Monday, March 31, 2014


Robert Boyd

I was reading a review of the CORE Fellows show on Glasstire, and I was impressed by the reviewer's comment, "They offer no entry point: something beautiful or relatable or humorous to help us see the world as they do." I liked that because I often feel the same way. The reviewer was Casey Gregory.

photo from Artstroller feturing painitngs by Casey Gregory

Casey Gregory is also responsible for a Houston art blog, Artstroller. Partly responsible. Also contributing is eighteen-month-old daughter Clemintine. Hence the title of the blog. The subtitle states, " Clementine and Casey Gregory take on the Texas art scene, one stroller-outing at a time." Sometimes the posts are all photos, sometimes there is quite a bit of text. I liked her review of Sarah Sudhoff's performance at Nicole Longnecker Gallery because she could relate it to her own experience as a somewhat new mother. Her discussion of Anton Ginzburg's work up at the Blaffer was excellent as well.

And I love the title, Artstroller. It reminds me of Sig Byrd's classic column for the old Houston Press, "The Stroller." It suggests that these trips to the museums and galleries are not about blog posts but are instead about passing the time. And if a post happens to be the result, so be it. (I don't know if this is how Gregory views it--it may be that each outing is done with the intent of writing a blog post. )

The blog has been running since April of last year, but I only became aware of it relatively recently. Now that Gregory is writing more frequently for Glasstire, I worry she won't have time for her own blog. I hope not, though. I like these casual stroller outings a lot.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Waxahachie Postscript

Robert Boyd

After Friday and Saturday in Dallas looking at art, you would think I'd be satiated. Wrong. I found out that a gallery I had heard good things about was open on Sunday. This was the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, which is between DFW and Houston. So I programmed my car's navigation and headed there.

Ellis County courthouse

Waxahachie is the country seat of Ellis County and has a beautiful courthouse. (I kind of goosed up the "haunted house" look by adding an Instagram filter.) The town is pretty rural and has a population of a little over 21,000. The downtown is quite beautiful, but unfortunately it seems like most of the commerce takes place on highways in big box stores. Still, there were plenty of small businesses downtown. I ate at a nice Mexican family restaurant there. And then there's the Webb Gallery.

The Webb Gallery

Many small towns have antique stores and junk shops, and from the outside that's what Webb Gallery looks like. But it is something altogether different on the inside. The objects they have inside include outsider art, folk art, super-weird items picked up in flea markets, unclassifiable art by contemporary artists, lowbrow art, carnival art, etc. It is similar in some ways to Yard Dog in Austin, but much bigger (real estate in Waxahachie must be cheaper than on S. Congress Street). And the size of the gallery permits it to show some amazing large pieces.

The Webb Gallery interior

As befitting its merchandise, the Webb Gallery eschews the standard "white cube" model. It goes for clutter, and clutter encourages browsing and discovery. The gallery is owned by Bruce and Julie Webb, but unfortunately they were in Fort Worth for the day. Manning the store was Brian K. Scott, an artist from Dallas who worked part time here. He showed me some linoleum blocks (for printing) he had done that look incredible! I can't wait to see them printed.

Brian K. Scott and his linoleum blocks

Obviously Webb Gallery doesn't depend solely on the good people of Waxahachie for income. It needs collectors from Dallas and Fort Worth (and the occasional Houstonian like me) to make the trip. I assume that's why they are open on Sunday so they can catch these weekend day-trippers.

Webb Gallery interior

The current exhibit is called Big Hair and Sparkly Pants, a Texas-oriented group show. The contents ranged from Stanley Mouse rock posters for the 13th Floor Elevators to somewhat conceptual sculptures by great Texas songwriter/musician Joe Ely.

Joe Ely, The Songwriter

I also liked Ike E. Morgan's paintings of Sam Houston, which were displayed underneath his huge portraits of George Washington.

Ike E. Morgan, Sam Houston and George Washington

What made them work was not just the crude, Dubuffet-like paint handling (which is what caught my eye first) but the repetition. Morgan seems to fit the classical definition of "outsider" artist--self-taught and socially isolated (because of his mental illness). In this way, he resembles Adolf Wölfli or Martin Ramirez. I think there are a lot of problems with this definition of "outsider," and it's hard not to feel a whiff of exploitation with such artists. On the other hand, these paintings are great and Morgan appears to love doing them. The repetition of images may suggest some kind of OCD, but to me they seem completely congruent with how we actually view presidents and leaders like Washington and Sam Houston. Their images, by being repeated, turn them from people into icons. Andy Warhol certainly recognized this fact--why shouldn't Ike Morgan? (Intuitive Eye has a really good account of how performance artist Jim Pirtle first encountered Morgan and his art while working at the Austin State Hospital.)

Another artist included in the exhibit was Campbell Bosworth. Webb Gallery had several pieces by the Marfa woodcarver. I had a small piece by Bosworth already--a stack of drug money carved in soft wood and painted. But I had just gotten a bonus from my company and saw a Bosworth sculpture that was making me thirsty:

Campbell Bosworth, Thunderbird, the American Classic, 2012, carved wood

So I bought it. But I wasn't through browsing--as I said above, the cluttered nature of the gallery encourages searching through its nooks and crannies. I had noticed the large Charlie Stagg sculpture (see below).

