Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Show is So Over

Robert Boyd

I recently moved to a new place in Midtown. One of my reasons for moving was that I wanted to be close to the artistic center of Houston. While art is made and displayed all over the vast area of Houston and vicinity, it's hard to deny that Midtown--so close to all the museums and most of the galleries--is a great place for an art-lover like me to be. It's a neighborhood on the rise. In the late 70s and early 80s, I made a trek down to Midtown once a week with my friend John Richardson. We were taking painting lessons from Stella Sullivan in her house at the corner of San Jacinto and Southmore, built in 1935. It's just over the border of what is now "officially" Midtown. There have been many changes since then.

In the 1980s, as oil prices collapsed and city policies made it difficult to develop older neighborhoods, Midtown lost population and became seriously run-down. It was a neighborhood of boarded-up buildings. (It was also a refuge for recently arrived Vietnamese refugees who remain a strong presence.)

The official map of Midtown

But times change. I've heard that the city of Houston updated its sewage hookup rules, which made it possible to increase the number of hookups inside the 610 Loop. At the same time, starting in the late 90s, the price of oil began a long, slow rise. Hydraulic fracturing technology allowed small natural gas companies to grow into S&P 500 companies, bringing thousands of new jobs to Houston. The result was an increase in property development all over Houston, including Midtown. Midtown has been gentrifying over the past 20 years (as has the Heights and Rice Military). There are still abandoned buildings (I live right next to one) and empty lots. Plus there are are remnants of a time when Midtown was depopulated--specifically, the large number of homeless and addiction services are headquartered in Midtown. (Perhaps these charities and their clients will remind the dude-bros and basic b---hes who party down at the hip bars in Midtown that poor people exist.) Midtown is now a TIRZ, which means it can get tax money to help improve and redevelop the area. The Midtown Redevelopment Authority is the quasi-governmental organization that manages the TIRZ.

Midtown is defined by the Midtown Management District as being bordered primarily by I-45, 59, and Spur 527, with a few bits bordered by surface streets in the northeast corner and southernmost bit. That means that the intersection of Alabama and Almeda is officially part of Midtown. That's where Jamal Cyrus put up his temporary site-specific installation, The Jackson in Your House. The installation is part of a long term use of this site curated by Suplex.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

The official opening for A Jackson in Your House was on a recent Friday night. It was a mild, dry evening, so I decided to walk there--I moved to Midtown precisely so I'd have these opportunities to leave the car at home. On the way, I met a couple of friends who were also headed over there, and then we ran into and chatted with CAMH director Bill Arning, who was returning from the site. I could almost pretend for a moment that I was in a pedestrian-oriented city. Midtown isn't there yet, but it's evolving in that direction.

A Jackson in Your House consists of a giant, vertically-oriented sign painted with bold display lettering. The sign is black paint on two white bedsheets sewn together. It reads, "THE SHOW IS OVER... THE SHOW IS OVER..." I'd estimate that it is about 18 feet high. It faces east into the heart of the Third Ward, and is easily visible to drivers on Almeda and west-bound drivers on Alabama.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets.(Jamal Cyrus is standing in the center.)

The phrase comes from a Christopher Wool painting which consists of a longer quote: "THE SHOW IS OVER THE AUDIENCE GETS UP TO LEAVE THEIR SEATS TIME TO COLLECT THEIR COATS AND GO HOME THEY TURN AROUND NO MORE COATS AND NO MORE HOME" There are actually several versions of the painting, but they are all similar--all caps, no spacing between lines, arbitrary line breaks in the middle of words based on the width of the canvas, no punctuation. The lettering seems to have been hand done with stencils. The quote comes from a book by Russian writer Vasily Rozanov from 1917 called The Apocalypse of Our Time (Cyrus identifies Rozanov as a nihilist, but most references I've seen paint him as a highly eccentric conservative intellectual). The phrase was quoted in a Situationist polemic from 1967, and repeated in Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces.

Christoper Wool's studio, 1991 (from Parkett #83)

Cyrus and Walter Stanciell retain the hand-lettered aspect of Wool's painting and the line-breaks, but otherwise their version is far easier to read. Walter Stanciell is a 3rd Ward sign painter, and these letters, white outlined with black with a black shadow giving them a somewhat 3-D appearance, are unlike the letters in most signs you see in one important aspect--they are hand-made. When you get up close, you can see imperfections. It's warm, human lettering. Because every letter is repeated at least once, you can see how they slightly differ from one another. They are unlike a display font on a computer. They are unlike billboards and advertisements created by designers and ad agencies. But at the same time, they are unlike amateur signs you might see in a neighborhood--hand painted signs that say "Garage Sale" or "Beware of Dog," for example.

Stanciell occupies the middle ground, and his signage is pleasing to the eye. It used to be that sign-painting was an ordinary, common occupation, and its practitioners were respected craftsmen. (Of course, pop artist James Rosenquist came out of that world, as did pioneering underground cartoonist Justin Green.) It makes sense that Cyrus would recruit Stanciell for a project like this. It's part of a long-term project of reinterpreting text-based painting.

