Friday, December 30, 2016

Art That Moved Me in 2016

Robert Boyd

I included three art things that I saw in 2016 in Houston and vicinity in Glasstire's "Best of 2016" list. To narrow it down to those three, I had to start from a larger list. It was hard to choose the final three--indeed, my top three changed several times.

In the Glasstire list, I included

Various works by JooYoung Choi in various Houston venues
Pat Palermo's Galveston Drawing Diary by Pat Palermo
The Color of Being/ El Color del Ser: Dorothy Hood (1918-2000) at the Art Museum of South Texas

The Glasstire list has a lot of good exhibits that made my long list. I don't want to repeat their work, so here is a brief list of events I liked that Glasstire included in their long list:
Andy Campbell, PoMo Houston Bus Tour
Jamal Cyrus, Untitled, 2010 
Joey Fauerso, A Soft Opening at David Shelton, Houston
As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, The Menil Collection

And here are the some more that I liked that did not make the Glasstire list:

Holy Barbarians: Beat Culture on the West Coast at the Menil featuring John Altoon, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, George Herms and Edward Keinholz.

Part of the reason I was so intrigued by this inventory exhibit was because I recently read Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association by Anastasia Aukeman. This book dealt with most of the artists in the exhibit--a group of San Francisco artists who mostly lived in the same apartment building, along with beat poet Michael McClure. We don't think of the beat movement has having a visual arts component mainly because for a long time, artists like Jay DeFeo and George Herms were ignored by art history. They were out of the mainstream art-historical narrative that was built up in the 60s and 70s, plus they didn't particularly want to be lumped into the beat category. Connor actively resisted it because in his view, "beat" had become a derogatory term used by the mass media to exploit their thing. Furthermore, few of these artists tried very hard to get noticed. They didn't care about being in museums or high-end galleries. All the galleries in San Francisco where they showed their work were small-scale artist-run spaces that lasted a few years at most then disappeared.

George Herms, Greet the Circus with a Smile, 1961,  mannequin torso, salvaged wood, feathers, tar, cement, cloth, plant material, paint, crayon, ink, paper, photographs, metal, plastic, glass, cord, mirror, electrical light fixture, and phonograph tone-arm, 68 × 28 1/2 × 20 in.

The odd men out in this collection are Kienholz--who really was a beatnik of sorts but much more ambitious than DeFeo or Berman--and Altoon, who lived like a beatnik but never was, as far as I can determine, associated with the movement.

In addition to showing a bunch of extremely choice artworks, it also shows several issues of Wallace Berman's early poetry and art publication Semina. Each issue was printed with letterpress on unbound slips of paper. It was truly a 'zine avant la lettre

The exhibit will be up until March 12, 2017.

Jay DeFeo, Untitled (cross), 1953, wood, cloth, plaster, synthetic resin, and nails, 28 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 4 in. 

Earl Staley designs for Faust at the Houston Grand Opera. These designs (sets, backdrops and costumes) were originally created by Staley in 1985. He was traveling in Italy and Greece at the time when the HGO contacted him. All his work for it was done abroad. The painted scrims are done in Staley's expressionist style which works wonderfully for this old warhorse. Every few years these costumes and sets are pulled out of storage and performed somewhere--for example, they were used for an Atlanta production in 2014.

The photo below is of the scrim you see before the opening and between acts. It looks a bit washed out compared to the real thing--it's hard to photograph, apparently. The sets had intense color and deep shadows. This infernal scrim was a remarkable depiction of hell and Satan.

Earl Staley, scrim in the original 1985 production of Faust (courtesy of Earl Staley)

Sharp by Havel+Ruck in Sharpstown.

I wrote about this work in Glasstire. If you haven't seen it, they're tearing it down January 1. (Might be worth a trip to Sharpstown to see it town down.)

Sharp by Havel+Ruck

Faith Wilding at UHCL.

I wrote about this exhibit in Glasstire. Nice show in an unexpected location.

Faith Wilding, Flow, 2010-2016, chemistry vessels, cheesecloth, water, ink

Statements at MFAH featuring Mequitta Ahuja, Nick Cave, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Melvin Edwards, Loretta Pettway, Louise Ozell Martin, Gordon Parks, Ernest C. Withers, Lonnie Holley, Jean Lacy, Thornton Dial, Sr., Jesse Lott, Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Michael Ray Charles, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robert Pruitt, Mark Bradford,  and Tierney Malone. This inventory exhibit got a certain amount of criticism for not having a very interesting curatorial idea. The only thing the artists necessarily had in common was that they were African American. Sure, you'd like an exhibition to have a stronger theme than "here's a bunch of stuff we had in storage by African American artists", but the pieces they displayed were really exciting. The show might not have been greater than the sum of its parts, but did it need to be when the parts were this good?

Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Twinkle Twinkle Little Tar, 2009, 72 x 48 inches, latex, acrylic, pen and ink on paper

What I especially liked was the inclusion of Houston area artists, like Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Robert Pruitt, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Tierney Malone. In a show like this, you expect a clever Glenn Ligon, a striking Nick Cave, a powerful Thornton Dial, etc. But when it makes me feel good to see the local guys work side by side with such giants.

