Thursday, January 2, 2014

UH Sculpture: Performance and a Precipice

Betsy Huete

I’m a sculpture student—a grad student at that. Bogged down, stressed out, aloof and largely unaware of anything except the date of the next critique, I spend most of my time wandering around our studio space searching for materials and inspiration, my ear buds lodged firmly into my ears, listening to awful (fantastic) top 40s music while politely smiling and waving at passersby. At the University of Houston, the graduate students share studio space with the block students (at least in the sculpture department), which are a select group of undergraduates who endure an intensive three semester program to finish with a BFA—a program that, quite frankly, I wish I had had in my undergraduate experience. But while we share the same space, due to our divergent schedules and classes our conversations are limited, and at best we catch glimpses of each other’s work in passing on critique days. So when Jana Whatley handed me the card for their senior show Floor Plan, I decided to go. I was curious, and although I really wasn’t sure what to expect, I thought it unlikely that I would want to write about it.

And I had my suspicions about the show being in our very studio space, South Park Annex. An elderly, thoroughly weathered building relegated to the far reaches of campus, South Park Annex is UH’s sculptural headquarters. Also—ask the local pizza delivery guys—it’s nearly impossible to find: it literally shares an address with a nearby parking garage. Furthermore, the previous semester’s senior show was at brewery, and drinking alcohol is fun. But upon entering the space it became clear why they chose it. Filled to the brim with large sculptural works and full-scale installations among many other pieces, it would be unlikely for this group to locate an exhibition venue that would comfortably house their work.

Among the clunkier works in the show is Drag 4 (Queer Monster or I Eat Zach Galifiabreakfast) (2013) by Dan Harp. It comprises a dilapidated, upright piano with three antiquated television sets mounted on top. Each TV quietly loops images of men in popular culture, images I should probably recognize. But the only one I did recognize was the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs; it was the scene where he tucks his penis between his legs and sashays around his bedroom in heels and makeup. Regardless of the clarity of the references, it is clear that Harp is referencing men adopting queer and/or abject personas or identities. But after spending a few minutes with the work it became obvious that something was missing. This didn’t feel like the work but instead the prop or stage set for something else. And sure enough, across the room was his performance documentation. The performance changes everything because it quickly becomes clear that the queerest aspect of the work isn’t the strange video work but Harp himself. A burly, scruffily bearded guy snugly fitting himself into a painfully heterosexual brown blazer, he sits at the piano and proceeds to play a familiar yet unrecognizable song while the looped videos run overhead. His completely out of tune singing felt desolate, hermetic, and vulnerable, taking the piece down a strikingly painful and personal road. And the materials list is equally revealing: he calls the piano an altar, suggesting worship. But his performance seems less religious than mournful. What exactly is Harp mourning? His own queer desires? Or maybe the fact that he doesn’t have any? Is it valid to want to be strange or harbor secrets? Here he raises interesting and not easily answerable questions. But one thing is certain: given that so much information is lost without the performance and that the lush imagery of the videos as well as the lavish browns of the decaying piano are lost in the documentation, the only way this work should exist is live—not as an installation and not as a video. To be fair I left before the end of the night and Harp said he would perform by the end of it, and I hope he did. Drag 4 also feels arguably out of context within a gallery format. What would happen if Harp performed in a place like Notsuoh? A forlorn drag show? The corner of a seedy bar? Regardless of how the work manifests itself, this seems like fertile territory for Harp to be exploring.

Dan Harp, Drag 4 (Queer Monster or I Eat Zach Galifiabreakfast), 2013, Performance with video moments and piano altar, Dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist

Another artist who engages with enticing forms of intimacy and seclusion is Noelle Dunahoe. From afar there appears to be a flimsy, modestly large geometric abstraction made of wood and cardboard. But there are square holes scattered throughout the cardboard, and it doesn’t take long to realize that these holes aren’t solely formal decisions: they also function as peep holes. Peering through the peepholes, Dunahoe has staged a miniature living room with tiny, model scale living room furniture. But she hasn’t illuminated the interior of the box. Relying on the exterior light penetrating the peepholes, the living room reads as muted silhouettes. It evokes the disturbing yet somehow comforting moments of solitude one feels while sitting alone, silently waiting for night to fall.

As I traversed across the entrance hallway to the other side, I encountered another of Dunahoe’s pieces, Horn (2013). Phallic and flaccid, soft and aggressive, light and overbearing, it’s a horn-like sculpture made of canvas that juts from the wall. But it felt confined and neutered, as if it was made to be a wall ornament against its will. So when she told me that it is intended to be a mask and she anticipates photographing herself and others with it on, I immediately felt desperate to learn more. What will the subject be wearing? What environment will they be photographed in? Will they confront other people in the shot or will they stand alone? While Harp’s work demands live performance, Horn requires itself to be frozen in photographs. I hope she takes them, and I hope they get exhibited somewhere.

As I turned away from Horn, I smelled dinner. Being someone who gets overly excited about food, I rabidly followed the trail, stopping dead in my tracks at Randi Long’s Comforteur (2013). Here she has literally mashed together two domestic comforts: mashed potatoes and a heated comforter. It’s soothing and disgusting and gluttonous and overwhelming. A fetish of familiarity, it seemed lonely parked up against the wall, and I was left craving more information. Is the work asking for a participant? What if Long just started eating it? What if she wrapped herself in the blanket, smothering her body in warmth and food? What would that tell us? It’s hard to say what it would add, but if anything it probably would be more provocative and uncomfortable. And after spending time with her sound work on Sound Cloud, it seems that Long has an interest in encasing her viewer in a perpetual, droning climax—an arresting discomfort.

Randi Long, Comforteur, 2013, Milk, butter, potatoes, straws, comforter, steam, 4’x3’x2’, Courtesy of the artist

Randi Long, Comforteur (detail), 2013, Milk, butter, potatoes, straws, comforter, steam, 4’x3’x2’, Courtesy of the artist

Close to graduation myself, I continuously hear disheartening statistics about the large number of MFA’s who quit making work just one year out of school, and I can only imagine the numbers would be far greater for undergraduates. For what it’s worth, I hope this group sticks with it. Whether it’s graduate school or giving it a go in some far off city or navigating the Houston art scene, one thing is for certain: this group of seniors are on a precipice of seriously exciting breakthroughs in their work.

Floor Plan was exhibited at South Park Annex at the University of Houston on Friday, December 13, 2013.

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