Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When the Political is Beautiful

Ya know, I tromped all over NYC looking for good art last month. I did see some, but for the most part, a lot of it started looking the same. I don't know whether that had to do with the current zeitgeist (crap aesthetic, current war or pre-teen inspired skulls), or the fact that I'd just seen too much of it.

Whatever the case, Anthony Thompson Shumate's Stations at Apama Mackey Gallery is a really refreshing change. "Stations", of course, refers to the stations of the cross, and the theme here is faithful in every detail to Catholic iconography; but in this case, the "stations" are actually filling stations: Gulf, Shell, Mobil, etc. One would think that an approach like this would be more than a trifle heavy-handed. But with the exception of a couple of over-the-top details (the wine and wafers offered at the entrance, for example), this show is so well executed, one gets the political references that are not diminished by the beauty of the works.

Hung in the dimly lit gallery are lit, faux-stained glass panels either portraying an oil company's logo or a view of a service station's sign. Each panel is brightly hued and indeed looks like a panel of stained glass. I was surprised to learn that each was constructed of plastic and resin. The atmosphere is strangely cathedral-like, and projected on the center of the floor is an animation mimicking the Roman Catholic insignia, but with the company logos neatly incorporated into it. One half expects there to be one of those "aaaaaahhhhh" sounds--you know, the ones they have in movies when Jesus appears before you--transmitted throughout the gallery, but instead it is appropriately silent. You just get that "aaaaaahhhhh" feel.

In the back part of the gallery, there are novena candles with the same images of the stations on them, along with a number of candles. Like the front gallery, it's solemn. It feels like you should get down and do some serious genuflecting. At first, I thought that this detail, like the wine and wafers at the front, was a little too much, but when I sat with it, I changed my mind. This exhibition is so well-executed, you find yourself a tad confused. Why do I get this feeling of solemnity and worshipfulness in a place with a bunch of oil company logos? Why do I come this close to saying a prayer before a bunch of kitschily decorated candles?

It's all in the atmosphere. I probably woulda gotten the same feeling from signs that said Pepsi and Target in that setting, though the "Stations" theme, at once almost too clever, becomes sublime. I mean, we all know that we're a nation of blindly worshiping gas-guzzlers; it's not as if we need a work of art to tell us that. And generally, when it does, I for one roll my eyes and run for the hills. But, like I said, Shumate makes it work here by presenting such a nice product. You get it, and that's good. But it's elegant and put together quite nicely, so the message feels less pounded into you than placed before you in an artistic sleight of hand.

On another note, I'm quite taken by Apama Mackey's funky, galleristic transformation. I thought that her last space was quite lovely, but this new spot on 11th, with its affixed shipping containers and semi-enclosed porches, feels really Houston. Kind of like an upscale ice house. I'm always interested in what Mackey's up to. She has a passion and enthusiasm that crosses over any line that could be considered practical, and it seems like she's not afraid of anything. Sure, sometimes she's up, sometimes she's down, but she's always looking for new things to show, and she's always fearless in her endeavors. Of course, most gallerists can't afford to do what she does, and I have no idea how she keeps her projects afloat (although working with the Clayton Brothers was most certainly a savvy move) but she's got the kind of energy that Houston needs. I mean, you can do anything here. That's one of things that makes being here more interesting than New York. It's too bad most people don't remember that.