Charlie Stagg sculpture

The price tag was a little rich for my blood, alas. And even if I could afford it, where would I display it? It's significantly taller than my ceiling. But as I continued to nose around the shelves, I came across this piece:

Charlie Stagg, small blue sculpture

This tiny desk-top sculpture used Stagg's standard triangular helix construction and then added an extra twist in on itself. Stagg (1940-2012) unlike Morgan could not be considered an outsider artist. He had a MFA from an elite art school (the Tyler School of Art at Temple University), taught art, was represented by East Coast galleries, etc. But in 1981, he moved back to his hometown of Vidor, Texas and started producing works like these as well as building his visionary art environment on a large wooded property his family owned. I had seen some of Stagg's work at AMSET, but was astonished to find it for sale in Waxahachie. The price couldn't be beat, either. So I ended up buying it, too.

After I bought these two pieces, Brian Scott pulled out the celebratory beers and we spent an hour or so chatting about Charlie Stagg and the art scene in Dallas while playing with the gallery's two dogs, who craved attention.

One of the Webb Gallery's guard dogs

That, I have to say, was the perfect gallery experience. If you're driving to Dallas or Fort Worth, swing by the Webb Gallery on the way. It's well worth the small detour.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Pan Review of Books: Painting the Town Orange by Pete Gershon

Robert Boyd

In the 1970s, mailman Jeff McKissack took a modest property in Southeast Houston and transformed it into a monument to the orange. He finished it in 1979. I recall as an undergraduate at Rice University during the 80s going over there to see rock shows--McKissack had build a small stage and bleachers. The seats were old tractor seats.

Jeff McKissack and the Orange Show (photo by Geoff Winningham)

His working class neighborhood had no deed restrictions and Houston famously has no zoning, so there was nothing to stop McKissack from building his dream. While the Orange Show is the best-known example of "visionary architecture" in town, Houston, it turns out, is full of this kind of build environment, this sort of outsider architecture. (I realize that "outsider" is a problematic term, but I can't think of a better way to describe people like McKissack.) It's high time someone wrote a book about them, which is what Pete Gershon has done with Painting the Town Orange: The Stories behind Houston's Visionary Art Environments. The Orange Show, the Beer Can House, the Flower Man's House and even Notsuoh are described, as well as many that weren't saved and exist only in photographs and memories.

But if Painting the Town Orange were merely a guide book, it would be of only modest interest. (Likewise, if it were a book of criticism about these places, I'd be intrigued but I'd still likely find it less useful than Gershon's book.) What Gershon has done is thoroughly researched each artist's life, particularly McKissack, John Milcovisch, the creator of the Beer Can House, and Cleveland Turner, who was the Flower Man. Now why people create structures like this is to some extent unknowable, but Gershon shows how their biographies at least lead them to a certain point where doing something like this--something both very public and highly eccentric--seems like an option.

And beyond that, Gershon thoroughly reports how the structures were saved--how each one was discovered by people who considered it worth the considerable effort required to acquire the works (usually after the death of the artist), restore them if necessary, and preserve them. These stories end up being more complicated than one would expect. For the people who did this, there was no particular roadmap, no handbook on how to save outsider architecture. Personalities like sporting goods heiress Marilyn Oshman, who was instrumental in saving the Orange Show and artist/activist Rick Lowe, who did the same for Cleveland Turner's house, are a big part of the story that Gershon tells.

Cleveland Turner and his house, circa 1990 (photo by Larry Harris)

(This kind of story--about how the work of outsider artists is recognized and, if necessary, preserved-is always fascinating to me. Henry Darger's work was saved because his landlord, Nathan Lerner, happened to be a photographer with a very open mind and an artist's eye. Vivian Maier's photos were purchased by John Maloof in a storage locker sale, and it was just luck that he was the kind of person who realized the gold he unearthed. Charles Dellschau's art was abandoned as trash, ended up in a second hand store, and purchased by the right people.)

As if to emphasize the sometimes miraculous circumstances that lead to a place like the Orange Show being preserved, Gerson includes a chapter entitled "The Lost Environments." He writes about Pigdom, the "shrine to swine", and Bob Harper's Third World. What often happens with this kind of place is when the artist dies, the heirs don't have the resources to preserve the structures and aren't connected to a local art community that could help. The places become dilapidated and dangerous, and often the city red tags them. The bare minimum of what a visionary environment requires to survive is to be widely recognized within the local art community as art. And even that may not be enough.

Gershon moves away from "outsider" environments to discuss Notsuoh,  which is a functioning bar/performance space run by Jim Pirtle, and Zocalo/TemplO, an environment that was built by Nestor Topchy. Dan Phillips and the Phoenix Commotion, a company that builds highly eccentric art houses out of materials headed for landfills, are also discussed. Pirtle and Topchy both come out of the Houston art world and Phillips was a dance instructor at Sam Houston State University--none of them are really "outsiders"--but Gershon identifies the impulse to build an expressive environment as a common feature between them and McKissack and Turner.

There are environments such as this all over the world. Houston's are neither the biggest nor, in my opinion, the most beautiful. (I'd probably vote for the Watts Towers.) But they are tightly woven into the fabric of Houston, and the stories of how they came to be made and how they ended up saved are fascinating.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dallas on a Saturday in March (might be a little NSFW)

Robert Boyd

(Continued from Dallas on a Friday in March)

Where Friday had been sunny and beautiful, Saturday was rainy and cold. But that didn't keep the custom/classic car people from filling the lot of Four Corners Brewing. This was an unscheduled stop--I was driving east on Singleton and saw them. Pulled a u-turn and checked out some of the best art I saw all day.

