Sunday, October 31, 2021

"With their beards and everything" -- part 2 of the interview with Wes Hicks

 Robert Boyd

This is part 2 of my interview with Wes Hicks about the origins and early years of the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse. In part 1, Hicks discussed the very beginnings of the art space. In this part, I wanted to look at some of the artists who had spaces there or who were just hanging out a lot.

ROBERT BOYD: Now I want to ask about specific people. You've already mentioned a bunch of them. I just want to get from your point of view capsule biographies of them. I'm going to start with Robert Campbell. I know he was a neurologist and did a lot of community work.

This photo is from Texas Magazine published by the Houston Chronicle on September, 17 1989 and was taken by Paul S. Howell. It is obviously not used with permission.

WES HICKS: Robert Campbell was definitely the patron saint of Commerce Street. He saved Commerce Street. Danny, I can't remember his name--he'd owned an art gallery that had shown my work and he was a collector of mine. And he connected Robert Campbell with us. A lot of my friends like Paul Kittelson, David Kidd, Jackie Harris--they were kind of all bailing on the project and never actually got involved. All the people we were counting on to populate this space from Lawndale had other plans. The whole thing was going to go bust, then Robert Campbell walked in and just had the faith in us. He changed everything. He saved the place.

BOYD: OK. What kind of art did he do?

HICKS: He was very eclectic. He was very religious. He was at the time wanting to become a priest in the Catholic Church. They told him that they thought that wasn't a good idea because he'd have to spend years studying, and with his medical skills, he could just become a devout Catholic and help the church work in Central America. And would be better than him becoming a priest. All that sounds crazy.

Robert was very... I don't know how to say it. It was like hanging out with a Buddhist monk or something. He was a really calming spirit at a time when me and Kevin and Deborah and all those other people--we were pretty wild and prone to real emotional situations. Robert could calmly come in and calm things down. I'm not sure how it all would have gone forward in the early days without Robert Campbell. Pretty soon after he got there, he found out he had the AIDS virus. Then it was sort of downhill for him from there.

BOYD: What about Deborah Moore. I know she was your girlfriend, right?

Another photo by Paul S. Howell from the Houston Chronicle. Deborah Moore and her accordion.

HICKS: Yes, she was my girlfriend. I met her through Kevin and Jane at an Urban Animal party. She was this little Urban Animal skatepunk who when I first met her. Full of safety pins and stuff. Hair cut like one of those English models from the 1960s. With a purple streak or something in her hair. I just fell in love with her immediately. I was at her apartment in the Heights one day and there was this incredibly technically-proficient sailboat painting on the wall--quite a large one. I thought it was a photograph, but then when I looked at it, I could see it was a painting. She said she painted it. You can paint like that? You know that much about painting that you can paint that realistically. You could learn from us some other things about painting. You should be an artist! Oh, OK. I always wanted to be an artist. It just went from there. Her role at Commerce Street was she was an incredibly sound business minded person. She took care of the business.

BOYD: I know she was the treasurer, which meant collecting the rent and paying the bills while she was there.

HICKS: She was highly responsible. Deborah was an incredibly responsible human being. And very strategic. And her father was a lawyer--she was working for her father at the time as a legal secretary. She brought all of that expertise with her. That solved all our problems because I had no idea about any of that stuff.

She understood contracts, leases, lawyers. And she wasn't shy about dealing with any of that stuff. Not that there was that much to do compared to what there would be today. Looking back at it, it was all really simple stuff. You get the power bill, you paid it. One of that was really difficult stuff. Even though I could do it, but I was never really the type of person--a steady person like that.

BOYD: How about Kevin Cunningham. He was someone you knew from Lawndale, right?

Kevin Cunningham from the 3-Legged Dog web page. Photographer unknown.

HICKS: Kevin was like my best pal. He's a great guy. He's a real theoretician. He's a great reader and was actually better read that anyone else at Lawndale. The truth about Lawndale was that everybody was a practicing artist there. Surls and Dougan and Moira Kelly--the people who ran Lawndale--most of our teachers like Derek Boshier... it was all hands on. We talked about philosophy and art theory and all that, but there was a distinct anti-intellectual streak at Lawndale which Kevin and I were on the other end because we did like to read and we did read like James Joyce Ulysses and we did want to talk about that. At parties, other friends would laugh at us. So that's what Kevin and I... were really into the world of ideas. That's probably why he stuck around with me. Commerce Street was a big conceptual project from our point of view.

Kevin wasn't there very long. He was only there for about a year. He couldn't make his rent. We probably did have disagreements about the performance bay and the quality of artists we were letting in. I had a very bad take from the Lawndale experience. Basically, if you wanted to be an artist, and you were really committed to it, it wasn't for me to say, oh, do you have a degree? What do you know about art? It was really more about your degree of commitment. Kevin was more about set standards, maybe only let grad students in. And things like that. We probably disagreed about that. We also disagreed about the use of the space. I'm not sure if Kevin left because of disagreements or because of the direction he was moving in, which was towards literature and theater.

BOYD: He told me he moved to New York because Edward Albee and Donald Barthelme said, you're not going to make it as a writer in Houston.

HICKS: There was a lot of that to it.

BOYD: Next on my list is Rick Lowe. You say he was there pretty early on. He must have just showed up in Houston, right?

Nestor Topchy (left) and Rick Lowe (right) transporting some art to a gallery in 1990. Photographer unknown.

HICKS: Rick must have heard about it and he showed up. That was one of the things Kevin and disagreed with is because Rick didn't really have an arts theoretical background, there was some disagreement about whether Rick should be allowed in. I think that's what Kevin and I disagreed on because I thought Rick was committed enough. And wanted to have go at it, and it was all about getting people to go.

BOYD: Steve Wellman. Who is he?

