Saturday, October 3, 2009

Art Zone

At the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, there's a show called No Zoning. The name alludes to the fact that Houston is the only large city in the US that doesn't have some sort of zoning, and that that creates a kind of creative anarchy that artists thrive on.

Well, maybe. It also means that some people have to live right next to refineries, but so what, if it results in great art? Besides, the people that like to go to the CAM and buy the book about the show are not the people who have to live next to the refineries.

The show itself, in the cavernous dark spaces of the CAM, is a bit depressing. There's a big ark of a disassembled house in the center of the space, put there by Dan Havel and Dean Ruck. They took apart a bungalow that was about to be razed, and moved part of its insides to the inside of the CAM for us to look at. It's kind of interesting, and that's about all you can say about it.

Somewhat similar is a boat-making workshop in another corner of the space, where apparently a boat was actually built by Benjy Mason and Zach Moser, but it was gone by the time I got there.

The handrail outside the museum was decorated with some knitting done by a collective of knitters called KnittaPlease. They "tag" signs, handrails, fire hydrants, etc with knitting. It's as if they make cozies, or socks, for various metal things sticking up in Houston. It reminds me of a jokey poem I heard once:

"In days of old when knights were bold and rubbers weren't invented,
They tied a sock around their cock and babies were prevented."

Sadly, the knitting is very ugly: the yarn is awful acrylic and they knit it on huge needles, so there are lots of holes when it's stretched over whatever metal thingy they're covering, and it doesn't look very good. Also, it's never cold in Houston so it just looks strange, and not in a good or edgy way; just in a sort of cluttered, trashy way.

The best thing in the show is the allusion to the work of the Flower Man, Cleveland Turner. I found out about his house shortly after I moved to Houston. His house was covered with fake flowers, dolls, toys, stuffed animals, and just anything colorful or shiny that he could find. I loved it immediately. But sadly, it burned a few years ago.

Then Cleveland Turner moved to a house of his own (rather than a rental) and began working on a new installation, near Project Row Houses in the Third Ward. We drove by it today on the way home. It's not as ornate and baroque as the previous place was, but it's getting there. It sustained some damage during Hurricane Ike, but volunteers helped Cleveland Turner repair his installation.

The CAM invited the Flower Man to make a similar installation outside the museum. Some of his objects were displayed on the lawn in front of the museum, but the rest were locked up in a sort of shed in front. An employee of the CAM told me that Mr. Turner comes by on Saturdays sometimes and gets the stuff out of the shed and arranges it around on the lawn, but he didn't come today because it looked like rain. This is somewhat ironic, because his real installation, on his house, is there to get rained on and bleached by the sun all the time, and that's part of its appeal: the way it has weathered.

The effect of the Flower Man's installation outside the CAM was nowhere close to the way it looks at his house. At the house, the sheer amount of stuff, the crazy juxtapositions of stuff, the wild color and sparkle of it, and the rich texture is what makes it great. At the CAM, there just wasn't enough stuff and it wasn't close enough together.

The theme of "junk" was repeated throughout the CAM: another artist, Bill Davenport, made a mock-up of his junk shop in the Heights, called Bill's Junk. I used to live in the Heights, but he started the junk shop after we left last summer, so I haven't seen it yet. But the Heights has always had great junk shops, and I'm sure his is no exception. Still, the fake one in the museum wasn't particularly interesting.

Downstairs there was another show by an artist named Jason Villegas. Again, it was made out of junk: mostly old tee shirts from thrift stores it seems. It seems as if there is a lot of this kind of sculpture around: assemblage made from stuff that would have otherwise been thrown away. The work in the show I reviewed at the Blaffer last week was largely made out of old toys and stuffed animals. There's nothing wrong with this idea; after all, it goes back to Picasso and Braque, who sort of invented modernist collage. Assemblage is just the three dimensional version. But not everybody can pull this off. A lot of times it just looks like...a pile of junk.

The problem, I think, is the palette: too often a pile of old tee shirts is used willy nilly with some plastic tarps and some painted lumber, and the colors of all this trash don't really go together. It's important to pay attention to formal elements like color even if you're using junk as your medium! The people that do pay attention to color are the ones that do this most successfully I think: people like Thornton Dial, who sometimes uses the junk as texture and then paints it all one color; or people like Jason Villegas, who is careful in his selection of his old tee shirts.

This particular piece looked a bit to me like a Tibetan thanka, or some other artifact of an Asian religion of some kind. The little flags looked like prayer flags to me, and the whole thing looked a bit mandala-like. But the video running next to it made it clear that it is also meant to allude to a used car lot, and the little triangular flags that for some reason always adorn them. The piece is called "UB Sales Banner." So, maybe consumerism is like a religion for us? On the wall a sign said that the objects are "totems that speak to the zealousness of want and the consequence of waste." Ok, maybe. But nobody would want most of the stuff that these "totems" are made out of; the second part seems more plausible, about the "consequence of waste." What it looks to me like is, some future dystopic civilization making use of what it can find, after the apocalypse, to make religious emblems with.

Houston is a junky, ugly place. It's amazing when somebody can make all this junk look pretty good, as Cleveland Turner does. But it's not easy, and most of the artists featured in this show don't really succeed. The Art Guys married a tree, for example, as part of their participation in No Zoning. I'm not sure what this has to do with anything.