Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Adobe Abode

A show of some of my photographs is opening this weekend at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Abilene, TX.

The photographs are about an adobe house near Presidio, TX, that was built by the Adobe Alliance and Simone Swan in 1998. The house belongs to Simone, and in the fall of 2007, my partner and I visited Simone and photographed the house. We were spending a couple of weeks in Marfa, TX, and our visit to the Swan house was a side trip. It was a very special evening: we went to Ojinaga, Mexico, across the border for dinner, and this was my first visit to Mexico. Then we slept in the domed out-building, where moonlight streamed in through the tiny skylights in the adobe dome roof. The next morning I got up and photographed the house at daybreak.

Simone's house is different from most of the other adobe houses in the area, in that its roof is also adobe. There are vaulted roofs and one domed roof. Simone learned the technique of adobe vaulting from the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who wrote Architecture for the Poor. His idea was that if the poor folks of Egypt could built their houses entirely of mud, rather than having to buy wood and other materials for the roofs, they could be houses very affordably. The Adobe Alliance has taken the same approach.

Simone's house is also entirely off the grid, powered by solar panels and a windmill. Water comes from an underground well.

The vaults and domes are very beautiful. When we first arrived on Halloween night, the house and its outbuildings were bathed in the rosy glow of the setting desert sun. I photographed Simone beside her house that late afternoon.

The next morning I photographed the view from the roof, across the border, where I could see the lights of Ojinaga twinkling right before sunrise.

In two weeks I am going to travel to the Swan House again for an Adobe Alliance workshop. I am going to document the raising of an adobe vault and talk to members of the Adobe Alliance about their work, in order to write an illustrated article for Cite magazine in Houston.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Not Beauty?

Why is that contemporary artists have such disregard, even scorn, for the beauty of the ordinary world, or of anything? In my last post I wrote about a horrible show at the Blaffer Gallery that revels in ugliness. A recent review of a Vermeer painting, by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, is about what art can do when it acknowledges and adores the beauty of the world, of visual experience.

I remember when I was in art school, I asked, "Why can't we make a photograph about visual experience?" The teacher told me that that would be too boring and not "critical" enough. But visual experience is not boring at all. It's a big part of what makes life worth living. This is what Schjeldahl says about Vermeer's "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher": "Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world." Exactly! Visual art is supposed to make us more alive to the glory of visual experience. Eyeball kicks. Even Neil Cassady, orphan of the Denver streets, knew that.

The Met has another Vermeer painting on view right now: "The Milkmaid." Schjeldahl doesn't love it as much as he loves "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher," but still, Schjeldahl says, "it exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with." Part of the virtuosity is in the color, but it's also in the almost photographic, yet mystically transformed, realism of the painting. Look at that bread, and that copper thing hanging on the wall. What about the wicker basket! No wonder Vermeer only produced two or three paintings a year: the detail in this is as painstaking as one can imagine.

Amazingly, Vermeer painted this when he was twenty-five. Schjeldahl says that the sublimity of this painting resulted from Vermeer's absolute loyalty to "a perceptual realism as thorough-going as the medium allowed." Schjeldahl quotes another critic, who wrote, "Something well worn in Dutch art (like an old shoe) has become something never seen before (like a glass slipper)." Schjeldhahl adds: "That's beauty in action."

The message is that the world is incredibly beautiful, often for only a moment in a certain light. But you have to be alert to those moments. And that's what the subject of art should be: these transformative, illuminated moments. I don't believe that we aren't capable of this, in the 21st century. Of course we are. But we don't seem to believe in the value of it, if our art is any indication.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

L'Enfer, C'est les Autres

Sartre's famous dictum could be the title of a current show at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. Sartre's words are usually translated, "hell is other people," but in this case you'd have to say, "hell is other animals." Maybe there's not much difference.

Jon Pylypchuk uses bits of junk and "scrap," as he terms it, to make paintings and sculptures about a horde of little ferret-like animals who all hate each other. They are constantly fighting and cursing at each other, in the most painful way imaginable. In this dystopian world, fighting is mainly what the inhabitants do, physical fighting that is, interspersed with bouts of insults. Very occasionally, one of them comforts another one with a touch or word, but this is very rare.

