Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hunting Prize Nominees

Robert Boyd

Every Year, the Hunting Art Prize is given to some lucky painter from Texas. The prize is $50,000. Needless to say, tons of folks enter. The Hunting Prize people have just sent out letters telling artists whether they have been selected to be finalists. The winner will be announced May 3 at a gala hosted by Hunting PLC, an oil and gas service company.

The prize has garnered some controversy in the past, but it has also given prizes to some excellent artists who probably really appreciated the cash! Previous winners are Francesca Fuchs (2006), Michael Tole (2007), Wendy Wagner (2008), Robin O'Neil (2009), Lane Hagood (2010), Leigh Ann Hester (2011), Michael Bise (2012) and Marshall K. Harris (2013). 

Several of the finalists this year have shared their work on Facebook. I thought the pieces looked pretty good; I suspect the judges will have a tough time deciding. Here are a few of them.

Cary Reeder, High Noon,acrylic on canvas, 30 x 38 inches

Cary Reeder's minimalist clapboard houses are always appealing to me. She recently had a great solo show at Lawndale.

Catherine Colangelo, Giant Quilt Square #10, gouache and graphite on paper, 28" x 28"

I have seen nice work by Catherine Colangelo at the late, lamented Darke Gallery. This piece looks excellent.

David Smith, Tropical Storm, Veracruz, Gulf of Mexico

David Smith's Tropical Storm, Veracruz, Gulf of Mexico is an unexpectedly 19th-century-style entry. It's refreshing to see it included.

Hannah Celeste Dean, Re-Veiled

Hannah Celeste Dean calls her work "haunting but not ghostly," but I think "ghostly" is an excellent word to describe Re-veiled.

Hogan Kimbrell, Conjure, oil on canvas, 54 x 54 inches

I've seen a couple of excellent paintings by Hogan Kimbrell at past Lawndale Big Shows. The double image here is a bit different from what I've seen before. But his subject matter--beautiful women--seems constant.

John Adelman, 61,988,ink on panel, 38 x 30 inches

John Adelman premiered these architectural process drawings at a recent show at Nicole Longnecker Gallery. I've long admired his rigorous, obsessive work.

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 360, Pigment, diamond dust, and varnish on birch 29" x 24"

You can see another piece by Joseph Cohen (quite different from Proposition 360) at the CAMH through March 23. Cohen has been one of my favorite Houston painters for a while.

Lee E. Wright, The Captain of Industry, oil and ink on prepared paper, 32 x 44

I don't really know anything about Lee E. Wright, but based on his website, he appears to be a portraitist--an honorable specialization.

Saralene Tapley, Flourish, acrylic on watercolor paper, 29 x 41 inches

I saw this piece by Saralene Tapley in last year's Big Show. I believe it's a portrait of her fellow artist, Bryan Keith Gardner.

According to various sources, there are typically between 100 and 150 finalists. Out of that crowded field there can be only one winner. Any bets on who it will be?

Curators, right?

"So I [...] fielded calls from functionaries in Scandinavia, Asia, Central Europe, and the Middle east. They offered to fly me business class to their native lands, put me up in hotel rooms with balconies, and provide drivers for my tours of government-approved art. I politely declined these junkets. Curators, being certified sleazebags, may do this sort of thing; art critics may not--because it's not right."

Dave Hickey, "Idiot," reprinted in Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Ain't Goin' Nowhere

Robert Boyd

Ken Little has a show up at d.m. allison for a few more days. Last weekend, Little played a few songs on the patio of the gallery. Some were originals, like "Simple America," and some were covers like "You Ain't Goin Nowhere," one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. All the band members were artists, too. (That's Ed Wilson on the left. Ken Little is the second from the right.) 

I think more artists should be in bands. I always liked the fact that Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw were in Destroy All Monsters before lighting out to CalArts. I just got an excellent CD of Jack Early songs (aided by Dean and Britta). When you encounter a visual artist who is also a musician, you wonder what the relationship between the music and the art is. Little's music comes out of the country/Americana/singer-songwriter genre, which I see as having its ultimate source in Bob Dylan. And Little is the right age (born 1947) to have grown up hearing songs like "Like a Rolling Stone" when they first showed up on the radio. But let's look at his art.