HICKS: Steve Wellman is like my best friend in the world and always has been. We met at Lawndale. He was just painting. Everything about painting we agreed with. We started this thing where he would paint a picture and I would be jealous of how good it was so I would paint the same picture, only better. [laughter] And he would go, you know, I can paint it better than you, so we drove each other all the way through university. By the time we were in our last year, we were collaborating not directly on canvases but in a whole way of thinking about painting and art. Basically we felt like we were developing a universal language that crossed all the arts--music, theater, painting, sculpture. We were looking forward to kind to a kind of multi-media future. We didn't know anything about computers. We saw a future where there was a multimedia super-art form, kind of like the glass bead game--Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game. We were real soulmates. I really was broken up when he didn't get involved with Commerce Street. It makes perfect sense because he's a kind of private person. He was not going to paint in a big public space with a bunch of hooligans all around us.

He shared a studio with Kevin Cunningham. But he never was able to really get into working there. It was too far away from the Heights where he lived. He had to ride a bicycle back and forth. It just didn't work out for him. The way Steve worked was very private. Very quiet. Commerce Street was developing in a direction that was very loud because you had this big open building and a lot of people coming and going. If you weren't able to deal with distractions, Commerce Street was going to be a hard place to make work.

BOYD: How about Carolyn Florek?

HICKS: She built one of the first spaces in the front of the building. She was a very important very important figure painter. She never lived there. I don't know how long she was there for--maybe two years? Three years? She was an important pioneer. A lot of people--Marci Hardin: do you know that name?

BOYD: Yes.

HICKS: Marci Hardin, yeah. Marci Hardin and Carolyn Florek were two people who built out two of the first spaces in the front of the building and kind of defined how the walls were going to go, the standards for the doors. The standards for the electricity run through the spaces. They were real important in that sense regardless of what they were doing artistically in those spaces.

Hand-drawn floor map from October 21, 1986

BOYD: She was there right the beginning--from close to the beginning in 1985.

HICKS: She would have been one of the first tenants, after the five of us formed the corporation. And Marci on the other side. If I had my diaries still, I would have all this stuff. But I don't have it with me. James Bettison was fairly early on, too. Virgil Grotfeldt was really early on. He built a space next to Carolyn's.

BOYD: He was older, right?

HICKS: Yeah, he was an older guy. Rick and I knew him... his wife Deborah was involved with Diverse Works in some capacity. I can't remember what exactly. She wasn't quite the director, but she was working pretty high up at Diverse Works. Virgil had a house painting company and Rick and I worked for Virgil.

BOYD: Let me ask about Nestor Topchy.

This is Nestor Topchy in 2014. Photo by Robert Boyd

HICKS: Yeah, Nestor rolled up. He was sent to us by Moira Kelly. He moved from Baltimore to be a graduate student at UH/Lawndale. When he came down, his parents gave him a station wagon. He put all his stuff in it. He came down to Lawndale and didn't really have anywhere to live, so Moira Kelly pointed him over to us. We gave him some space in the front of the building and it took off. Nestor is one of those guys who gets up in the morning, has art for breakfast, art for lunch, art for dinner. Just a maniacal worker. He had a great time at Commerce Street.

BOYD: There's a guy named Mike Scranton--is that correct?

HICKS: Yeah. Mike Scranton was a sculptor who took over Nestor's studio when Nestor moved out to start Zocalo in the Heights. And Mike Scranton moved into that space and occupied it for well into the 90s. Lee Benner has made some videos about Mike Scranton. I don't know if you've seen them.

BOYD: I haven't.

BOYD: It seems like there were a whole bunch of painters in there.

HICKS: There were a lot of sculptors, too. And a lot of performance artists. A lot of the performance artists and musicians never had spaces there. They just came there. A lot of times, some of them like Kevin Jackson for instance--have you ever heard of him?

BOYD: Yeah.

Cabaret Voltaire flyer, featuring Culturcide, Perry Webb’s (aka Mark Flood’s) band

HICKS: He was in a band with Deborah. He also about the same time. I think he was running Cabaret Voltaire, which was a little kind of punk offshoot alternative music scene place kind of around the corner from Commerce Street on the other side of the railroad tracks. Kevin was really instrumental in a lot of the things at Commerce Street. Things like lighting, electrical problems, sound issues. Getting us totally in-tune with what the latest stuff going on in the alt-music scene. There were a lot of people like that didn't have spaces in Commerce Street but who were really important.

BOYD: John Calloway?

HICKS: John Calloway moved in fairly early. He's a friend of Lee Benner's originally. Now we're pretty good friends. He's an art collector. He owns his own oil company (or did).

BOYD: Was he the one who was trying to teach himself how to be a marble sculptor?

HICKS: Yeah. He was a really interesting character because he imported tons of marble from Carrara, Italy. Giant blocks the size that Michelangelo would have loved to have had. And the same quality, too. He had a helper called Dan, who we called Dan the Man. He was an ex-Marine, but you would have never guessed it, because he was such a lovely, light-hearted roly-poly little fellow. You would have never guessed he was trained to be a marine sniper or whatever. He lived in John's studio with all these giant marble blocks from Carrara, Italy. I'm smiling. It was a real unusual situation. It was really interesting. It was fun.

BOYD: What about James Bettison. When did he show up?

HICKS: He showed up only like about six of seven or eight months after we were going.

BOYD: So that would be 85 or 86, right?

HICKS: There was this kind of wave of artists, especially female artists with Marci Hardin, Carolyn Florek, and I think there were one or two others. And these people were fairly gentle, quiet people. They wanted a place to paint and the way Commerce Street was going with sculptors moving in and the performance bay being a big music, loud, performance scene. I don't think it fit them.

BOYD: One of them would be Liz Ward, right?

HICKS: Oh, yeah. Liz Ward would definitely not have fit in well with Commerce Street because of her quiet, introspective nature.

BOYD: According to my notes, she was there for at most a year.

HICKS: Yeah, she was, but it didn't work out for her. I don't know why, but I bet, just knowing Liz personally, it was too loud.

BOYD: What about Mark Flood.

HICKS: Mark Flood was Perry Webb.

BOYD: Perry Webb, right.

HICKS: Perry Webb was not a shrinking violet so he was quite capable of handling the punk scene.