Note the "swamp cooler" on the side of this car. A lot of the vehicles here had these primitive air-conditioners mounted on their passenger doors .

The cars seemed about equally split between muscle cars made into low-riders and classic 40s and 50s cars. I was especially pleased to see all the vintage pick-ups. And there were several young women present like the one at the top of the post dressed like 50s bad girls. I guess this is the custom car version of cosplay? If so, I approve.

I also liked how the car clubs had their own matching mechanics shirts. I think contemporary artists should consider forming into similar clubs (with similar matching shirts).

Some people wouldn't really call this art. Maybe a kind of craft. Let's face it--no custom car show is ever going to be listed in Glasstire's calendar section. But it is art. There is a great section in Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (1982), the biography of Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler, that deals with this:
"Of course, what's going on is such situations is precisely an artistic activity. A lot of art critics, especially New York Artforum types, have a lot of trouble seeing the validity of such a contention. I once had a run-in with one of them about this--this was years later, in the middle of the Ferus period. [...] We got going and ended up arguing about folk art. He was one of those Marxist critics who like to think that they're real involved with the people, making grand gestures and so dorth, but they're hardly in the world at all.

"Anyway, he was talking about pot-making and weaving and everything, and my feeling was that this was all historical art but not folk art. As far as I'm concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use every day, and you give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. And a folk art in the current period of time would more appropriately be in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean a motorcycle can be a lot more than a machine that runs along; it can be a whole description of a personality and an aesthetic. 

"Anyway, so I looked in the paper and found this ad of a guy who was selling a hot rod and a motorcycle. And I took the critic out to this place. It was real fortunate because it was exactly what I wanted. We arrived at this place in the Valley, in the middle of nowhere, and  here's this kid: he's selling a hot rod and he's got another he's working on. He's selling a '32 coupe, and he's got a '29 roadster in the garage. The '32 he was getting rid of was an absolute cherry. But what was more interesting, and which I was able to show the critic, was that here was the '29, absolutely dismantled, I mean, completely apart, and the kid was making decisions about the frame, whether or not he was going to cad plate certain bolts or whether he was going to buff grind them, or whether he was just going to leave them raw as they were. He was insulating and soundproofing the doors, all kinds of things that no one would ever know or see unless they were truly a sophsticate in the area. But, I mean, real aesthetic decisions, truly aesthetic decisions. Here was a 15-year-old kid who couldn't know art from schmart, but you couldn't talk about a more aesthetic activity than what he was doing, how he was carefully weighing: what is the attitude of this whole thing? What exactly? How should it look? What was the relationship in terms of its machinery, its social bearing, everything? I mean, all these things were being weighed in terms of the aesthetics of how the thing should look. It was a perfect example.

"The critic simply denied it. Simply denied it: not important, unreal, untrue, doesn't happen, doesn't exist. See, he comes from the world of New York where the automobile... I mean, automobiles are 'What? Automobile? Nothing.' Right? I mean, no awareness, no sensitivity, no involvement. So he simply denied it: 'It doesn't exist.' Like that: 'Not an issue.' Which we argued  about a little on the way back over the Sepulveda pass. 
"I said, 'How can you deny it? You may not be interested, but how can you deny it? I mean, there it is, full-blown, right in front of you, and it's obviously a folk art!'
"Anyway, he, 'No, no.'
"So I finally just stopped the car and made him get out. I just flat left him there by the road, man, and just drove off. Said, 'See you later, Max.'"
Robert Irwin FTW!


OK, now I was going to see some alternative art spaces, even if it killed me. I knew 500X was open because their sign had given Saturday hours. That was my first stop. The metal exterior made it look like a typical storefront gallery in terms of size, but it seems they have the whole building to use as they please. There were several galleries, some quite large. There were multiple shows happening all at once. For that reason, it reminded me a bit of Lawndale Art Center in Houston.

Elaine Pawlowicz, Pet Warranty, 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

The big show on the ground floor was a group pf paintings by Elaine Pawlowicz. She states her influences are outsider art, Chicago Imagists, surrealism and several others. I think those influences show in Pet Warranty with its weird forced perspective and colors.

Elaine Pawlowicz, Cactus Ball, 2014, oil on canvas,48 x 48 inches

Less so in Cactus Ball, which appears to be aiming more for prettiness. But the problem I have with both paintings is that Pawlowicz's painterly ambitions surpass her technical skills. Both of these paintings would have more oomph if they were convincing images, but her painting of three dimensional things in space is awkward. None of those parrots is quite right, and the figure standing behind them is especially awkward. The position of that hand and the way it's painted doesn't look like a real hand. Now we've come a long way from requiring verisimilitude from painters--that was rarely a concern of the Chicago Imagists, after all. But when Roger Brown needed to paint a hand, it looked pretty much like a hand. Indeed surrealism works best when its dreamlike images seem real.

Cactus Ball is a perfect example of this. Imagine a sphere of flowering cactus plants floating in front of you, about ten feet wide. If you saw such a thing, in a dream perhaps, you'd probably agree that it is a surreal image. But Pawlowicz doesn't paint a convincing sphere. The cacti on the edge of the sphere should be facing out and not toward the viewer. There should be a sense of the center projecting towards us and the edges receding. Cactus Ball just doesn't look like a ball.

The was some humor in some of her paintings of animals, and her intense coloring has appeal, but as a whole, these paintings didn't work for me.

