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An Introduction to Corpus Christi

More than talent, intellect, and originality, Corpus Christi needs some perspective. If the city’s visual art community is ever to leave its comfortable isolation, define itself, and receive attention as a vital part of the state, it must enter a position of mutual responsibility within that larger community. In short, it must get better.

rendering of the proposed Legoretta building (foreground) and the exisiting Philip Johnson building of the South Texas Institute for the Arts (image courtesy STIA)

More than talent, intellect, and originality, Corpus Christi needs some perspective. If the city’s visual art community is ever to leave its comfortable isolation, define itself, and receive attention as a vital part of the state, it must enter a position of mutual responsibility within that larger community. In short, it must get better.

Corpus Christi is located on the southern tip of Corpus Christi Bay. Approaching from the north, one crosses the mouth of the bay on the Harbor Bridge that connects Portland to Corpus Christi. Descending the bridge, downtown Corpus Christi comes into view. Appearing to the left, at the mouth of the port, is the South Texas Institute of the Arts.

Designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1972, the STIA building’s skin is made of a white chipped concrete that blinds in the brilliant South Texas light. Viewing STIA from the center of Circle Park, the building contrasts against the blue sky even on the brightest day. With only the bay behind it, nothing else competes with its presence on the horizon.

Under the direction of Bill Otton since 1993, STIA is anticipating an expansion this year. It is unclear when construction will begin on the 22,000 square foot addition, designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. Modernism figures into a lot of STIA shows. While this sort of programming appeals to a small audience in Corpus Christi, it arguably excludes the majority of the museum’s potential audience in this heavily Hispanic city. STIA is not exempt from the apparent dilemma between attracting a wide audience and fulfilling an educational role. But last year’s summer blockbuster ¡Arte Caliente! filled STIA’s galleries for the first time with the work from a single collector, Joe Diaz. Diaz’s collection emphasizes Chicano art, and included artists like Luis Jimenez, John Hernandez, Vincent Valdez, Alex Rubio, Ana Laura de la Garza, and Kathy Vargas. A well-visited success, the show demonstrated to STIA that a wide audience can be reached without sacrificing the integrity of the artwork and reaching the community at large where they are.

The Art Center of Corpus Christi has occupied its current facilities at 100 Shoreline Drive for well over a decade. In 2002, after triumphing over many setbacks, the Art Center completed its renovation and expansion. The light yellow stucco building is a confluence of Mediterranean and Spanish styles, including a large balcony overlooking the Corpus Christi marina.

The Art Center (whose motto is the astonishingly goofy “For the love of life. For the love of people. For the love of art.”) is the host to thirteen separate artist groups that focus on everything from photography to quilting. Not only does it provide a place for community artists to participate in juried shows, (such as the Dimension Show), workshops, classes, and a membership gallery, it boasts a fully functional ceramic studio, and rents its ample courtyard for fund raisers and weddings. The Art Center, like Art League Houston and the Dallas Contemporary, is remarkable for having survived as long as it has. But its dedication to safe sentimentalism, while guaranteeing contributoins, has cost progress. Hardworking and dedicated volunteers guarantees the survival of The Art Center, but the organization has yet to become relevant to the larger community.

installation view of The Man ShowCorpus Christi's K-Space, October 2004

Though not as visible as the Art Center, the K-Space is a resourceful little space whose notoriety is built on community presence and activity. Established in 1995, the co-op occupies the entire third floor of the old Kress Five & Dime Store (built in 1902) in downtown Corpus Christi. Entering from the stairwell, one enters the 900 square foot gallery space. The remainder of the 7000 square feet is divided into studios that co-op members rent, a common area, and a dark room. A K-Space opening will typically feature work in just about every media. It’s fun, but the work can feel self-indulgent, and the K-Space artists could use some more research, effort and willingness to critically challenge each other.

Further south but still in the downtown area is the Wilhelmi-Holland Gallery. Wilhelmi-Holland is a fixture of Corpus Christi, having at least two shows a year (around Christmas and Valentine’s Day) that consistently pack the house. Founder Bill Holland decided early on to enlist the nationally-known ceramicist (and his partner) Bill Wilhelmi as the permanent resident artist. Wilhelmi’s ceramics are featured in the gallery. Always colorful, they run the gamut from functional to purely decorative. Though the gallery will show artists outside of Corpus Christi, Holland features many local artists including Mark Anderson, Greg Reuter, Phyllis Finley, Deborah Males, and Danny O’ Dowdy.

Artwerks opened just last year. Occupying an unassuming retail store space complete with glass front, Artwerks could not be more contrary to the neutral “white cube” aesthetic. Director Jeff Linthicum single-handedly repainted the walls in a medium taupe, and constructed walls that look like theater scrims lined with Christmas lights. These divide the large space into intimate areas finished off with rugs, furniture, and art. “I mean, you live with art,” says Linthicum of his effort to show work in a more domestic environment. “The Art of Modern Living,” the inaugural opening on May 15, 2004, was well attended. Linthicum teaches children’s and adult’s art classes, and his five studio spaces are fully rented at this writing. What will help decide the success of Artwerks is maintaining high standards for future exhibits. An upcoming show will feature the well-known Latina group Las Comadres, in a benefit show celebrating their tenth anniversary. Proceeds will be donated to various charities.

a recent flyer for Swell

Older by just two months is Swell, the furthest alternative art space from downtown. Located at 3036 Saratoga Blvd, Swell is an ambitious project owned and operated by art student John Medina. The location was chosen for its availability and for the convenience of those who live away from downtown. Studying art for three years at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Medina made many friends before returning to Corpus Christi to continue his BFA at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. His experience in San Antonio made a deep impression on him. “I am interested in showing experimental work that does not just hang on the wall” says Medina. Though interested in bringing the artists he discovered in San Antonio to Corpus Christi, Medina reviews proposals from artists, regardless of where home is. Medina has created some high expectations with Swell. With shows booked through May 2005, Medina is committed to showing quality work above all else.

The most recent effort in Corpus Christi is the collaborative work of artist Jorge Alegría called Residence. “Residence is just that, my living room” says Alegría. Empty of furniture, the front room is used to show work for one night every month of the year. Residence also hosts thorough group critiques where anyone is invited to attend and participate. Residence was also created to fill a need for Corpus Christi artists by stimulating more critical dialogue. Residence independently issued the first of its new series of reviews, R5601, of Corpus Christi shows in December of 2004. “Our goal is to provide an intensive perspective for artists that they might not normally find, and also to set an example for similar efforts that can happen with practically no budget. We have no illusions of endurance. We will remain available to the community until they lose interest.”

Corpus Christi is leaving its cozy position of invisibility. Vulnerable, Corpus Christi can perhaps find the resistance it needs to grow, contribute to other communities, and begin the dedicated process of defining itself.

David Hill lives in Corpus Christi.

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