The paintings are well-composed. Other than that, they are very ugly. Garish, clashing colors and revolting textures created by disgusting bits of mangled fur are the order of the day. One almost feels as if one needs a bath after seeing this show: it feels unhygienic.

I remember once I found a dead rabbit on my farm. Whatever had eaten the rabbit had left its head. On a whim, I put the head on a stick, a la Lord of the Flies, and paraded it around the neighborhood. I sneaked up behind a neighbor and patted her on the bottom with the rabbit's nose. She jumped, but she didn't scream, to her credit. After this exercise, another neighbor said, "Go wash your hands!"

That's how I imagine Jon Pylypchuk must feel after working on his pieces. Or maybe not. He seems to take pleasure in rubbing our noses in the ugliest sides of human nature. Because in fact animals are rarely as mean-spirited as his little cartoon animals are, or not for long anyway. The worst thing I've ever seen a dog do is take a bone from a smaller dog. Animals don't engage in exchanges like this:

"Cut the act you phony cripple."

"You try living with your legs bent up."

That's the dialogue that goes with the following sculpture:

I can't imagine why the Blaffer gallery decided to exhibit this work. Apparently Pylypchuk has a bit of an international reputation, but that doesn't make it right. The Blaffer has repeatedly shown a preference for "confrontational" (read: ugly and offensive) work like this. I suppose that's because fifteen years ago, ugly art was kind of fashionable and a new idea. But now it has become the academic art of our time. Witness Jessica Stockholder, who also had a show at the Blaffer four years ago. Stockholder teaches sculpture at Yale.

Stockholder's work, while deliberately ugly, at least doesn't add the element of interpersonal abuse that Pylypchuk seems to revel in. I suppose he sees this as progress in the pursuit of ugliness.

Now, it is true that there is a certain representational bent to all this ugliness, particularly in Houston. Houston is ugly. People in Houston frequently treat each other in very ugly ways. It's a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog kind of world, and Pylypchuk's little and big animals could represent the ids of Enron executives and other gangsters. But Pylypchuk doesn't seem abhor the violence of their interactions. He not only records them; he revels in them. He's much worse than Weegee, photographing a crime scene; he's not just a voyeur; he's a participant.

So what's wrong with this? Weegee was a reporter. Maybe Pylypchuk sees himself as a reporter of sorts, but he's also a dramatist and a fabulist, creating sordid fictions to add to the pile of sordid truths. Worse, he finds himself cool because he's so "honest" about the way humans interact. He identifies with the little furry self-pitying animals; they are his alter egos.

The above painting is in fact titled, "my life would be good if I didn't have so much to complain about." One of the little animals in the painting has a piece of white paper emerging from his mouth with these words written on it, like a scroll emerging from an angel's mouth in a Renaissance painting. Obviously, this is meant to demonstrate some self-awareness and wry humor. But this one moment of irony can't outweigh the preponderance of self-pity in the rest of the show.

The real irony is that artists get recognition, fame, and sometimes even money for indulging in their "complaints." One would think that after almost twenty years of artists doing little else, they would be tired of it. The fact that this show is in an academic gallery, though, maybe reveals the bankruptcy of this aesthetic of complaint and ugliness: it's academic art, encouraged in MFA programs, but it's old, it's tired, and it's time for it to go.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Big Lectric Fan

I'm back in Houston, and it's hot. The air conditioner runs pretty much all night to keep us cool while we sleep. I have thought a lot about what it must have been like to live here before air conditioning was everywhere. I guess people had Big Lectric Fans.

Wayne White has been thinking about this too. He's a Tennessee-born artist who has made a career out of making puppets, for PeeWee's Playhouse and the Weird Al Show. Now he's made a huge puppet head of George Jones, one of his heroes and one of mine. George Jones recorded the old song, "Ragged but Right," in the 1950s. The lyrics mention a "big electric fan to keep me cool while I sleep." It's a great song in its original old-time music incarnation. It was cleaned up a bit for George Jones's recording; the persona in his recording is much more of a family man than the persona in the original song, and much more of a family man than George Jones himself was for most of his life.