Ken Little, Wolf, bronze, 7 x 9 x 10 inches

Ken Little, Bear, bronze, 12 x 13 x 15 inches

This show consists mainly of sculptures of animal heads that have the appearance of masks. They look a bit like native American sculpture, and the forms are simplified and somewhat cartoonish. They're delightful.

Ken Little, Hare, bronze, 23 x 22 x 16 inches

Ken Little, Ape, bronze, 13 x 10 x 14 inches

Little indicates eyes and mouth through holes in the the bronze, which is what makes these heads seem mask-like. But he uses this technique on pieces that are obviously not masks.

Ken Little, left to right: House, Please and Soar, bronze, 4 1/4 x 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches; 4 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 4 inches; 6 x 6 x 5 inches

What Little demonstrates with some of these pieces is something cartoonists have long realized--all it takes to anthropomorphize an object are two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. This seems like a simple truth, but it's a powerful one. His bronze open hand is a beautiful thing, but the face on it gives in an uncanny feeling.

Not that the work here is unsettling. On the contrary, it is amusing and warm. These animals and anthropomorphized objects seem like friends. In that way, they are like Little's band--a gathering of old friends, playing amusing, lovely songs.

Ken Little, Blow Bunny, bronze, 8 x 5 x 5 inches

Ken Little on guitar

This show runs through March 1st at d.m. allison gallery.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

VIDA and Pan

Robert Boyd

VIDA is an organization that supports "women in the literary arts" and has for the past several years been counting how many women are published in and reviewed by literary magazines and journals. The results for 2013 were pretty depressing, as have been most previous years. For instance, The New York Review of Books really doesn't use women writers all that much:

And I guess that might have something to do with the fact that they don't review books by women very much.

Really depressing, especially because I like The New York Review of Books.

If we look at how many men versus how many women posted on The Great God Pan Is Dead, it looks pretty great!

 But not so fast. If we look at it in terms of "posts by women" vs. "post by men," it looks terrible.

The explanation (excuse?) is simple. Out of 272 posts on Pan in 2013, 215 were written by me. While Betsy Huete and Virginia Billaud Anderson contributed 38 posts together (Carrie Schneider only did one--but it was a good one!), Pan is still pretty much my project. (Also thanks here to Dean Liscum and Paul Mullan for their posts--Liscum is responsible for the most popular post in Pan history.)

To be honest, I would rather it not be a solo album with occasional guest vocalists. I'd like more of you writing for Pan. We pay nothing (which can only be justified by the fact that we make nothing). But we offer the opportunity for you to get your writing up on line quick. We want criticism and journalism, as long as it deals with art in Houston and vicinity.

I know there are a bunch of you studying art history at St. Thomas, Rice and the University of Houston. Wouldn't you like to write something that is read by more than just your professor? I invite you to get in touch with me.

All you would be writers, email me at Pan wants you!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tableaux Vivants: Corpo Insurrecto (NSFW)

Robert Boyd

In 1787, Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), invented a new art form called "Attitudes," debuting it at a party hosted by William Hamilton, England's ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples.
When [the audience] had assembled, he called them to hush and servants snuffed a few of the candles. In the gloom, they could just catch sight of a female figure draped in white, her hair flowing around her shoulders. As she came closer, they recognized Mrs. Hart, Sir William's pretty, witty mistress, who had been laughing at their jokes, flushed with gaiety, entertaining them with anecdotes about England. But now she was pale and almost ethereally composed. Taking up the shawls that lay at her feet, she began to swathe them around her, to kneel, sit, crouch and dance. They quickly realized that she was imitating the postures of figures from classical myth. First she pulled the shawl over her like a veil and became Niobe, weeping for the los of her children; then, using them to make a cape, she was Medea, poised with a dagger, about to stab. Then she pulled the shawls around her into seductive drapes, becoming Cleopatra, reclining for her Mark Antony.
Almost as soon as they had begun to predict her next pose, she disappeared. They sat openmouthed, as servants relit the candles and offered more wine. (England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, Kate Williams, 2006)
Hart combined dance training she had received and her experience as a model for painter for George Romney to create her Attitudes. Emma Hart's Attitudes became a sensation for thirty years, especially after Goethe saw them and told others about Hart's new art form.