Elizabeth Hurtado, Foci II, 2014, white recycled garment bags, arm knit,  five stitch rows

Upstairs was an installation by Elizabeth Hurtado called Portal that consisted of two large discs, one white and one dark brown. The one above is Foci II.

Elizabeth Hurtado, Foci I, 2014,  recycled garbage bags, arm knit,  five stitch rows

Elizabeth Hurtado, Portal, 2014

The two discs are rugs knitted from material associated with garbage. So I think we're meant to think about the material and the process. But for me, the two large discs, one black and one white, laid on the parallel wooden floorboards, has a mysterious presence. The elemental shapes, the opposing colors; it recalls Malevich and Richard Long. I liked being in the room with them, walking around them. I liked that they were vortices. The work has the appeal of some minimalist works in that the two discs are defined as art in part by their relationship to the architectural space where they are. And the material suggests post-minimalism. And finally, these plastic-bag knit rugs are similar to actual circular knit rugs--which remind me of the kind of home-made rugs my grandparents had, but which these days you are more likely to find on Etsy. It was their qualities as particular objects installed in a particular place that I found exciting.

Before I left, I asked the attendant if he knew wherethe Reading Room was. It was just around the corner. I don't know why my GPS couldn't find the address on Friday. Unfortunately, it was not open. Strike two.

There were several exhibits opening that night. The first was over at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. The exhibit was Inversion of the Sacred by Masami Teraoka. This Japanese-American artist combines western and Japanese art in the pieces in this exhibit, which take the form of large altarpieces (similar to the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck). But writing this does not prepare one in the least for the utter insanity of these pieces. Take a look.

Masami Teraoka, Eve and the Pope's Walking Stick from The Cloisters Last Supper series, 2009-2014, oil on panel with gold leaf frame, 120 x 120 x 3 inches

We see that Teraoka is not just creating a pastiche of the Renaissance altarpiece (down to the gold leaf) but also the erotic Japanese silkscreen print, or shunga. Above and beyond the collision of those two classic forms, he paints many of the women in the pieces as modern porn figures--by having them clothed in sexy lingerie or fetish wear, for example. It's a gloriously insane mash-up of disparate elements.

Masami Teraoka, Inversion of the Sacred from The Last Supper series, 2009-2014, oil on panel with gold leaf frame, 120 x 120 x 3 inches

The obvious point is to suggest that the church is hypocritical about sex. If Teraoka were a French surrealist in the 30s, I would say he was being deliberately blasphemous as a provocation. But I don't think that's exactly what is going on here. He states, "My Cloisters Last Supper – Triptych Series addresses Catholic clerical sex abuse. Underlying this theme, I see an authoritative institution trying to dictate individuals’ sexual relationships, gender and morality. To bring out such compelling cultural issues and put them on the Last Supper table may be an appropriate place to start a dialogue – to investigate the anatomy of these abuses." OK sure, but these paintings don't seem to me to be about anger or condemnation. They are too titillating for that, too erotic. I don't think the viewer is meant to be outraged; on the contrary, I think the viewer is meant to look at them with a big grin while exclaiming, "Outrageous!"

Masami Teraoka, Madonna and Geisha Pieta from The Cloisters Last Supper series, 2009-2014, oil on panel with gold leaf frame, 120 x 120 x 3 inches

That said, if the MAC invited Bishop Farrell of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas for a private viewing, or better yet, showed the work to William Donohue of the Catholic League, real outrage could be generated. But for me, a secular and somewhat jaded art viewer, the work seemed delightfully naughty, like The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter by Max Ernst but combined with an eroticism that recalls de Sade. And this connection makes me want to label the work surrealism. It's hard to do surrealism in the 21st century without it seeming a bit trite. But Teraoka overwhelms us with the size of these pieces and the sheer quantity of perverse images. The work makes an impact. In that way, I'd relate it to the work of Paul McCarthy or Jake and Dinos Chapman. And that art is not for everyone, obviously. But there is a part of me that likes to be shocked--that likes to exclaim, "Outrageous!"

Terrell James, Reason, 2013, oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches

Next I went to see another of the Houston artists showing in Dallas. Terrell James was having an opening at Barry Whistler Gallery. The show was full of brightly colored abstractions like Reason. I don't know where she started out as an artist; she is much younger than the generations that pioneered abstract expressionism and color field painting, which her work reminds me of, but she continues that tradition of abstraction. I see echoes of Helen Frankenthaler, Clyfford Still, Hans Hoffman and Dorothy Hood in her work, particularly in her use of broad flat areas of color, vigorously applied.

Terrell James, (left) Divided Sight 7, 2013, Chinese watercolor on paper, 30 x 22 inches and (right) Divided Sight 6, 2013, Chinese watercolor on paper, 30 x 22 inches

This flatness was especially emphasized with James' Chinese watercolor paintings. I asked James what "Chinese watercolor" was, and she told me that they were literally watercolor paints she bought in China. They have a gouache-like quality. What struck me about these paintings, which invariably would consist of areas of more-or-less flat color underneath a layer of thin black drawn lines, is how much they seemed like silkscreen prints. They had that bold, poster-like quality, and the intensity of the colors reinforced this.

If you like abstract painting like I do, this is a good show to see. The Houston artists I saw in Dallas--James, Joseph Havel and Geoff Hippenstiel--represented our fair city well.

