Saturday, September 29, 2007

More Sugar Coating, Please

I went to the opening of the Kirsten Hassenfeld Dans la Lune exhibition at the Rice University Art Gallery the other day. I think that much of the experience can be summed up by the following: I was standing around in the gallery, yakking with my friend Patrick Peters, who had his nine (ten? who can tell with these alien beings called offspring?) year old, Anna, and two year old Sophie in tow. Patrick pointed to one of the enormous white lanterns suspended in the space and said, "Look, Anna: everything here is made of paper."

Anna scrunched up her nose, looked very close at the piece and said, "That's not paper. It's styrofoam."

She was referring, of course, to the fome-cor from which the piece was constructed. Patrick and I said, "Good point."

A few minutes later, Anna said, "I think Sophie poo'd her pants."

Now, I saw one of Hassenfeld's pieces at the second Greater New Yorkshow at P.S. 1 a while back. It was this pretty, ornate thing, covered with curlicues and scrolls, and it looked much like a wedding cake suspended from the ceiling, and it was probably about 3' high and a foot and a half or so wide. The detail and the obvious amount of labor put into this project was certainly impressive, but it moved me not. Seeing other pieces of her work, constructed of paper, with diamond-like facets, all in frosty white, I would think, "OK. I think I get it. It's real girly, and I generally like that...but what's the fucking point?"

I guess with the other works I've seen, the labor itself is enough to hold a certain amount of interest. And it does play on all the girlish obsessions: wedding cakes, diamond engagement rings, syrupy sweet furnishings laden with ornate scrolls.

But I think the size really bugs me here. There doesn't seem to be any really good reason for it. And the feel of the installation mimicked, in some ways, the
Eminent Domain exhibition by the designer team White Webb that was recently shown at Rice Gallery. When things that ornate are tiny, they become precious. I am amazed by the intricacies of the miniature, by the craft. Whenever I go to the Art Institute of Chicago and visit the Thorne Miniature Collection, I'm transported. It's obvious that I'm not the only one--judging by the glass in front of each of the tiny, period-accurate rooms, a jillion snot-nosed kids have left their appreciative boogers and fingerprints as evidence of their fascination.

But it's my belief that you can't just blow something up--as Hassenfeld and White Webb have done (and I grant you that the White Webb installation was not designed for the same effect--it just has that Whoops! I just fell down the rabbit hole! thing going)--and expect the same magical effect. I think that the only way that an artist can maintain that level of awe on a large scale is to put the same amount of intricate detail that he or she would put into the laboriously crafted smaller pieces, and overwhelm the viewer. Tara Donovan's insane installations pull it off. And Stephen Hendee's work a few years back at the Rice Gallery, while constructed solely of tape and fome-cor, really created an experience. Dans La Lune doesn't do that. I'm thinking that if I go back at night and the lanterns are lit, the piece will convey what it doesn't in daylight.

But I'm uncomfortable with large scaled work that doesn't hold up upon close inspection. And I'm uncomfortable with large scaled works that seemingly have no reason for being that big. Of course, there's always that magical 'rabbit hole' effect, where we can swing our arms and skip and believe we're at a tea party with ribbons streaming from our starched linen frocks, but when we near the magic lanterns and discover that, indeed, they're only styrofoam, it seems the bubble has burst. And we're left standing with a toddler who's just messed her pants.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Attn: Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.

Well, I have many various and sundry and prickly and irritated things to say about the art and art events I've been privy to lately; however, I thought I'd apprise you all, my faithful Whinybabylanders, of recent doings. What kind of fake art journalist would I be if I didn't?

First, since Mark Flood and I will be opening at Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery on Saturday, October 13 (Flood is in the main gallery), I decided that it would be a good thing to have my website updated a little bit. (Thank you, James Seaborn and Jason Herbst).