ILYB, Head

I Love You Baby at GalleryHOMELAND, Gspot and Cardoza Gallery.

I Love You Baby (ILYB) was an artist collective started officially in 2002 but unofficially in 1992. It consisted of Paul Kremer, Rodney Chinelliot, Will Bentsen, Chris Olivier and Dale Stewart and included occasional collaborators. They had a three-venue retrospective called We’ve Made a Huge Mistake at Gallery Homeland, Gspot and Cardoza Gallery. I reviewed it and interviewed the surviving members for Glasstire.

ILYB, Boot Face

Michael Tracy, August #2, 2013-2015, Acrylic on cavas over wood, 54 x 48 

Michael Tracy at Hiram Butler

This was a very small exhibit--four almost monochromatic canvases--two mostly black and two (like the one above) mostly orange. My knowledge of Michael Tracy's work is quite limited--I've seen a catalog from a P.S. 1 show, Terminal Privileges, and a book from 1992 showing images and writings about a 1990 performance, The River Pierce: Sacrifice II. I'd never seen work of his in person until I saw this show. Tracy had done monochromatic canvases before (as seen in Terminal Privileges), so that part wasn't a surprise. And his performances seem ritualistic and shamanistic, not unlike Yves Klein's, so the existence of monochromatic paintings has perhaps a connection to the void or the infinite.

But these paintings, as well as a series of painted drawings that Mr. Butler showed me, feel like very specific objects instead of representations of abstract ideas. It was ultimately that specificity that appealed to me.

Katie Mulholland, Mad Rad, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches

Kate Mulholland, Apocalypse Dreams at Scott Charmin.

Kate Mulholland's paintings are created by building paint up then sanding it down, over and over, to create images similar to topographic maps.  I saw her show at the Scott Charmin gallery early this year and was so taken by these paintings that I bought the one shown above, Mad Rad. The red and blue parts are so close in value that they vibrate slightly (an effect impossible to capture in a photo). The title made me think of rads as a measure of doses of absorbed radiation. I don't know if that occurred to Mulholland when she titled it Mad Rad, but when I see it, it feels like I am looking at dangerous, radioactive chemicals.

Emily Peacock, Your Middle Class is Showing, 2016, archival inkjet print mounted on aluminum

Emily Peacock, User's Guide to Family Business at Beefhaus.

I was up in Dallas to see Jim Nolan's show Welcome Stranger (which was quite enjoyable), and Beefhaus across the street was showing Peacock's User's Guide to Family Business. The pieces in the show, which were made from a variety of media above and beyond Peacock's signature photography, all dealt with death and mortality--specifically with the death of Peacock's mother.

I you had (as I have) been following her work for years (since at least 2011, when I saw work by her in the UH MFA show), you would have seen Peacock's mother and other family members guest-starring in her photos. Whether recreating Diane Arbus pictures or posing as Mary with Peacock as Jesus in Pieta poses, her mother has been a major subject of Peacock's work, and a major collaborator.

But then she died. This show touches on that in various ways. For the Groundbreaking Ceremony is a very black shovel leaning against a wall. Its blackness is achieved by flocking (I suspect that if she could have gotten her hands on some Vantablack, she would have used that instead). In her photo Your Middle Class is Showing, Peacock has taken a picture of her own belly sunburned so that the words "Middle Class" are spelled out in un-sunburned skin. On one hand it's witty--it plays with skin color and by using old English style letters, recalls low-rider lettering. But as I looked at it, I also thought of mortification of the flesh, practices of early Christians to subjugate their sinful flesh. Could deliberately burning herself be a sign of guilt? Whatever the motive, the image is one that stays with you.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Some Thoughts about Degas

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Several times in the past, dumb luck placed before me exceptional scholarship on the art of Degas. It happened years ago when I heard Theodore Reff lecture in New York, and again in October when MFAH’s Gary Tinterow and the Louvre’s Henri Loyrette opened “Degas: A New Vision,” and made available to me their exhibition catalogue.

It happened again the evening MFAH invited George Shackelford to lecture on Degas’s personal relationships. To use the artist’s relationships as a spring board to his art, was bound to make a juicy topic, Degas could be strange, an old fruitcake at times, correspondence indicates that in later years he had become insufferable. His prickliness must have accounted for Director Tinterow’s somewhat giddy introduction, “I can’t wait to hear what George has to say.”

Shackelford traced the art across years and locations and identified the individual family members, friends, and acquaintances in Degas’s paintings. His presentation deepened my understanding of At the Races (1869), an elegantly rendered “horse” painting which exemplifies Degas’s desire to capture modern life by depicting the Paul Valpinçon family in their carriage at the racecourse with a horse race taking place in the distance. Madame Valpinçon leans to shield from the sun with her umbrella their infant son Henri, whose tiny mouth is several inches from his wet nurse’s exposed tit. Scrutinizing the maternal activity from the front of the carriage are Monsieur Paul and Paul’s excited dog, the tight back muscles of which are so anatomically precise they practically twitch. In this early painting Degas eliminated the bottom portion of the carriage wheels and horse hooves from the picture plane, skewed perspective which set the tone for compositional irregularity. Foreshortening, off-centering and irregular spacing would continue to characterize his work.