What does it mean hung on a building in the Midtown? One thing that will help make sense of this is that about half of what we call Midtown is historically part of the Third Ward. The Wards started out as political divisions in Houston. They were abolished as political entities in 1915, but have remained to this day as descriptions of large neighborhoods. The Third Ward and the Fourth Ward  were separated by Main Street, which runs down the middle of Midtown. The Third Ward had been quite diverse at one time (with black areas and white areas), but in the post-war era, it became almost exclusively African-American (my old art teacher Stella Sullivan was one of the white "hold-outs" in the neighborhood). But that African-American character has begun to change, especially in the Midtown part of the neighborhood.

Map of the Houston Wards from 1920

Cyrus's statement reads in part:
Initially written on Parisian walls during the revolutionary student movement of 1968, the text here has been rendered by Cyrus and Stanciell in the style of sign-paintings that have for decades characterized the visual culture of black Houston, and re-inscribed it onto the side of a formerly abandoned building at the heart of the Third Ward (increasingly known as Midtown), one of Houston's most actively contested geographies. [...] the nihilistic text becomes ambivalent, at once evincing a pessimistic assessment of the fate of black neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, and simultaneously asserting the optimism of the black freedom struggle.
I asked Cyrus about the piece, and he spoke about the squeeze on the Third Ward from developers on the west and University of Houston expansion on the east. The building he hung the banner on, The Axelrad, appeared to be empty. Perhaps it had been a small apartment building, or maybe a suite of offices. I couldn't tell. But it seemed to be nothing now. I asked Cyrus who owned it, and he wasn't sure of the owner's name, but he had heard that this owner was planning to open a beer garden in the building.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

Later, I looked up the owner on the Harris County Appraisal District website. The owner of this property is the blandly named Brookhollow Venture Ltd. As far as I can tell, this company exist for the sole purpose of owning a small number of properties within two blocks of the intersection of Alabama and Almeda.

Brookhollow Ventures' properties

One of these properties is the abandoned gas station across the street from The Station Museum. The owners have allowed that property to be used for temporary art exhibits before, so one gets the idea that Brookhollow Ventures is friendly to artists. At the same time, you don't just own abandoned properties on the edge of a gentrifying neighborhood for no reason. Such properties are investments to be developed or sold later. It struck me as ironic that Cyrus would use this as his platform for an art piece opposed to gentrification.

The crowd gathered that night was about 50% black and 50% white. They sat around chatting, congratulating Cyrus, and so forth. I don't know if Stanciell was present. I wonder if he sees himself as a collaborator or if it's just another paying gig for him. After all, he doesn't come from the art world like all the people there that night do. For those of us in the art world, a large white banner with an enigmatic phrase on it hanging from the side of a building = art. I wondered what the commuters coming up Alabama from the east would think they were seeing. Would their interpretation sync up with Cyrus's expressed vision?

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets (as seen from a car in the intersection of Alabama and Almeda)

Later that evening, I crossed to the east side of Almeda to take some more photos. An African-American man in a white baseball cap was walking south and asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project. He asked what "THE SHOW IS OVER" meant? I explained that it referred to the changes in the neighborhood. I was careful not to use the word "gentrification." I wanted to see what his reaction was without me coloring it from the start. He was enthusiastic--in his view, the neighborhood had changed for the better.

He moved here from Denver a few years ago, living in a duplex owned by his uncle. As he described it, drug dealers and users would congregate in his front yard--he'd have to call the police at three in the morning to break up fights on his porch. But then they "cleaned up" an apartment building across the street from him and built new apartments next to those, and the presence of more people and a better class of people (i.e., fewer sketchy tenants) on the street had the effect of driving the drug addicts and dealers away. In his view, the gentrification he saw on his own block was wholly positive.

This intrigued me, and I wanted him to tell his story to Jamal Cyrus, so I suggested he cross the street to meet the artist. He begged off--he had just been working for 12 hours in the sun stripping cars, and he was eager to go get a beer. I couldn't blame him. He crossed Alabama and I crossed with him because I wanted to take some pictures from the south-east corner. Another African-American man was walking towards us. The car-stripper greeted him, "Hello, Mr. Jordan!" They shook hands and he continued south. Mr. Jordan asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project and started taking some photos. He asked me if I could spare some change, explaining that he was homeless. I gave him a couple of bucks. Right then a car drove by and someone shouted out, "You better not take my picture!"

Mr. Jordan took that as an opportunity to warn me that I was in a dangerous neighborhood. "You're in the Third Ward! You can't be taking pictures at night!" He suggested that for my own safety that I should go home, and suggested the same for the crowd of people across the street at the installation. Well, I had taken all the pictures I wanted to take, so I took Mr. Jordan's advice. I didn't feel like I was in danger as I walked home--at least not until I got a block from my home in Midtown. There is an abandoned building one block from home with a covering over the sidewalk. It's very dark and there are always one or two people hanging out there. If someone wanted to commit a mugging, it would be a good place for it. I always feel a little nervous walking there at night. It's not like other parts of Midtown, where the sidewalks have lots of pedestrians at night.

But nothing happened, of course. Mr. Jordan may have been just playing a game of "Freak out the white guy." On the other hand, crime happens. And crime, as the man in the white baseball cap implied, is one thing that gentrification can positively impact. Another irony.

And a final irony--who are often in the vanguard of gentrification? Artists. You want a neighborhood to attract artsy people, do installations like A Jackson in Your House. Just beware of unintended consequences.

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