BOYD: Yeah, he made plenty of noise himself. He had a studio...

HICKS: Yeah, he did a lot of work there, and across the hall from his studio when Virgil moved out, he took over Virgil's space and turned it into a little gallery that he called The Screen Door, I think.  Because it had a screen door on it. And he curated shows there of his interests. He did a lot of his own shows there. A lot of early shows of "Eat Human Flesh"--his first show of that and things like that. And that was a really great addition to Commerce Street. We could hang art up and down the hallway and hang art in the performance bay, but we didn't have a white wall gallery with lights and everything. He did all that. Actually, we adopted that space ourselves. He wasn't paying rent on it. We turned it into the gallery space at Commerce Street.

BOYD: Michael Batty? I know he wasn't at Commerce Street, but he wrote about Commerce Street.

HICKS: Michael Battey was at Commerce Street a whole lot.

BOYD: One of the hangers-on.

HICKS: I don't think of him as a hanger-on, because I think there were the people who added a lot of vigor to the place. They did stuff. Michael Battey was one of the people that...

BOYD: Did he have a studio?

HICKS: No, I don't think he did have a studio. I don't think he was into studio art at the time. He was a writer.

BOYD: He wrote a lot.

HICKS: A lot of these guys like Michael Battey were pivotal in bouncing ideas off and thinking about the way a show should go. The intellectual atmosphere that surrounded the place was completely enhanced by characters like Michael Battey. I have pictures of him in the hallway sitting around with me and Jim Pirtle and Nestor and Rick Lowe. Pirtle standing with his little polyester shirt paintings and everyone drinking heavily and talking. Who knows about what, but we were talking.

BOYD: What about Malcolm McDonald?

HICKS: Malcolm McDonald was so pivotal to Commerce Street that you can't tell the story of Commerce Street without mentioning Malcolm. He created Chez Imbecile with Robert Rosenberg.

BOYD: Also known as Chef Bob.

HICKS: Chef Bob. Robert Rosenberg and Deborah Moore. That was a really important step because they gave me a reason to say that the Performance Bay was working. Chez Imbecile was kind of the first regular thing that went on there, and it brought in tons of people to see the space. Basically, it made a name for CSAW.  ZZ Top showed up.

BOYD: Really?

HICKS: Yeah, with their beards and everything. They just swanned in one night--or several nights. Billy Gibbons came back a couple of times, I think. They put the Performance Bay and Commerce Street on the tourist map for people from the right side of town.

BOYD: Chez Imbecile--what was their deal? Were they doing performance, or what?

HICKS: It was kind of like taking off of modern theater in a sense. It was a restaurant that served spam. Then there would be various performances and dancers and music. The audience was in the middle of it. There wasn't really a defined break between the audience and the show. You were in it. If you came there, you were part of the show. People tended to come there to show off. Some of the performances were planned, and others, people would show up and just do their thing. It was very uncontrolled. And there was also this whole thing with Malcolm. He was a very volatile figure, as you've probably heard. He would lose it occasionally. That became part of the performance, too. It was a pretty amazing dada-istic, fluxus, all that stuff. It was way out there. It was always something to talk about until next week.

BOYD: Was he a visual artist at all?

HICKS: No, I would say he's an MC. He was like an MC.

BOYD: How about Jack Massing. He was there, right?

HICKS: Yeah, Jack came in. He was one of the original people I wanted to come in but he didn't come in with us until later. He built a little, tiny cube space in the performance bay. It was probably only 40 x 40 feet. It may have been smaller, 30 x 30. The ceiling was 20 feet high. He built a little loft in there and Jack filled it with all of his gadgets and little sculptures he was doing at the time. It was really beautiful. One of the most visually, esthetically pleasing studios in the whole space. And Jack used the Performance Bay and did some really amazing performances there. The one I remember the most, they got maybe 100 or 50 truck springs, suspension springs from 18-wheelers and they dropped them out of the ceiling, which was really high. Like I said, it could have been 22, 23 feet. And the springs would hit the concrete floor and then they would bounce madly in all directions. And he did this with an audience of about 50 people standing around in a circle. And some of these truck springs weighed 50 lbs. [It was an Art Guys performance call 50 at Once] If anyone had been hit, they would have been wiped out. I don't know how he rationalized it that he could actually do that to an audience. But he did and it worked out great, and it was one of the most amazing things you've ever seen. The sound and the visuals--it was pretty incredible.

BOYD: You wrote several articles for the Public News. How did that come about?

HICKS: I wrote a lot of articles for them actually because I had always been interested in writing. I was writing the whole time I was at Commerce Street. I have a daily diary. It's real spotty and kind of intimate and probably real whiny. It represents the voice of an immature whatever age I was then. {laughs] Anyway, it would be fun to look at it again. I just kind of gravitated towards the editors of the Public News and said, yeah sure--I'll write for you. They aren't paying anything,  I don’t think. I started writing criticism of art shows.

BOYD: I read your review of Fresh Paint, which to me is sort of the end of a certain era in Houston, when painters were the most important artists there were.

HICKS: I kind of figured I was out of my league writing about art, plus you can't write bad reviews of people you are going to the next art show and hanging out with because they'll hate your guts. I started writing music reviews and stuff like that.

BOYD: How involved were you with music, with rock bands and so on.

HICKS: I just kind of hung out. Like I started hanging out at the Island when the Dead Kennedys were playing there in 1981. When we were running Commerce Street, I got to know J.R. Delgado of the Axiom pretty well.

BOYD: I went to the Axiom back in those days.