Second, and I don't know if anyone read of this or remembers it, but a while back I was asked to help find some art to show on the walls at the new location of
Jenni's Noodle House. I thought to myself, "Oh, this'll be easy. This will be a good opportunity for some under-exposed artist." So I sent out a huge call, and in two weeks, I got a ton of responses, but they were really the wrong kind of responses. I don't know how my emails trickled down to every painter of children and kittens and every photographer of lilies in bloom, but I found myself inundated. I eventually found the work of painter Sandra Skipwith, whose work I like a lot, and we finally put it up.

But my main question was: "What the fuck? Why can't I find some ambitious slacker to make cool graphic work and hang it proudly in the noodle house?" Oh, in my day, when we used to walk to art school through the snow, living on dried lint in our dimly-lit garrets, we would've been proud to hang our work in a heavily trafficked establishment! What is wrong with kids these days?

So, disgusted, I decided to put my own work in there. Dammit, if you want anything done right...

Well, we just installed a suite of six drawings in the noodle house today, and I like them a lot. So if you're out, ravenous for udon noodles, and near the corner of Shepherd and Alabama, check 'em out. They're fabulous! Another triumph!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Booster Shot

My alarm goes off at 5:30 every morning. God knows why; there’s no place I need to be. Much of the time, I lie there, floating in and out of sleep, the informative sounds of NPR wafting through my semi-consciousness. Sometimes, I don’t actually get out of bed until 8 a.m.

This morning at 5:30, however, upon hearing the words “art”, “Vinson and Elkins Law Firm”, “Mayor Bill White”, "Houston" and “world class art world”, I popped out of bed, even though, as usual, my back and ass really hurt.

Listen, I love the blog format. Why? Because I’m not accountable to anyone. Fuck the factual verification department. Whatever I think I hear in some foggy haze is solid enough for me. And dammit, it’s good enough for the Whinybabyland reader.

Anyway, I’m lying there listening to Mayor Bill White say something about the Houston Arts Alliance and our “world class art world”, and I’m thinking: “Houston. World Class Art World.” Isn’t that an oxymoron?

OK, before I start bashing, I want to say that I love the Houston Arts Alliance. I once, like many, many Houston artists, received a grant from them, showed in their 125 gallery, and I’m forever in their debt. But a few years ago, don’t ask me when because time is a big fuzzy blur for me, I remember that some dickhead trotted his ass down to the state capitol and helped change the requirements for what one could constitute as fundable art here in Harris County. It became harder to get those grants. Artists applying for the grants suddenly had to spin a bunch of bullshit in their applications so that jurors would see that their art would tie in with big business. Even more than they had to before. It's called the "heads on beds" factor, meaning that if Houston artists wanted to get their paint-spattered little hands on public money, they would have to prove, basically, that their art would somehow promote tourism in our fair city. I was pretty thick, but then it was explained to me. Hotel rooms. Tourists' heads on fluffy mint-laden pillows. Heads on beds.

The whole notion makes me wanna puke, and I'm not blaming this on any non-profit organization that's trying to dole out money. The Houston Arts Alliance wants to give money to Houston artists. It's just that a bunch of asswipes who wouldn't know a Basquiat from something their dog shat out are in charge of saying who gets what.

Of course, artists who apply for the grant still get the money, but, like I said, they have to spin a bigger web of bullshit. Oh, my art deserves funding because it's good for the community! My art deserves funding because it's going to show people what a glorious city Houston really is! My art deserves funding because it's beneficial for the children!

I actually think that Houston is kinda glorious, in its own way. Driving back from the dog groomer at 7 a.m., I saw the Downtown skyline bathed in a pinkish, hazy glow--perhaps a result of early morning dew, potential oncoming tropical storms, and car exhaust. It was beautiful.

And I like living here. I can do my work without having to live in a dumpster. There are plenty of advantages to being a working artist here, and there are a lot of really great artists living here. But it chaps my ass to no end to listen--even though it was only partial listening--to some jerk politician talk about what a glorious, shining bastion of art we have. It made me think of the "Houston Proud" booster campaign that went on a few years ago. I'm Houston Proud! Say it loud!