Francis Giampietro, Before and After installation view, 2014

The next stop was Beefhaus, which is the exhibition space for the art collective Art Beef. (Why is it that two of the alternative art spaces in Dallas are called "haus"?) Beefhaus a small storefront that hasn't been seriously remodeled from whatever it was before (it even has a large, walk-in safe), and based on Francis Giampietro's show Before and After, artists can use the space as they will. That's a useful freedom to have. On their page, Art Beef has this statement:
ART BEEF is a collective of artists based in Dallas, Texas interested in challenging notions of authorship and market structure, while questioning the forms of programming most often associated with other artist-run spaces, galleries, organizations, and institutions. While individual artists ourselves, Art Beef is not intended to serve a platform for our own respective practices. This collaborative project is, therefore, a problematizing exploration of artists as curator without the constraints of either a commercial or not-for-profit art space, examining the status and function of art, particularly within the city of Dallas.
They get International Art English extra points for the use of the word "problematizing."  And kudos for combining a humorous name, Art Beef, with a humorless statement. Anyway, Giampietro's show was not humorless, but it was obscure.

Francis Giampietro, Before and After installation view, 2014

Like these three jars of liquid on this easel. What were they? I was a little worried that they may be filled with urine, but I went ahead and smelled them anyway. It was beer. (Whew!) And then there was the hole in the wall off to the left. People would peer into it but not cross the threshold for some reason. That little bit of floorboard along the bottom seemed to act as a kind of psychic barrier. They could see a shelf in the other room with a jar on it. The jar was filled with something dark.

Francis Giampietro, Before and After, 2014

If one went ahead and walked into the room (which I did, of course), this is what you saw. The label reads, "ONE WINTER'S BEARD."  It was funny to me that people were reluctant to step across that border, and even funnier was what actually was in the room.

But that didn't mask the basic opacity of the show. What were these stamped patterns on the wall? Why was there a stretched piece of pig-skin on the wall? What did the badly framed photos of Renaissance frescos signify?

Francis Giampietro, Before and After, 2014

I thought the pigskin might have something to do with football, which Giampietro had touched on in earlier work when he was a student in Houston. But he explained that the whole show was about Pope Francis and the man from whom the Pope chose his name, Saint Francis of Assissi. The green shapes on the wall are Pope Francis' crest. The reproductions of the fresco were from a cycle on the life of Francis, taken from Flickr images.

I have to admit I didn't find this explanation very illuminating, but more important, I would never have guessed it if Giampietro hadn't told me. I don't mind the exhibit being a headscratcher--it's an understatement to say that Giampietro's work rarely lends itself to easy interpretation. But I don't think it quite had the oomph of his earlier work. It felt coy and tentative in comparison.

Giampietro told me the Reading Room was having an opening that night, which explains why they had been closed earlier. Third time was a charm--I finally got to see it.

The Reading Room

This is what the Reading Room looks like from the outside. You can see that it is quite small. Inside, they were displaying a work by Nicolas G. Miller. I can't find much about Miller online, but he seems to be an artist from Marfa, where he has had several shows. This show was pretty spare (but given the tiny space it was in, not excessively so). It consisted of a sculpture (which was actually a big white subwoofer playing sounds), an LP record, and a print.

Nicolas G. Miller, Common Sense, 2014, Audio Engine S8 powered subwoofer, plinth, cables, aromatic cedar, low frequency effects tracks from Spielberg filsm, 60 exhibition copies of the Common sense vinyl record

The room was crowded with talking people which made the sounds from the subwoofer inaudible. Occasionally there was a low rumble, but I think that was thunder coming from outside. Let's face it--opening night is never a good night to experience sound art.

Nicolas G. Miller, Five Rows of Four/Ferns, 2014, screen print, 22 x 30 inches

The record itself was a 33 rpm record in a limited edition of 190. You could buy a copy for a mere $20, which I did. So now I have a copy of barely audible lo-frequency sound effects from Steven Spielberg movies. It's an object not really to be listened to (even though I did because I have that responsibility as a critic). It's more about the idea of what sounds are on the record than the actual sounds.

At this opening, I met up with Jim Nolan who had come to town to help hang Giampietro's show, and he invited me to join him a few Dallas-area artists (including Justin Ginsberg--half of Apophenia Underground, whose show I saw the day before--and Sally Glass, publisher of Semigloss magazine) at a nearby bar. They wanted to go check out a closing night party at Ware:Wolf:Haus, which appealed to me since that was another space I had tried but failed to visit on Friday.

We crossed the bridge over to the west and made our way to the gallery. The closing party was pretty much over, but they kept the doors open for us (we had called and said we were coming by). The show that was ending was Things and Place by Randy Guthmiller, Allison Ginsberg, Matt Koons and Alex Revier.

Randy Guthmiller, three shape pieces

Randy Guthmiller makes a zine called Shapes, which is pretty much just what it says--page after page of various shapes. He says he was influenced by that great shape-maker, Elsworth Kelly. He had a bunch of shape pieces up at Ware:Wolf:Haus. They seem to be shapes drawn on a computer and then printed large. Sometimes the colors are solid, but often they have some repeating texture.

Two pieces by Matthew Koons

Matthew Koons is also intrigued by shapes and also (apparently) uses computer software to create his work, but his images are more complex that Guthmiller's. They often employ photographic source material and are designed to have a quasi-three-dimensional look of pyramids, diamonds and cubes. There is kind of a 60s science fiction/psychedelia feel to them--they could be cover images for a Michael Moorcock-era issue of New Worlds or an early J.G. Ballard novel. Guthmiller chose the artists for the show, and one can see why he relates to Koons' work.