HICKS: Commerce Street was really close to the Axiom; we moved our crowds back and forth between them sometimes, like there'd be a late-night show at the Axiom after an art opening at Commerce Street.  We collaborated on things. I think that the poetry slam that J.R. did with Rebecca Johnson while Commerce Street was still going, I think that may have had something to do with people at Commerce Street because we all participated heavily. I don't know if J.R. would have thought of a poetry slam by himself because he was more of the music scene than the art scene. And that was a really big success for the Axiom. Wednesday night poetry slams would pack in 300 people--heavy drinkers--all night, they'd actually throw people out at 2 o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday night. It was great. So anyway, I got into that and J.R. said, look, I'm getting out of the business; this is a big opportunity for you. You should jump in here and take over. You could do it. I said no. Actually, I thought about it but I just didn't have it together so some other guys took it over. They turned it into a real headbanger/heavy metal place.

BOYD: Was it still called the Axiom then?

HICKS: I think they kept the name the Axiom. They only lasted for like six months. Then they lost their lease because they were so inept. They just drove it into the ground. And it was just like an empty building with a shingle hanging out front and J.R. was just, "Somebody's got to do this." So I pulled together some investors for not very much money, so we went in there and gave it a go.

BOYD: What year was that? That was when Catal Huyuk  began? [A little research shows that it opened November 3, 1992 and closed a year later]

HICKS: Yeah. I'm not sure what year it was either. We were really communicating with Public News. It could have been 91 or 90.

It just rolled on. We were open like 7 nights a week. We hardly ever closed for holidays or anything. It's just all one big huge blur to me. It seemed like it lasted six months but before we turned around, it lasted three years or something.

BOYD: Why did you pick such an obscure, intellectual name as Catal Huyuk?

HICKS: That was probably a huge mistake.

BOYD: [laughs] It's interesting that you picked the oldest--that along with Jericho are the two oldest human habitations or human towns, I guess. And that's interesting, I guess.

HICKS: We saw that what was going on at the Axiom really came from the Island--have you heard about the Island? It was in Montrose right next to highway 59 and Westheimer. I believe (I'm not an expert) that the Island was the first punk club in Houston. It started in the 70s. And that's where the scene started. Then it kind of moved finally. I don't know what happened to it, but you know it's gone. That whole scene moved out to the Axiom which was there for who knows how long. So Catal--we felt like we were building on its ruins. You know how those ancient Turkish towns how there are layers and layers of building that built up. All this history. We were just the latest layer on top of that.

BOYD: OK, that's a good reason to name it after the oldest town in the world.

HICKS: And we thought that punk music and this art thing that we were doing was connecting into this primal, Mother Earth thing. Phil Bergeron, the guy who started the club, was my main business partner--were deeply influenced by James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis at the time. And Joseph Campbell. Hero of the Thousand Faces. We were just really living that stuff.

BOYD: I want to talk about leaving Commerce Street. I have a letter--I have no idea if it was ever sent to you--from 1994. It's an eviction letter. I don't even know who it was from, except that it is apparently from people at Commerce Street.

Wes Hicks painting. Photo by Paul S. Howell.

HICKS: What happened is that Deborah left Commerce Street.

BOYD: In 92, I think.

HICKS: She ran off to New York with David Kidd and basically dumped me. I was heartbroken. That's when I met Phil Bergeron. He started Catal Huyuk, and then I got involved in Catal Huyuk and running Commerce Street. Catal Huyuk was a seven-day affair that was actually a business and Commerce Street all fell onto me to run the business side of it, too. To create the bills and stuff. Basically, all the people who at the beginning at Commerce Street had already moved along in their lives and all these new people came in. I was a mess, basically. I was doing so much stuff with the music scene over at Catal. I wasn't doing much painting--zero painting. At one point, I was so confused I tried to go back to art school to study art history. That didn't work out either. Then I had a collapse. It just all collapsed. They evicted me. That's what everybody wanted. It was time. It was time to go. I should have actually gone when Deborah left. I wasn't mature enough or I wasn't focused enough. They made a go--it lasted how many years after that?

BOYD: Until 2007.

HICKS: That's right. They didn't need me anymore. I should have had the smarts to get out of the way, but I didn't. And part of it was that I'd been there so long that I had the 4 or 5 thousand square foot space full of stuff. I was suffering from pleurisy on and off. I was sick a lot. I just couldn't handle it.

BOYD: What did you do after Commerce Street.

HICKS: I moved to the Heights for a little while. Then I got a job as chief preparator with Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin, Texas. I moved there, and then I got involved Tim Adams making animated computer stuff. Thought that that was the greatest end-all be-all deal And Ken and I worked on some projects for...I can't remember his name...This guru... Terrence McKenna. We became Terrence McKenna followers. Then I got involved with the Apple corporation in tech support. There were all these internet startups, we were playing around with that. Then I eventually found Donna in Australia and moved out here.

BOYD: How did you end up in Australia?

HICKS: I'd lived overseas when I was a kid in Indonesia. I was raised in Indonesia. I went to high school at the Joint Embassy School in Jakarta Indonesia. Actually, I went to the same school in Indonesia as Barack Obama. But he was so much younger than me that I never knew him. Then I had an Australian girlfriend named Donna Bryant, then I reconnected with her online and we had a good internet romance and I came out here and never went back.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Interview with Wes Hicks about Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, part 1

 Robert Boyd

In 1985, some grad students in the U.H. art program were about to be kicked out. Their crime? They had completed their degree requirements and were graduating. They had studios at Lawndale, an off-campus site where the UH art department moved to after its on-campus building was damaged in a fire. It had been acting as the U.H.’s art department’s home since 1979. It was an enormous former factory and provided studio space for many of Houston’s best young artists as well performance space. (The story of Lawndale’s rise and triumph is told in Collision by Pete Gershon.) A couple of these art students, Kevin Cunningham and Wes Hicks decided to take their impending eviction and to try to recreate the Lawndale experience. They found a new ex-factory and established an art center containing studios and a large performance space. For legal reasons, it ended up with the name Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, or CSAW for short. In 2016, I interviewed several of the early residents of CSAW. I have finally gotten around to transcribing some of them and editing them.

