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.

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