Erica Mott of La Pocha Nostra performing Corpo Insurrecto

I thought about Emma Hart's 18th century proto-performance art as I watched La Pocha Nostra perform Corpo Insurrecto at Notsuoh on the third night of the Lone Star Performance Explosion. The large open second floor of Notsuoh had two wooden risers on and around which the performance took place. The audience largely stood between the two, switching their attention back and forth between them. One was dominated by Erica Mott, who had two fellow performers, David B. Collins and Thuy-Linh Cornett who supported her. The other pedestal mainly featured Roberto Sifuentes, assisted by Jana Whatley.

Roberto Sifuentes with a skinned goat

The reason Emma Hart's Attitudes came to mind was that each of the performers slowly cycled through a series of poses. They moved very slowly and deliberately. They weren't doing things; they were being things. They were performing a series of tableaux vivants against a continuously changing soundtrack that went from the Ride of the Valkyries to grindcore to Supertramp.

Erica Mott and an audience member

At the same time, I was also reminded of this Doonesbury comic strip:

Gary Trudeau, Doonesbury, September 11, 1986

Here Mike Doonesbury, Trudeau's homme moyen sensuel, sees his wife JJ's performance art for the first time. Incomprehension at the antics of performance artists, sometimes bemused, sometimes outraged, was common in the 80s and 90s, culminating perhaps in the rescinding of grants to the NEA four in 1990 and the controversy that followed. Corpo Insurrecto reminded me of these 80s/90s era performances. Perhaps this is because La Pocha Nostra was cofounded by Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a notable participant in the 80s-90s performance scene. The costumes worn by Mott and Sifuentes recall the miscellaneous mixture of quasi-ethnic costume worn by Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco in The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992–1994). In the recent past, Gomez-Peña has been one of the performers in Corpo Insurrecto. I'm not sure why he wasn't in this particular version of it.

Thuy-Linh Cornett (left) and Erica Mott

One one hand, Corpo Insurrecto is filled with images that amuse and compel. On the other hand, it feels like a performance that checks off the standard tropes of performance art. Hodge-podge costumes? Check. Audience interactivity? Check. Nudity (semi in this case)? Check. Overt sexuality? Check. Disgusting fluids? Check. And so on. Even La Pocha Nostra seems to acknowledge this procession of familiar moves. "How can we remain open, original, porous, funny, critical, without falling to post-ironic jadedness or becoming one more 'packaged product' for international festivals?" How indeed?

Sifuentes and his goat friend

I don't think there is an easy answer to this. Watching a performance by La Pocha Nostra is like reading a new book by an established novelist. Not only will that book contain those aspects of novels that readers have come to expect--prose, characters, plot, a beginning, an ending, etc.--but it will also likely deal with concerns that the author is already known for and be written in the author's familiar style.

Collins, Mott and the audience

In other words, if this performance made you nostalgic for the 90s, it's because there is a direct link between it and the performers who created the ground-breaking performances of the 90s.

Whatley and Sifuentes

I can appreciate this continuous tradition. But this doesn't help with the other problem--the "Mike Doonesbury" problem. The meaning of this series of tableaux is not particularly obvious. Emma Hart never told her audiences what her Attitudes were meant to represent, but she depended on the classical education common of the class of viewers who saw them to fill in the blanks. Perhaps La Pocha Nostra is similarly depending on familiarity from its audience, but if so, I'm the equivalent of an ignorant peasant who has somehow stumbled into a performance of Attitudes. The meanings of the performers' actions and poses were fairly mysterious to me.