Hicks is a painter. He grew up in Indonesia, studied art at the University of Houston, co-founded Commerce Street, and lived there until he was evicted in early 1994. While he was there, he ran the punk rock club, Catal Huyuk. This is kind of a long interview, so I am going to split it into several parts. Below is part 1 of my interview with Wes Hicks. In part 2, we’ll discuss some of the people who had studios or hung out at CSAW. The photos included come from various sources and I have tried to identify the source if I know it.If anyone knows where a given photo is from, please let me know!

ROBERT BOYD: You were a student at UH. Is that correct?

WES HICKS: Yeah, I was a student at the University of Houston, and which at the time was mainly Lawndale if you were a painting or sculpture student. We thought of ourselves as students of Lawndale University more than anything.

BOYD: My understanding is that you guys wanted to find someplace that had a similar feel to Lawndale, but that you ran yourself.

HICKS: Well, that was kind of it. Basically, what happened was we were all kind of getting booted out of Lawndale because we'd finished as many of the courses you could take there. They needed us to move along. Because we were seniors or graduate students who finished the program. Of course, we just wanted to stay on, but Gael Stack who was in charge said, "OK, this is your last semester here." I thought the idea was to organize a lot of the Lawndale friends that I had to start a communal art space in the warehouse district, emulating what all Lawndale was but with just us going it alone.

BOYD: How did you find the Commerce Street location?

HICKS: Kevin Cunningham did that. What happened was that all our friends kind of peeled off because basically they thought we were crazy. Except for me and Kevin Cunningham. Kevin knew Lee Benner through the skate scene, the Urban Animals. He took me to a party there in the building at Commerce Street, which at the time was just one big huge empty room with a lot of water on the floor, no lights or electricity, all the Urban Animals were skating around. That's how we kind of found it. We talked to Lee Benner; he knew the landlord because the landlord was Lee Benner's landlord. We just kind of went from there, one step at a time.

BOYD: When you found it, it was you, Kevin Cunningham, Deborah Moore. Rick Lowe was there at the very beginning, right?

HICKS: No, he wasn't. It was basically me, Deborah, Kevin and Jane--Jane Ludham--she was like a support team for Kevin. Then Jackie Harris and Steve Wellman and all those people were just kind of hanging around but no one would commit, so the whole thing looked like it was going to fall apart, then people just started showing up out of the woodwork, like Dr. Robert Campbell, then Rick Lowe. He was in very early on. We had to form a corporation because the landlord couldn't imagine signing a building without a corporate lease back in those days. We had to form a corporation, which as you know is really easy in Texas. Just 250 bucks and you drive to Austin. I think it was me, Robert Campbell, Kevin, Deborah, and Rick Lowe were the original corporate shareholders. We owned the thing, but none of that mattered. It was just for the landlord.

BOYD: So that's where those five names came from--they were on the paperwork, basically.

HICKS: Yeah, and we did have a structure where we would have votes and decide what we were gonna do. There were five of us, so if three voted one way and two voted the other. But we all agreed on everything pretty much. The big thing was about a third of the building in the back.

That was the big thing for me was the performance bay; it's almost a third of the building. It's a big huge empty room with really high ceilings and giant skylights, a massive entrance so that a huge crane could go in and out through giant steel doors. It's just this incredibly beautiful, almost perfectly square space. A little rectilinear with these giant pillars. I really wanted to keep that a communal performance bay that was open to anyone--not just us--that came to us with a good idea. We were going to do shows there regardless of quality or ideological baggage in the sense of "This is our art style--we don't like your art style." It's just going to be open to the public pretty much. I had to constantly fight for that. I think Deborah was pretty much on my side. This was always a bone of contention. Because she could have rented the space out and made all the rents much cheaper.

BOYD: Put up some walls and made some studios.

HICKS: Exactly. From the very beginning I was challenged. Jackie Harris wanted to use the space for her art cars. Make it into a giant art car development thing. From the very beginning, this was the big battle. I think that if I had lost and it had been developed into studios, then Commerce Street wouldn't have been Commerce Street.

BOYD: Kevin Cunningham made a really good point--you give a bunch of artists who are used to working in studios 27,000 square feet, suddenly doing a painting isn't enough. You have to fill that space somehow, and filling that space meant having a party or having an exhibition or having a performance of some kind.

HICKS: Yeah. In essence, that is what Lawndale was. Lawndale had a huge performance bay that was run by crazy, out-there people. First James Surls and then Chuck Dougan then Moira Kelly. And they always brought in really cutting-edge stuff that blew away the whole Houston art scene from Philip Glass doing operas early on; Moira Kelly having the Replacements come and really crazy bands that became famous later played Lawndale. The students were the stagehands, the volunteers who did all the work. That's where we go kind of like an apprenticeship. By the time we were starting Commerce Street, Kevin and I pretty felt like, hey, we can do this ourselves. Because we had learned from Moira Kelly and Dougan and James Surls and everyone how to it, and had worked with people who were masters of their craft on Philip Glass and stuff like that. And even if we didn't actually work with these people --have you ever heard of the band Sun Ra?

BOYD: Yeah.

HICKS: They played at Lawndale a lot, and I just kind of hung around with them and we just absorbed this stuff, as a really young person talking to the Sun Ra guys and telling us how it all goes down and what to do and the lives and touring. It was just a mind-blowing experience. When we had to leave Lawndale, we wanted that. Also, the economic situation in Houston at the time was almost impossible to imagine nowadays. The warehouse district was an abandoned wilderness. Literally a wilderness.

We were surrounded by abandoned warehouses. At that time, they hadn't all started to burn down. In the late 80s, people started to burn warehouses down for insurance money. Also, it was the deindustrializtion of the United States going on. The warehouse we were in was used by Westinghouse to build giant electric motors for ships. That had been gone for like 20-30 years by the time we got there.

[Commerce Street] was a totally black building. No lights. Rubbish in the front. All the toilets were rubbished. Homeless people had been crashing there. It was full of water because the ceilings were leaking. In the very back where Dr. Robert Campbell decided to build his space the roof was collapsed in an area of about 8 by 10 feet. And underneath that, plants were growing. So it was like a cave. In the daytime the sun would shine in. Actually, it was really beautiful. Pigeons and bats were living in there. It was just completely wild.