I only got to see it briefly, but Things and Place was quite nice. And this flexible art space, Ware:Wolf:Haus, was full of possibility.  Jim Nolan had been particularly impressed with the grassroots art spaces in Dallas when he had been a resident at CentralTrak. He asked me why Houston didn't have more artist-initiated spaces like this. Part of the answer is that Houston does have such spaces: Scott Charmin Gallery, El Rincon Social, Alabama Song and Skydive (which admittedly has been somewhat dormant lately). But the Dallas scene seems in some ways more simultaneously more sophisticated and more energetic. But maybe that impression is a product of me sweeping in over a weekend and seeing a whole bunch of stuff all at once. But it nonetheless suggests that Dallas is doing important things. Houston has long assumed a sense of artistic superiority in Texas that at this point can't be justified. What Dallas has going on is different from Houston, but in no way inferior.

That was the end of my Dallas art tour, but I was to make one more eventful art stop on Sunday in Waxahachie.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CounterCurrent Coming Up

Robert Boyd

So this thing is happening next week:

CounterCurrent14 from Mitchell Center for the Arts on Vimeo.

And you can see their schedule and featured performers on their website. It's weird that there would be two large scale performances festivals in Houston in a given year, much less within a month and a half of one another. But the Houston International Performance Biennale wrapped up in February (and was so packed with performances that this blog is still processing it--you can read about some of the performances here, here, here and here, and there are more posts to come).

The difference seems that HIPB was much more of a grassroots thing. While it had performers from out of town, a lot of it was all about the local performance art community. Also, there wasn't much in the way of social practice-oriented pieces at the HIPB.

CounterCurrent, on the other hand, is being run by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston. It appears to be much more professional and seems at first glance to be split more-or-less evenly between out-of-town artists and local artists, with a strong emphasis on artists associated with UH.

Which festival is the better festival? I guess it doesn't matter--having two festivals like these just gives us all more choices. (That said, part of me wants to see a performance art cage match between them.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dallas on a Friday in March

Robert Boyd

There is something about Dallas that makes me want to make grand pronouncements about it, to sum it up in one pithy catch-phrase. Hence the vast three-part post I did in 2012, and a subsequent post that is sort of the antithesis to the first three posts' thesis. I wish I had a similar overarching thing to say about Dallas for this post. I'll outsource that to Paul Middendorf, who recently wrote an excellent two-part overview of the Dallas scene for Glasstire recently. He looked at what was happening in many of the small experimental/grass roots art spaces and tried to draw conclusions from what he saw. I know many of us in Houston look enviously on this scene. Middendorf seems to think that the artists residency CentralTrak and its director, Heyd Fontenot, were really the underlying engine behind a lot of this activity. Without being able to trace CentralTrak's specific influences, this nonetheless rings true to me. So, Middendorf has Dallas pegged, right?

Not so fast. Also in Glasstire recently was a scathing article about the Dallas art scene, "Whites Only: Diversity and the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas" by Darryl Ratcliff. It uses data about galleries that are members of CADD, the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas, to show just how lily-white their exhibits are. Looking only at solo shows in 13 CADD galleries over the past 15 months, Ratliff determined that only 16 percent of them featured non-white artists, and only two percent of them were black. He also determined that only 38% of the shows were by women. (The total number of shows was 189.) The general gist here is, Dallas, what the fuck?! (This kind of analysis would be useful to run for Houston as well. My gut feeling is that we'd do better, but how much better?)

So two very diverging views of the Dallas art scene were fresh in my mind as I swept into town.

My first stop Friday was Ware: Wolf: Haus, an alternative space in the shadow of the big Santiago Calatrava bridge over the Trinity River. I guess it's things like Ware: Wolf: Haus that are supposed to help convince Dallasites that this isn't actually a bridge to nowhere. They had a show featuring Matt Koons, Allison Ginsberg and Randy Guthmiller up. But apparently no one from Ware: Wolf: Haus was around, and the other people in the building didn't want to let me go in. "Now is not a good time," I was told. I would subsequently learn that Friday is in general not a good day to try to check out alternative spaces in Dallas.

Apophenia Underground (Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg), Lock All the Doors, television, video

I crossed the Calatrava and headed into the Design District. At Red Arrow Contemporary, there was a show of work by Apophenia Underground, a collective consisting of Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg. I was told it would be better to see at night--one of the pieces was a projection onto semitransparent material covering the front windows. It would be visible from outside and inside. That sounded cool and I made a mental note to return later that evening (the galleries in the neighborhood were apparently open late that night). But that night I decided to go see The Grand Budapest Hotel instead.

Apophenia Underground's work at Red Arrow wasn't brilliant. All conceptual work is dependent on the quality of the idea, and this seemed like the kind of conceptual work that Donald Barthelme complained about--too easy. But some of it was visually striking, which for me can turn a weak conceptual artwork into something exciting. There was something mysterious and cool about seeing the video in Lock All the Doors only as a blue shimmery reflection on the floor, for example.

Apophenia Underground (Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg), Post Cards and Leaf, mailed postcards, leaf, television

Post Cards and Leaf consisted of a sheaf of postcards (not pictured) and a big leaf on top of an old portable television.