Cornett and Mott

Thuy-Linh Cornett occasionally walked around with a cane and a pronounced limp. At one point, she had a piece of cloth sewed into the crotch of her outfit. Erica Mott wore a mask with hugely exaggerated lips and a plastic extension on her tongue. Mott changed into a Mad-Max-style black outfit with an exterior spine and a huge strap on penis. She work a pink mask that resembled Pussy Riot's balaclavas (perhaps in solidarity).

Mott with balaclava and strap-on

David B. Collins wore a suit jacket, dress shirt and tie--nothing else. Except for when he donned a rubber mask (George W. Bush?) and sat in a chair, legs apart so that his penis was visible. People sat on his lap to pose for photos.

Mott and Collins

Robertos Sifuentes, dressed in a torn wetsuit and leg brace, with Meso-American-style markings on his face, posed with a skinned goat carcass. He wrapped his face in leather cord. He held his feet over a tray of lit tea candles. Then he posed with tea candles on a wooden bar resting on his shoulders.

I took this picture of an audience member taking a picture of Cornett taking a picture of Collins and another audience member.

Erica Mott donned a white rubber (?) dress and posed holding three large fish. The fish started leaking fish juice on her. Her facial expressions were somewhere between ecstasy and anguish.

Mott with her fish and Collins with his mask

I list these poses without interpretation because I don't even know where to start. My own reaction was incomprehension, boredom, amusement, and finally a feeling of dramatic completeness. But I am certain that there was much more there.

Collins in a classical pose

The audience was a key part of the performance. The performers seemed to expect people to take photos, and we did. Over the hour and a half-long performance, I am going to say that hundreds--if not thousands--of photographs were taken. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were flooded with them, even while the performance was happening. This was anticipated by La Pocho Nostra. They wrote, "Is audience participation relevant when pop culture is constantly asking us to participate in meaningless consumerism, and every new technological gadget is asking us to 'talk back'? And whom do we talk back to?" I'm a part of these questions.

The audience between Sifuentes and Mott

Mott and an audience member play with a leather cord

Sifuentes recalls Emma Hart's Attitudes by donning a shawl

A crossbeam of tea candles on Sifuentes' shoulders

Mott covered with fish juice

Sifuentes approaches Mott...

The performers on each of the two pedestals never had any contact with one another until the end of the performance. Roberto Sifuentes carefully wrapped the now dismembered goat in a colorful Mexican blanket then carried it across the room to Mott, still holding her fish. The pair left the room together, leaving Whatley, Collins and Cornett behind. After a series of bizarre tableaux, this ending was surprisingly emotional. Suddenly the performance seemed to be about two lovers, admiring one another from afar and finally joining together.

Sifuentes gives up the goat

Whatley, Cornett and Collins remain behind as Mott and Sifuentes exit

And with that, Corpo Insurrecto was done. It was just what you want and expect from this particular genre of performance art. Within its genre, it is not an avant garde work (although it would probably seem so to the Mike Doonesburys of the world). But perhaps that indicates a maturity of the medium. Performance has reached a stage where there are conventional aspects that can be explored and recombined endlessly. I think Corpo Insurrecto was such a work.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Awakened in Mid-Air

Betsy Huete

In its press release, Anya Tish Gallery describes Steve Murphy’s work as “immediate and striking.” No it’s not. His latest exhibition Awakened in Mid-Air peppers the space with the banalities of outdoor, public, modernist sculpture—simplified forms that comprise the backdrop of our lives as we walk along a sidewalk or drive to wherever it is we need to be. Yet Anya Tish has compacted and concentrated this group of work (much of which is either intended to be or could be displayed outside) in the gallery space for our consideration. So it begs the question: is there more to be gleaned here, or is Anya Tish simply providing a forum to broker to collectors’ houses and corporate courtyards?