A photo from the late, lamented Public News in 1985. Photo by T. Ventura.

BOYD: What did you have to do to make it habitable?

HICKS: Well, first we had to get permission from the landlord. And then we just started cleaning up. We made a deal with the landlord that she'd get an electric box for the front of the building. She'd bring the electricity to the building, and she would fix the roof. And once that was done, we'd start paying rent to the tune of I believe $1800 or $2000 a month. Which works out to about 14 cents per square foot, I think if I've got my numbers right. So that's what she did and that's how it started. We had this kind of very tenuous situation with the city, where the fire marshals were coming over and letting us do things that were plumbing and electrical ourselves, as long as we got electricians to come check it and make sure it was all done right. It was kind of an interesting relationship we had with the city.

Because of Houston's laissez faire no-zoning thing, they were willing to let us do really crazy stuff. They were shaking their heads--the fire marshal people. And they did weird things, too. Like one time, we were gonna do a huge benefit for the South Texas Nuclear protest project, because they were gonna build a nuclear plant in South Texas on Padre Island or some place. All these bands were going to play there and do a fundraiser for the protesters. The fire marshal came around and wrote me something like 13 citations for violations, and I knew this guy. He said, you know, if you're open tonight, I'm going to come here and arrest you; then he goes, if you're not open tonight, I'm just going to tear up these citations and we can just forget this ever happened.

BOYD: So what did y'all do?

HICKS: Oh, we weren't open that night. We told the 13 bands or however many there were that the show was shut down, which sucked ass. I can't go to jail and shut down this space. That was the end of that. But they actually moved it to another warehouse space. Some artist who apparently weren't aware of the situation. The fire marshal came there and arrested them and shut down their space. We were always at the mercy of the cops and the fire marshals who made it very clear to me that we existed only because they wanted this.

I don't think the cops really cared too much or the fire marshals cared too much about whether those buildings burned down or not. That was one of the things about Commerce Street, in relationship to the fire marshals and the Axiom, too. Because the way they were set up, you couldn't actually have a fire like those nightclub fires where 200 people died in Brazil and stuff. That couldn't happen in these places because there were all these giant exit doors that were open. Because it was so hot in Houston. People could just stampede out in a fire scenario.

BOYD: Once you started building it out as a studio space, at first it was just one big open space, right? How quickly did you guys build up walls and stuff.

HICKS: Well, actually it was two big open spaces. The back part of the building (the performance bay) was the original Westinghouse warehouse that was built in the 1920s or maybe even earlier. It was all wood with giant cypress posts that were like 18 inches by 18 inches, holding up a giant wooden ceiling. And that's now been demolished and taken away. It's a car park. And then the front of the building was added for war effort for World War II to build electric motors for the Victory Ships.

BOYD: The ones that were turned out pretty quickly for Great Britain.

HICKS: Yeah, exactly. They were making these giant motors there--these huge electric motors that weighed many tons. That's why the foundation of Commerce Street was this big, huge six-foot concrete block. It was because they had many tons of electric motors. It was two giant buildings and there was a wall between them with two big doors. We started almost immediately building walls. People that wanted them. That was totally individual. Some of the earliest complete studios were Dr. Robert Campbell--built his out pretty quick. He picked one of the worst corners of the building to build in. His walls in the back had to be 20 feet high. I don't know how high the ceiling was. More than two layers of sheet rock. So yeah, like 18 to 20 feet tall. And John Calloway built a big studio back there. Jack Massing built a little studio in the back space. And up front we decided where the corridor was going to be, and because of the way the steel beam structure was and the ceiling and the beams. You could kind of see how each space was going to be this rectangle, 1200 square foot. Like 30 ft by 40 ft. We designated all the studio spaces and when you moved in (all the early people), you either hired somebody or you built walls.

BOYD: People lived somewhat in their studios, right? Some did.

HICKS: A lot of people did. Most of the really hard-core artists did because they were young and that's what they had to do. But then about half the people didn't.

BOYD: Did you live in the studio?

HICKS: Yeah, I lived upstairs. There was a front office part of the building--that's where the toilets were and kind of an entrance foyer, and then there was an upstairs. It must have been the executive offices. And that was a big brick building with hardwood floors that were painted over. We put two studios up there and one of them was mine and the other--it may have been Nestor Topchy and Rick Lowe were the first people to occupy that space upstairs. Nestor and Rick were living upstairs with me, opposite in offices. They were in the western wing and I was in the eastern wing.

Another shot from the Public News by T. Ventura. Wes Hicks (left) and Sid the dog (right)

BOYD: What happened in the Performance Bay?

HICKS: The Performance Bay was mostly performances. But then, I gave myself a show there. Mike Scranton had a huge show there. Nestor had a huge big show there. It lent itself really well to big sculptures, like Nestor's spheres, Mike Scranton's dinosaurs. We did hang art on the walls, too. There was a long hallway. There's a long hallway that goes down to the front. We would hang art all the way down that hallway. Perry Webb's gallery could also be filled with art. It was more intimate and small. Also, more delicate because you could actually lock that room up. If something like prints that were more valuable, framed with glass or something, you could lock those up. At this time the building was open to the street 24/7. Nothing really ever happened, but in the middle of the night, drunk people could run up and down the hallway and knock art off the walls. People could ride motorcycles through the building. That’s what Perry Webb provided us with—an art space that looked like a traditional art gallery. It didn't operate like a traditional art gallery. A lot of times we hung art salon style. But I think all the best shows there were not art shows of paintings. Some of them were maybe sculpture shows. But they were soundscape, industrial music, performance; those were the shows that really captured the spirit of the age and the space and the part of the city we were in better than anything, in my view. Things like Crash Worship-- I think they played two shows there. Have you ever heard of them?