The fifteen-foot puppet head is in the Rice Gallery at Rice University. This gallery specializes in site-specific installations built especially for the gallery. Wayne White visited the gallery in June of this summer, when the temperature outside was 102. He says that he was lying in his air-conditioned hotel room, thinking about what it was like to live in Houston before everybody had air conditioning everywhere, and the George Jones song, "Ragged but Right," kept running through his head, especially the line about the big electric fan. He remembered that he had a small puppet head of George Jones that he had never made into a puppet. When he got home, he made a small macquette of the Rice Gallery and placed the head in it. Voila! That would be his installation.

When you enter the foyer of the gallery, you see the huge fifteen-foot head lying on its side. The eyes rotate so that sometimes they're open and sometimes they're closed:

Also, there's a rope in front of the piece that allows the viewer to open and close the mouth. When the mouth opens, a snoring noise comes out.

Walking around to the back of the head, you walk past George's flat-top crew cut, which is made out of hollow tubes. Then you see a little hole in the back of his head. Why not look inside? Why, there he is! A puppet of George Jones, inside George Jones's head! A dancing, string puppet, apparently inside a low-rent honky tonk.

Finally, at the base of the head is the eponymous Big Lectric Fan:

There's also a room off to the side called The Ice House. It has a big carved piece of white styrofoam in it, bathed in a bluish light.

The whole effect is fun, funny, and a bit mysterious. There is a video in the foyer in which Wayne White talks about the piece and shows the process of building it. It's basically made out of carved and painted styrofoam. He says that the head reminds him of a relic of a lost civilization that worshiped country music stars. I suppose he means that it looks like an Easter Island head, and it does. And, our society, particularly Houston, does seem a lot like Easter Island: we're consuming ourselves out of existence, and building huge, wasteful monuments to ourselves that require enormous amounts of energy, just as the Easter Islanders did.

The irony is that back in the days of Big Lectric Fans, and at the time George Jones recorded "Ragged but Right" in the 1950s, Houston was still on the cusp of its explosion as a megalopolis devoted to the wasting of energy. In the 1950s, the US consumed about a third of the energy that we do now, and we still were big producers of energy, according to the DOE.
(But, I bet it was hot at night.)

In the brochure accompanying the show, Wayne White writes, "The sleeping figure is one of the great subjects of art....My big puppet head also references Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason.' The peep show inside the head is the unleashed demons." Goya's print read, "The sleep of reason produces monsters." One could say that, again, this puppet head is thus a perfect metaphor for Houston: our ability to reason about where the energy will come from to drive our Big Lectric Fans (which are now Big Lectric Air Conditioners and Factories and Light Rails) has gone to sleep. We think we can invent our way out of the end of peak oil, but we are possessed by the demons of wasteful consumption, those dancing, manic puppets in our heads that are manipulated by advertising and Big Energy.

Wayne White goes on to say, "An all-night, unstopping fan is the merciless and eternal cycle of everything. The puppet head has a moving fan appendage which morphs man and machine into a surrealistic symbol of anxious existence."

At first I thought this was just more artistic bloviating. But wait a minute. Houston DOES feel like an all-night, unstopping fan. I can hear it whirring all night long: trains, planes, and automobiles roar by and vibrate the house. The refineries never stop refining. People never stop moving. The city feels like a machine, and we humans feel like small parts--appendages--in this giant machine. The fan on the puppet is where its body should be; all that's left of the human is the head. The machine IS the body: in Houston, all our bodily needs and functions are fulfilled by machines. We don't grow food; we drive to the grocery store and buy food that has been produced by machines. We don't have to take care of our wastes; we flush them away with a machine. We don't walk anywhere; our car machines take us places. We don't sing or play music; our tv and computer machines entertain us.

And then, for some of us, even our heads and our thinking are controlled by machines. They pull the rope; our mouths open and close. The machine whirrs; we open and close our eyes. Inside our heads, somebody pulls the strings that make our inner demons dance.