With the exception of a few shows and a few art spaces, the Houston art world is a bit like Loehmann's. Oh, it's great quality, and at a great price, but let's face it, it's not hot off the runway. And it also irritates me when politicians talk like that because, on the whole, what they see as Houston's gleaming art world is not really Houston art at all.

Just a few years ago--and again, don't quote me or check on this as accurate--Houston actually got a budget for public art. A few times I was asked (and God, don't ask me why--I think it was that I was the only artist in town who was for certain not going to apply for this) to sit on juried and advisory panels for public art. The first time, we interviewed applicants who were pitching proposals for a Midtown space. There were about 6 finalists, some from Houston and some from around the country, and the job--and I don't think it's actually been put into motion yet--went to the Art Guys. I don't really have any problem with the Art Guys getting the gig--they put together a dynamic presentation and have a lot of public art experience.

But therein lies the rub. None of the other Houston artists had much experience in public art, and why would they? There was never a budget for it before, and, unless an artist was doing the kind of stuff that the Art Guys had been doing for the past twenty years, there was hardly a way to show that, despite their various levels of competence, they could handle a big funded job. The Catch-22 of public art.

Like I said, the Art Guys have been doing this stuff for ages. And their first projects were performative and done on a shoestring, but after several years their gigs went legit. Harrell Fletcher also started doing random public art on a shoestring. No one would give him money, so he basically made up projects on his own, installed them surreptitiously, documented the projects, and went back to the funders and said, "See? I do have experience!"

I also sat in on a panel to meet and discuss the work of an L.A. artist whose proposal had been chosen for downtown. And no, I don't remember his damned name. I'm sure he'll do a fine job. The shots I saw of the other cities he'd worked his magic on looked fab. But this guy has been at the public art game for years. Everything was slick and operated by advanced technology and led screens and blinking lights. How the fuck would a Houston artist begin to compete with such a pro? And why should the dudes with the money gamble on somebody who's been dicking around with cardboard or clay when they've got Ironman over there guaranteeing results?

Of course, there are well-funded opportunities for Houston artists. There are the airports, libraries, public works buildings. But it still grossed me out to hear the mayor, as well as a representative from a huge law firm, laud the art community here when the odds are they wouldn't know the art community here if they saw it.

Oh, my rage against the Man. My rage against the Machine. So very dated. So very tired. It's just that I don't want art that brings in tourism. I don't want art that's good for the children. And I'm getting sick of seeing art that operates on a platform of community service. Go ahead, make some fucking art. Make some good fucking art. And then, at the end of the day, if you feel like it, go out and do something selfless, something purely altruistic. But for God's sake, don't call it art.

Friday, September 21, 2007

You'd be frightened, too.

I just recently started to go to art events and openings again, and they're just as much glorious fun as I remembered them. Amy Sillman's paintings (Suitors and Strangers) at the Blaffer look good. A lot different than the stuff I generally associate with her work. Big, bold strokes, in contrast to her usual style. I used to like her work in the same way I like cute, precocious little children--Oh, Tammy! And is that spot over in the corner where all the villagers go to market to get the food that will make them strong? Not that they weren't good paintings; I always really liked them. But they were very playful, the product of an isolated, idiosyncratic individual. Now they kinda remind me of late Manet or DeKooning in their loose manner. I like these, too. The colors are amazing. And, as with the earlier work, one gets the sense that this is an artist who, as Sillman mentioned in a panel discussion at Rice years ago, is engaged in deep play. Little Amy's growing up.

Also went to Maya Schindler, Will Henry, and Hilary Wilder's openings at Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery . I'd love to comment on the shows here, but unlike some art writers here in Houston, I have problems writing about exhibitions where I show my own work. Call it conflict of interest. Call it sheer terror that Hiram will come after me with his horde of bees. Whatever. Everything there looked fabulous. Another triumph!