HICKS: They were a San Francisco drumming group that would just work up the crowd into a trance, and everybody just starts jumping up and down, lighting fires, and then they just move around the building and break out into the street, this whole crowd becomes incredibly tribal. And they had a huge following in Houston. So 300, 400, 500 people would show up for their shows, and form this big, huge hopping mob. People would pass out and go into speaking in tongues. Things like that were real shamanistic in a way. Real connected with the wilderness aspect. We were in an urban wilderness.


This is Crash Worship playing at The Abyss in Houston in 1997.

BOYD: Back then, streets like Commerce St. didn't have tons of traffic.

HICKS: In the middle of the night there was no traffic. Really after 6 o'clock at night the traffic died down to zero. Also, Commerce St. at that time was six or seven lanes wide. Two or three hundred dancing down the street, half naked, lighting fires and drumming didn't bother anybody. No one would call the police on them. And the police, if they showed up, they'd just watch. It was a wilderness area, an urban wilderness. The warehouses were abandoned around us. People from HSPVA--there was a group of them that would come out to our shows. This is like 86 or 87. And they would do stuff like drop acid and climb around these abandoned warehouses. I was always a bit concerned for them because they went into places that were pretty scary in the dark. In the full moon. We did crazy thing. It was a true wilderness--you could do anything you wanted.

It was an urban wilderness--not like a national park wilderness. We had these industrial music bands like Voice of Eye--have you ever heard of them?

BOYD: No, I haven't.

HICKS: Jim Wilson was one of the founders of Voice of Eye with his girlfriend Bonny. They pioneered a lot of that industrial music in Houston and played at Commerce Street maybe a hundred times. Often to crowds of 10. [laughter] But it didn't matter--it really didn't. Also with the acoustics of the Performance Bay--four people doing industrial, abstract sound--was also incredibly romantic. I felt really connected to the romantic artists of the 17th century. All that crazy stuff.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Some Sculpture Month Highlights

 Robert Boyd

Sculpture in inconvenient. It takes up a lot of space and it therefore difficult to collect. There is a funny quote that is variously attributed to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt: “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” As far as I know, Reinhardt never made sculptures, but Newman did. You can see one of his, Broken Obelisk, in Houston in front of the Rothko Chapel. (And at the University of Washington, at Storm King and at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Admittedly, sculpture can be almost anything now, an idea put forth in the classic essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” by Rosalind Krauss, 1979. The anythingness of sculpture was pushed even further in Thomas McEvilley’s book, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt.

Since 2016, every other year (except 2020) has had a “Sculpture Month” here in Houston featuring a month of sculpture exhibitions at multiple venues across Houston. I want to speak briefly about two of the venues and the sculpture within them. One is a venue I mentioned earlier this week where Nestor Topchy did his performanceThe Silos. Topchy’s performance was part of Sculpture Month (going with the almost infinitely malleable definition of sculpture). The rest of the silos were also used for a variety of site-specific sculptures.

The first one I came across after entering the space was by Shawn Smith called UnNatural Influence, made of plywood, ink, acrylic paint and silk flowers.

It is a classically Texas subject, a bucking bull, but made out of blocks of wood that imitates pixels. In some ways, this feels like a very traditional sculpture—a single, free-standing object meant to look like a specific thing. Praxiteles would recognize this sculpture, except maybe for the pixelation effect. He would have been most amazed by the artificial lighting effect, which combined with the cave-like interior of the Silos provides a dramatic shadow.

That shadow makes me think of neolithic hunters sitting around a fire in a cave, recounting their hunt for the wild auroch. Aurochs were wild cattle in Europe and Asia that went extinct around 1650. There are depictions of them in cave paintings, including four painted on the walls of the caves at Altamira in Spain. And Altamira is the name of this exhibit, perhaps in honor of cave-like interiors at the Silos.

Susan Budge made an installation that made use of the entire silo she had. Stardust features a central object, surrounded by other objects. There is a small floor-level hole in the wall of the silo, into which Budge has placed several ceramic objects and lighted with a warm, incandescent light—in contrast to the dark, bluish light for the rest of the silo. It makes me think of a campfire. Above the central object are star-shaped ceramic figures.

I took them as representing actual stars. In the center of the ceiling of the silo is a large ceramic eye, seemingly gazing down on the scene below. If the theme of the exhibit as a whole is based around our primal need to create as represented by the paintings on the cave wall at Altamira, then what Budge has created perhaps is a depiction of hunter-gatherer types sitting around a campfire with a totem under the stars.

The largest piece was by Kathryn Kelley. Kelley is an artist I’ve written about frequently in the past. Her work always combined a fierce physicality and emotionality and an intellectual underpinning. This probably helps explain why she moved away from the Houston area to get a PhD in studio art. Since she moved, I haven’t seen any new work from her locally, which made me sad. But she’s back for Sculpture Month. This three-part installation is called Disproportionate Dream Fragments, and visually doesn’t seem all that distinct from her earlier work. Instead of using cut-up inner tubes as material, she has found new, grungy recycled material to work with. I always worry that I might catch tetanus from just looking at Kelley’s sculpture.

The rusty bedsprings, the loose nails, all adds up to a somewhat dangerous installation. I know that there are artists who have approached this level of pure grunge, especially assemblagists like Robert Raushenberg, Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, and George Herms (some of my favorite artists). And yet, none of those artists has ever given me a feeling of physical menace like Kelley does.

That chair could kill you.

What these photographs utterly fail to convey is the clautrophobic sensation of being in these silos with the work. Kelley didn’t make it easy to breeeze through—you kind of have to squeeze past stuff to see everything. And I hardly need to say that photographing all the work in a given silo is next to impossible.

The installation seems to represent a homey, domestic interior made from scratch by a troglodytic family who only knew about things like beds, chairs, and wardrobes from television images. Their cargo cultic approximations of “home” are dangerous to use and not terribly functional.

Having said this, I suspect that Kelley has a well-thought-out reason for everything, amply backed by theory and with a highly personal underpinning. This has frequently been the case with her earlier artwork. Kelley keeps a blog, but for the past few years, most of her posts have been about why an artist should write. It feels like a very solopsistic project, an artist writing about artists writing. Lots of quotations and excerpts. Her writing is dense and poetic. I was hoping there might be some clues about Disproportionate Dream Fragments there, but I didn’t see any—nothing obvious, anyway.