Apophenia Underground (Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg), Post Cards and Leaf, mailed postcards, leaf, television

The TV glowing through the leaf is intriguing, and I liked how the TV image was obscured as it had been in Lock All the Doors. When you crouch down to read the type on the leaf, you will laugh. It's not exactly a work that can be collected (the leaf will curl up and disintegrate eventually, right?). That Red Arrow is showing work like this makes me ask, is Red Arrow in fact a commercial gallery? I think so, but this is unusually adventurous work for a commercial gallery. And that's exciting. I like seeing a gallery that isn't 100% about selling very expensive merchandise.

Geoff Hippenstiel, no title (Mount Saint Victoire), 2014, oil on canvas, 76 x 117 inches

Not that there is anything wrong with selling art. Especially art as pretty as the Geoff Hipenstiel paintings at Holly Johnson Gallery. This was the first of several gallery shows I saw in Dallas featuring the work of Houston artists. I think that it's great that the two cities should share its artists. What I wonder is that for artists selling their work through commercial galleries, does showing in Dallas help--does more work get sold? Does their base of collectors expand? The answer has to be yes, or else Houston artists wouldn't have shows up at Holly Johnson Gallery, Talley Dunn, and Barry Whistler.

But beyond those purely mercantile concerns (probably more interesting to me than to the readers of this blog), the Hippenstiel show is gorgeous. Up to now, I've been dealing with his work in terms of technique and formal matters, but what I realized when I saw this group of paintings was that Hippenstiel is devoted to making paintings that are beautiful, whatever other qualities they may contain. He has long painted images of rounded hills, but with no title (Mount Saint Victoire), he makes for the first time a reference to the greatest hill painter of all, Cezanne. Cezanne was another painter concerned with formal qualities of paint who nonetheless ravished the viewer with the beauty of his paintings. No title (Mount Saint Victoire) is an apt homage.

Geof, Hippenstiel, (left to right) no title (Kobe Zip), no title (Murder Ballad Zip), no title (Teal Zip), 2014, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches (each)

While most of the show is work that feels in line with work Hippenstiel has done before (hills, a large skull), these homages feel like he is staking a claim to the tradition of paintings that are so beautiful that they border on the sublime. Hence his tributes to Barnett Newman. But while Newman was deliberately going for the overwhelming experience of the sublime, Hippenstiel dials it down. His painterly versions of Newman's zips are a bit more polite and domesticated. They're pretty in a way that you would never say of Newman's paintings. That may have been Hippenstiel's intent.

Joshua Goode, Adolescent Unicorn T-Rex Skull with 'No Fear' Bedazzlement, 2013, plaster, steel, paint and beaded bracelet, 40 x 48 x 24 inches

At Ro2 Gallery downtown, there was an exhibit of fake fossils and artifacts putatively from an archeological dig in Europe, including the Adolescent Unicorn T-Rex Skull with 'No Fear' Bedazzlement. Ever since the Museum of Jurassic Technology, "fake natural history" has become its own genre of conceptual art. I can appreciate the elements of institutional critique that originally informed this genre, but this kind of work feels tired and old-hat now. This show, that posited a discovery by artist Joshua Goode of an ancient "Texas" culture in Europe was especially feeble. The show is one big joke which is not redeemed by being particularly funny.

Joseph Havel, installation view of Stacks at Talley Dunn Gallery

I traveled north to Talley Dunn Gallery to see the Joseph Havel show, Stacks. Some of the work on display I had seen at Hiram Butler Gallery back in 2012, but the main work, the sculptures of stacks of books, was new to me. Talley Dunn Gallery reminds me a lot of Hiram Butler Gallery; both feature very tasteful art, some of it blue chip, and both are geographically isolated--they aren't near any other galleries. Someone told me while I was up there that they found it hard to attend openings at Talley Dunn because of this.

I loved Havel's books. Made mostly of poured resin, they were really aimed at people like me--people drowning in books, always reading, never catching up. I had a nightmare last night that someone had stolen my books. But book culture is becoming extinct. I rarely encounter people for whom reading books is an important activity. Not anymore, at least. (Let me shout out to Kaboom Books here in Houston--I walk in that place and I can expect to spend the next thirty minutes discussing books with the owner, who has read everything.)

Joseph Havel, installation view of Stacks at Talley Dunn Gallery

To me, Havel is memorializing that culture here. Except for their vertiginous height, the piles of books he portrays could be taken from my bedroom. By casting them in translucent resin, he effectively turns them into ghosts--ghosts of a period when owlish intellectuals had their own vast personal libraries, hoarded higgledy piggledy in cramped apartments. A silly article in Vice recently brought the demise of this culture home with one line, "He owns more hoodies than books."

Joseph Havel, installation view of Stacks at Talley Dunn Gallery

They looked especially handsome in the cavernous gallery in the back of Talley Dunn. They would look less beautiful in my house. In fact, they'd probably have real books stacked on them. (If Houston readers want to see a Havel book stack in person, there is one in the fountain at CAMH.)

Vernon Fisher, Jocko at Dover

Talley Dunn had an odd selection of other work hung as well, including this great Vernon Fisher painting of World War II military movements in Belgium, but not excluding Nancy, Sluggo, a clown and pixelated battle scenes. I asked the gallery attendant about it, and she launched into an explanation and asked if I had ever read the comics strip Nancy. Boy had I! I used the opportunity to paraphrase Wally Wood--"Sure! After all, it takes more energy not to read Nancy than to read it!"

Next stop was the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University. The campus was beautiful, and the museum stately. The main show up was work by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, and it was nice enough. The beach scenes he painted were fun. But when you see an artist like Sorolla, you understand why Modernism so desperately needed to be invented when it was. I wasn't allowed to take photos of the Sorolla show, but if you click through above, you can see some examples of his art.