But speaking of triumphs, I actually went to an opening of CAM Houston Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper (Curated by Toby Kamps) last night. Oh, sordid events had kept me away for so long. You know how it is when something shitty happens and every time you go out you're convinced that people are looking at you, talking about you, and just plain hating your guts, when, in fact, no one was ever looking at you, talking about you, or bothering to hate your guts. Damn. It makes you feel so special when you imagine that you're universally vilified; how does one go about feeling unique when one finds out that people are really just thinking about reruns of Scrubs?

I don't know about that show, though. When I listened to Nipper talk (by the way, I really like that name! nippernippernipper!), I realized that, while some of the images hung in the gallery were kind of nice, there would have been absolutely no way of knowing any of the reasons for why the work is what it is, or why it has any significant meaning, without reading a tome the size of the Yellow Pages. I'm dumb. I need my art to say what it has to say right there, right in front of me. It's not that I don't find Nipper's scientific research and theories interesting; it's just that if she weren't there to talk about it, I'd just think I was looking at a few printed images. There is a trio of white-framed images on the south wall that are very beautiful from a distance. When you get up close, though, they're all grainy. So no beauty, no craft, no apparent significance. I was a bit dumbfounded.

There was a video of an apple that Nipper mentioned had been, in previous exhibitions, quite largely projected. For some reason, they chose not to do this at the CAM, and I wondered why. Would size have given it more impact? I dunno.

Kamps and Nipper did an ongoing dialogue during the gallery talk, which, of course, was quite illuminating. Kamps mentioned a few times that his interpretation of the work was more pedestrian, that he chose to focus on the "sexy" elements, while she emphasized the science and research. I, like Kamps, tend to read things in a humanistic manner, and if I'd become interested in Nipper's work, I probably would have focused on the sensuality of the movements of the body that she describes. However, neither the sexy nor the scientific seem to be apparent in this show. Like I said, I'm too dumb for most of this shit.

One thing that struck me while going through the gallery--and this thought has struck me quite a few times before--is how impossibly ugly that space is. Really bad feng shui.

Finally, though, I was freaked out by the video projected in the one darkened room, An Arrangement for the Architect and a Darkroom Timer. Nipper put two strangers, a young man and woman, in very close proximity to one another (one person noted that another person had noted that the fact that the two were strangers was bullshit. The second-hand possible mis-quote goes as follows: "Strangers? Those two have been fucking for years!") And they didn't really seem like strangers. If they didn't know one another prior to the video, then surely they must have seen each other at some grubby pot party at a fellow grad-art-school party.

But anyway, that wasn't my problem with the video, which bathed the figures in red light to simulate a darkroom, and was punctuated periodically by a loud darkroom timer. Nipper says that observing these two, their body language, the way in which the woman tended to shrink in the presence of the man, was a prolonged examination of human nature. We don't normally, she said, get in each other's 'spaces' like that. Well, that's interesting enough to think about. North Americans are especially known for their hefty 'space' requirements. We wouldn't be a nation of Hummers if we weren't.

However, this video thoroughly creeped me out for one reason, and a petty one at that. Nipper says that the woman was rather cowed by the man after a period of time. But if you look at the man, how can you blame her from shrinking away? I haven't been so grossed out by a guy since Sean Penn's portrayal of Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. What woman wouldn't be cowed by this menacing, greasy stringbean?

And am I so totally out of the loop? Has the mullet made a return to contemporary fashion? I recently wrote about mullets here on WhinyBabyLand, but I perhaps erroneously assumed that the 'do was, thankfully, a thing of the past. Am I wrong? Has the mullet made a return to the world of the contemporary coif? Tell me it isn't so. Looking at contemporary art and fashion just makes me realize how much of a luddite I truly am. It just makes me want to stay at home, hunker down on the couch, and eat a can of frosting. Not healthy at all for body or mind. The art, not the frosting. Or is it the other way around. I'm so confused.