The other Sculpture Month show I wanted to touch on was also a group show held at the house of sculptor Michael Sean Kirby. I like house galleries and apartment galleries. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself—my tiny apartment is too cluttered. But Kirby’s house is kind of perfect for this, presumbly because he, unlike me, is capable of keeping it tidy. The show in his house was called “After Altamira” and featured six artists. I’m going to mention two, partly because of all the photos I took that night, they had the only ones that came out good. I do want ot give a shout-out to Ronald L. Jones’ unphotographable installation, Cavity. His work, mostly made of webs of yarn stretched over a space, is extremely difficult to photograph.

Kamila Szczesna is a Galveston artist who often works with spherical shapes wrapped in stretchy materials. But for this exhibit, the spheres came out of their wrappings. The piece above, interwoven, is made of mouth blown glass and hair. The glass spheres look so delicate, like soap bubbles.

Patrick Renner is an artist I’ve followed for years, writing about his work on my blog and for other publications. His work is closer to the assemblagists I mentioned above than Kathryn Kelly art is—one can certainly see a little George Herms in introvert above. With Renner’s assemblage work, the component parts often have a personal meaning. In this case, they include “the only remaining side of a trick music box my paternal grandfather made when I was a kid” and a “bat house that used to be on my parents’ house.”

The spookiest detail was this tiny bat skeleton encased in acrylic.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Browsing Through Zines at El Rincón Social

 Robert Boyd

I can’t remember who told me this or where I read it, but it’s been said that for photographers, the ultimate goal is a book. I think this was said in contrast with other kinds of visual art, where artists might be working towards an exhibition or a museum retrospective or a large public commission. When I heard that assertion, I thought of classic photobooks like The Americans by Robert Frank, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, or William Eggleston's Guide. But a beautiful hardcover book is not the only way to present your work in a permanent published format. There are many publications that do it, and the most modest of these are zines. They are often self-published, but some very small presses put out tiny photobooks. I think of these publishers as the equivalent of small poetry presses. The small press impulse is to me where the vitality of publishing comes from (whether prose, poetry, art, photos, or comics), occasionally bubbling up to larger publishers and more mainstream means of distribution. What this means is that if you want to experience these publications, you have to seek out the world of alternative press—usually through small-scale book fairs or zine festivals. (Or through the mail directly from the publisher—some I’d recommend are Cattywampus Press, X Artists Books, Deep Vellum, Host Publications, and Ugly Duckling Presse. I’ve bought books that I love from each of these publishers.)

This is why I was at Uncle Bob’s Photo Zine Market on the afternoon of October 16. It was a one-day zine festival held at El Rincón Social, a somewhat obscure art space/artists studio complex just east of downtown Houston. I’ve been there many times before and seen a few spectacular exhibits and installations there. The flyer above was apparently designed by @jadeolantern, about whom I can find nothing online. Nice flyer, though!

El Rincón Social is a large, high-ceiling warehouse space with plenty of room for people to set up tables. They had about 15 exhibitors. It was a small festival, but while I was there, it was lively. In a way, this was a warm up for the bigger zine festival occurring next month: Zine Fest Houston will be held on November 13 at the Orange Show. Uncle Bob’s Photo Zine Market seems to have been one in a series of small zine-oriented events leading up to the big day. That seems like a good way to build some enthusiasm, especially given the fact that Zine Fest had to shut down during 2020 for Covid reasons.

I was there to spend a little money on photo zines. The first I bought was This Is Punk no. 1 by Skyler Payne.

Here is Payne manning his very homey booth. This Is Punk is a documentary photo zine about the late, lamented Fitzgerald’s, a rock and roll club in Houston. Payne has apparently been going to punk rock shows since he was 11, taken by his punk-rock parents.

Payne writes on the first page the following dedication:

In memory of Fitzgerald’s

Where many fans found their favorite bands

Where many bands found their favorite fans

I have no idea who this band was, but I like the way that Payne tinted their shirts. I wonder if they ever play “The Dicks Hate the Police” in homage to early Texas punk rock.

Next I stopped by Jason Dibley’s table where he was displaying his monomaniacal zine series, Broomzine. Photos of brooms. That’s his thing.

He may have a personal identification with brooms, since he is as skinny as a broomstick himself. I’ve bought earlier issues of Broomzine, so I asked what was new. I think this is the newest issue.

That is the front cover on the right and the back cover on the left.

And this is the center spread. The whole publication is 18 pages long (17 of which have full-bleed photos of brooms in situ, and one blank page). In stark contrast to This Is Punk, these do not appear to be photos of something that excites Dibley. The broom is a humble object, and focusing a body of work on brooms, shown without commentary or interpretation, a group of photos that are staggeringly mundane, is weirdly moving.

My next acquisition was Eggs Eggs Eggs, a photo-collage zine printed on a single piece of paper, sliced and folded.. It was a clever bit of origami and had the benefit of not needing staples.

It was created by Anastasia Kirages, one of the organizers of this event and of Zine Fest as a whole.

The basic idea is a fried egg plus a thing. Eggs are funny and incongruous juxtapositions are funny.

Of all the photo zines I got that day, the most beautifully designed was Mealtime by Sebastien Boncy. He was manning his table with Julie De Vries.

Boncy also specializes in the mundane in his photos, but his eye looks at the world. One rarely sees a person in his photos—just the ghosts of their presence. Mealtime is full of such ghosts.

The remnants of meals past, the places where people eat. All with arresting compositions and colors.

That was Uncle Bob’s Photo Zine Market. In the entrance was a photobooth set up where a woman was taking polaroids for $5. She said they were raising money for a friend, but I don’t know why the friend needed money, or who the friend was, or who the photographer was. But I spent my $5 and got this polaroid.

This tells me that maybe I shouldn’t wear stripes. A valuable lesson that I plan to ignore in the future.