The press release does, however, rightly depict Murphy’s tangential relationship to Minimalism. While the connections may seem obvious in his reductive, formalist pieces, within minutes of spending time in the gallery it becomes clear that reduction is really the only thing that aligns the two. While Minimalism’s theatricality relies on the bodily and spatial relationship between object and viewer, Murphy’s sculptures are self-referentially dramatic. Curvy and curiously whimsical, the work often bends in on itself, or seemingly emerges from the floor or appears to incisively cut into the wall. This in turn cuts the viewer’s corporeal relation to the work out of the picture. Instead, her eye becomes focused on formal aspects of the work like surface tension, precarious edges, and the relationship to its adjacent architecture. So it seems that, despite all its volume, Murphy’s formal preoccupations often lie more with two-dimensional concerns than three, which is kind of fascinating.

Awakened in Mid-air, Installation view

Just about all of the decisions Murphy has made tell a story that lines up quite nicely with his exhibition title. As large, columnar steel thrusts upward, cartoonishly curving like a fantastical road, and smaller sculptures are bracketed with piercing edges, everything in Awakened in Mid-Air suggests moments of danger and fantasy as one is wrenched into consciousness from sleep. What may be less obvious, although equally if not more important, is how Murphy has addressed the surfaces and how patinas, graphite, lead, and other sealants buttress or detract from that narrative.

For all the objects made of steel, Murphy has applied a reddish patina that gives the work the appearance of premature aging or rusting while also protecting the material, granting it an eternal (or at the very least a long-lasting) life span. It’s Not What You’re Looking at, But What You Think You See (2013) is one such sculpture. A rectangular steel block, It’s Not What You’re Looking at twists ever so slightly, peaking at the top as if the piece itself is yawning and stretching. While the structure may be waking up, the cloudy, maybe even smoky patina suggests a surface reminiscent of a dream. While Murphy’s intentions here are understandable—that he is using both material and surface to embody a state of being in-between—the patina reads as a faux finish, the kind that would likely show up in a suburban Italian restaurant. The surface tension isn’t problematic, however, because it is kitschy; it is distracting and disharmonious with the overall form, creating two simultaneous but disjunctive narratives that detract from rather than buttress each other.

It’s Not What You’re Looking at, But What You Think You See, 2013, Oxidized steel, 108 x 24 x 40 inches.

It’s Not What You’re Looking at, But What You Think You See, Detail, 2013, Oxidized steel, 108 x 24 x 40 inches.

In Murphy’s case, the less he fiddles with the surface, the higher the payoff. About half of the work in Awakened in Mid-Air is made of wood he then covered with lead sheets. Your Enemy’s Tears (2013) is one of his smaller works—a rounded piece with a tip, a large, dense tear drop—resting on the pedestal in a carefully balanced way suggesting that with a tap, it would rock back and forth. Here the form and surface are married in such a manner that harmoniously engenders meaning. As light refracts off the lead surface, it creates subtly prismatic colors that feel ethereal. Instead of asserting control, Murphy simply lets the material do the talking, and it works.

Your Enemy’s Tears, 2013, Lead and wood, 12 x 22 x 27 inches.

But perhaps the most successful surfaces are the ones that don’t cover anything up. Intrigued by the Promise (2014) is mounted in such a way that it appears to be emerging from the wall. Sharp and angular, it feels like a shape-shifting form squeezing through an invisible crack and is now frozen in place. As the viewer approaches the work and courses her eye along the flank, she can spot wooden rings popping out from under the grayish graphite coating. In this instance Murphy has not offered us any illusions: his palimpsestic surface treatment unveils the material underneath. By simultaneously concealing and revealing, he constructs an object that is convincingly both tangible and fantastical. This is important because here the surface treatment embodies, rather than illustrates, the liminality Murphy is truly after.

Intrigued by the Promise, 2014, Graphite and wood, 80.5 x 6.75 x 11 inches.

Intrigued by the Promise, Detail, 2014, Graphite and wood, 80.5 x 6.75 x 11 inches.

Yes, there is something about Awakened in Mid-Air that, at first glance, feels easily dismissible. Give it time. For all its hard, clunky materiality, there are moments that are also whimsical and eye-catching, where sculptures thoughtfully engage the architecture. And when Steve Murphy lets the surfaces speak, that’s when the work really sings.

Awakened in Mid-Air is open at Anya Tish Gallery until March 15, 2014.