Antonio Saura, Portrait of Mari, 2958, oil on canvas

But there was Spanish art there that I really liked, like this energetic Antonio Saura.

Jaume Plensa, Sho, 2007, painted stainless steel

But then here's some Spanish art I hate. Jaume Plensa is one of those artists when you first see their work, you might think it looks pretty cool. But over time, the novelty has worn off and all that's left is its banality. That might be acceptable except for the fact that it has pretends to be intellectual and full of meaning. This transparent, empty head is ironically a good symbol for Plensa's work as a whole. Nobody home.

Santiago Calatrava, Wave, 2001

That the novelty of a piece of art might evolve into banality is a risk with Santiago Calatrava's fountain in front of the Meadows, but for now I like it. Much of Calatrava's work seems to be based on some complex application of physics to engineering (he certainly doesn't seem to very concerned with the human element of architecture), so this is an apt sculpture for him.

Santiago Calatrava, Wave, 2001

The metal parts move, creating a continually propagating wave-form. One reason I like this is that we had a desk-top version of this in my High School physics class back in the 70s. It's a work that fills me with nostalgia.

It was mid-afternoon by now, and I still wanted to see some more stuff. I left the Republican wealth of University Park and headed down to the still somewhat grungy (but gentrifying) neighborhood of Exposition Park, right next to the Texas State Fairgrounds.  My intent was to check out some of the tiny alternative spaces in the neighborhood. First I went to the Power Station (which actually isn't tiny at all).

The Power Station

This once was a facility for Dallas Power & Light, this beautiful building somehow managed to avoid being razed or turned into condos. The day I went, I went through the front door and found a darkened empty space. It was a little freaky. No one was present. The darkness was an intentional feature of the installation. One fluorescent light flickered on and off at regular intervals. Only after a while did I realize that there was some stuff on the floor.

Michael E. Smith, [foreground] Jawbreaker, basketball, bird parts, plastic, rubber, epoxy putty, [background] untitled, bucket hats, plastic, 2014

This was an exhibit by Michael E. Smith. Jawbreaker looked kind of cool. I thought about stealing it, since there was no one around. But fortunately I have some sense of morality left. The pile of hats near Jawbreaker, on the other hand, just made me shrug my shoulders. They wouldn't even be worth the effort of stealing.

Michael E. Smith, untitled, milk jug, parrot feathers, plastic, actuator magnet, 2014

This upside down milk jug was hanging above the side door. There was a little garden on the side of the building, as well as stairs leading up. I climbed them to a mezzanine level, where there was another similar milk jug hanging over the door. Inside were several more objects in the dark, including this disturbing piece.

Michael E. Smith, untitled, wood, child's pajamas, plates, 2014

Weirdly enough, I totally missed two pieces that afternoon. The reason was that even though it was pretty dark in the Power Station (the windows had all been blacked out), there was plenty of sunshine pouring in from the side doors. It was, in fact, a beautiful day in Dallas. It wasn't until I came back the following night that I saw two of the most visually striking pieces.

Michael E. Smith, untitled, altered video, 2014

This video was set in the ceiling two floors up. It's footage of a rescue at sea taken from a helicopter. So the camera is pointing down, and there is something kind of vertiginous about looking up at it. (The chains are leftover bits of hardware from when this was part of DL&P.)

Michael E. Smith, untitled, glass globe, light, plastic coral, 2014

And if you will recall, there were two lights flanking the entrance of the Power Plant. With the simple act of adding plastic coral inside them, Smith turned them into a totally creepy installation. These glowing fleshy protuberances, like perfectly spherical testicles or some alien life form, were the best part of the show.

But over all, the exhibit felt like a waste of that great space. There just wasn't enough there there. The plastic encrusted basket ball, the veiny lights--by themselves, these were intriguing objects. But all together, it didn't add up in any meaningful way. However, I was interested in and impressed by the amount of work Smith put into using the Power Plant itself as a key element of the exhibit--the blacked out windows (obviously a huge amount of work), the single blinking fluorescent tube. And strangely enough, even though I was there for a while, I never saw another living soul. That was perhaps the most memorable thing about the show.

Next I wanted to see 500X, the Reading Room and the Oliver Francis Gallery. 500X was closed and I couldn't find the Reading Room (my phone couldn't map the address, and when I tried to call them, no one answered). Not to worry--I saw both of the spaces Saturday. Francis Oliver Gallery was about a half mile away, and it was such a beautiful day that I decided to walk over.

seen on Main St.

It was worth the walk--this transitional neighborhood had a lot of interesting things to see. If the galleries were going to be closed, I would take in what visual stimulation I could find.

seen on Main St.

seen on East Side Ave.

seen on East Side Ave.

seen on East Side Ave.

I loved that there was a narrow pointed building on this skinny little block.

seen on Commerce St.

Oliver Francis Gallery

But alas, Oliver Francis Gallery was also closed. It would end up being the only alternative space that I wanted to see this weekend that I didn't. At this point, I was all arted out. The quest for art would continue Saturday.

Any big conclusions about Dallas? Not really, but I notice that almost none of the art I saw that Friday was by women. There was a nice piece by Robin O'Neill at Talley Dunn and a not-very-memorable show by Anna Bogatin at Holly Johnson. But that was it. So that kind of validated some of Darryl Ratcliff's findings.

(To be continued.)