/7, Oil, grattage and tube marks on canvas, 31.7”x25.3”

4. Jamal Cyrus, Texas Fried Tenor (2012), Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at CAMH
I didn’t see the actual performance; instead I saw the remnants in the Valerie Cassel Oliver curated Radical Presence. And quite honestly, I don’t care about the performance and would even go as far to say that it doesn’t need it. A fried saxophone, it is voluptuous and grotesque, indicative and inviting of performative elements from the artist and viewer alike. It invokes scathing sensations of crunching and the taste of bitter metal while debilitating one form of expression to create another. And without a hint of didacticism, it poignantly and very tangibly lets the viewer in on the beautifully varied and layered complexities of blackness.

Jamal Cyrus, Texas Fried Tenor, 2012, Fried saxophone, taken from www.studiomuseum.org

Jamal Cyrus, Texas Fried Tenor, November 29, 2012, performance

3. Joan Jonas, Good Night Good Morning (1976), Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane at CAMH 
Jonas is a pioneer of feminine performance and video art, and Good Night Good Morning is a seminal work from the art historical canon. A largely conceptual work, at the CAMH it was exhibited as an elderly video piece emanating from an outdated TV set—yet it still felt contemporary for both intentional reasons and not. While using repetition in all art, not to mention conceptual works, is thoroughly tread and fully utilized territory, it still feels fresh here: one can pick up on miniscule though revealing nuances as Jonas consistently greets the camera each morning and night. Also, due to glitches in the then-new technology, the camera created faded double images as Jonas would traverse the room. A happy accident, the work is fraught with ghost images of Jonas haunting herself.

2. Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young, Untitled (Structures) (2012) at the Menil Collection 
Speaking of hauntings, Untitled (Structures) is a cinematic recounting of present day architecture that inhabited various critical moments within the civil rights movement. Long time collaborators Hewitt and Young formally captured the innards of these spaces with barely detectable movement, providing mere glimpses or suggestions of history. These lush cinematic shots fuel an air of mystery, leaving the viewer craving more information, with no choice but to fill in the blanks herself.

Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young, Untitled (Structures), 2012, Dual channel video

1. Soo Sunny Park, Unwoven Light (2013) at Rice Gallery 
No one can argue against Unwoven Light’s airy and dynamic pulchritude. A weaving structure filling the installation space at Rice Gallery, Unwoven Light contains thousands of lightly tinted acrylic panels continually refracting light, constantly changing color throughout the day. But the real game changer for me was its unexpected commanding, and really demanding, movement from the viewer. Using tons of winding chain link fence, Park builds an armature that in some places hugs the viewer in like a vortex while spewing him out in others.

So Sunny Park, Unwoven Light, 2013, Chain-link fence, Plexiglas, acrylic film, dimensions variable