As Shackelford had fun with his topic, I was struck by how purposefully Degas employed descriptive brush handling and unexpected composition. He had been guided by the Goncourt Brother’s directive to precisely portray life with a “living, human, inward line.” Although I haven’t read the Goncourt’s writings since graduate school, I do recall that Edmond Goncourt called Degas sickly and nervous and more skilled in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone he knew, and Jules Goncourt succumbed to the pox.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches

My debauched Louisiana upbringing has me partial to paintings Degas made while he was in New Orleans, so it was exciting to encounter A Cotton Office in New Orleans in MFAH’s exhibition and in Shackelford’s discussion. The 1873 painting illustrates, among other figures in the office, Degas’s New Orleans uncle and mother’s brother, Michel Musson, who is seated in the foreground, and Degas’s two brothers, René, who reads the newspaper, and Achille, who leans against the window. The brothers had relocated to New Orleans from Paris to work with their uncle as importers and exporters of cotton. It’s probably dumb to try to isolate a focal point in a de-centered composition, but I vote for the “Times Picayune” newspaper in the hands of the exceedingly relaxed René, although some art historians would chose the messy waste basket. It’s possible my selection is influenced by having had my picture on the front page of that newspaper (holding a glass of bourbon.)

Degas’s brother René behaved disgracefully. After marrying his New Orleans cousin Estelle Musson, the low life abandoned her and their six children and ran off to Paris with Madame Olivier, a family friend from the Esplanade neighborhood. This was despite the fact that Estelle was blind. In the New Orleans Museum of Art there is a lovely portrait of Estelle painted by Degas when she was expecting their fourth child, for whom Degas served as godfather.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fire Codes

Robert Boyd

On Friday night, December 2, an artists' warehouse/performance space known as Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, caught fire and burned. There was a large crowd present for an event hosted by a Los Angeles record label, 100% Silk. As of now, there are 33 reported deaths.

The interior of Ghost Ship from their Tumblr

Apparently the one staircase leading to the 2nd floor (where most of the people were gathered) was made of wooden pallets. The warehouse has been described as "maze-like, stuffed with furniture, objects, and artworks." I read this and thought of the many art spaces I have been in for which that description applies. For example, the great Fort Thunder in Providence, RI--if a fire had started there, it would have blazed up quickly and killed many. The artists there lived in rooms made of plywood they had built for themselves--they were like highly flammable coffins. But fortunately, nothing like that ever happened.

This past summer, I was researching the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, which was established in 1985 at 2315 Commerce St. in a neighborhood of abandoned and underused structures. CSAW was a vast warehouse that had long been abandoned. It had holes in the roof and a large mostly undivided interior. As soon as artists started moving in, they started building walls to delineate their own studios.

"I built the first wall in the hallway. I was right in the front and people would come into the building and they were right there in my studio," said Nestor Topchy, one of the earliest residents of CSAW. "It funneled people into the core of the building and into the very back performance space."

Deborah Moore, one of the founders of CSAW, told me, "Virgil Grotfeldt did the first walls" which shows the unreliability of memory! "They were aluminum studs, and he built them in one day. I got home from work one day and there's the first studio. He did his and I think he did Marcy Hardin's too. And they just continued from there."

"Each wall was built by somebody else," she added. "Some walls were more impressive than other walls. No code inspection. Nestor built his walls on wheels, which was brilliant, but he got this black stuff that looked like sheet rock. From inside the studio, looking at it, it was like this lovely black sheet rock. It looked great. On the back side that faced into the hallway, it was stamped with big red letters--'Flammable! Caution!' So everybody who walked by had to see that!"

CSAW was well known for big events--plays, bands playing, performance events, etc.

 Scott Gilbert, "The Whole Story" page 1 (unpublished) , pen and ink, 1991

And in retrospect, it's only a certain amount of luck that kept CSAW from becoming a Ghost Ship-style tragedy.

Ad hoc art spaces are important to art scenes. To use a term popularized the year that CSAW was formed, they are "Temporary Autonomous Zones." Hakim Bey wrote, "The strike is made at structures of control." But what if that "control" includes fire codes? In Dallas in recent months, several events at art spaces have been shut down by the fire department for failing to meet code. In Christina Rees's editorial about the situation, she wrote, "To any hesitant attendees: this is the nature of DIY events and it always has been. Buck up and deal with it. Don’t miss the interesting stuff just because a room is a potential fire trap." But after the Ghost Ship fire, I would not discount anyone's fears in this regard.

If you run an art space and you don't have a certificate of occupancy or whatever your local fire department requires, at least keep your place clean and uncluttered by flammable detritus, have your exits marked in some way and have more than one, and have some fire extinguishers around. It's your responsibility to keep people who visit your building safe.