London Review

Having lived in London for a little over a year now, I have noticed that, whether glamorized or demonized, Texas remains fascinating to the British.

Richard Grayson...Messiah...2004...video still...courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery


Detecting a Texas twang, Londoners will either direct you to the site of the Republic of Texas embassy (a building which subsequently was the ticket office for the Titanic, and is now a wine store on St. James Street), or they will launch into an anti-Bush tirade. Despite — or perhaps because of — the strength of feeling, good and bad, about the United States generally and Texas specifically, there has been a spate of shows here recently featuring works from the brethren across the pond. Many of the shows, whether they feature Texans or not, actively explore the tide of evangelism sweeping American society today.

For instance, there’s 100 Artists See God at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, an influential contemporary art space in London. One of the first spaces to show Situationist work in the 1960s under the guidance of Laurence Alloway, the ICA has maintained cutting-edge status in its film, music, and exhibition programs under new director Jens Hoffmann. For 100 Artists See God, guest curators Meg Cranston and John Baldessari included artists presenting subjective visions of contemporary spirituality, highlighting both the current pervasiveness of religion in politics, as well as the extreme diversity of religious interpretation. Situated amongst work by a group of established international artists, the six Texans included in this exhibition offer a range of contemporary visions of God. W.W.J.D?, 2002, by San Antonio’s Reverend Ethan Acres, is particularly fitting for the theme. This vibrant print depicts a pious white man theatrically cowering below a glowing blonde Christ figure, whose pale, lacerated back (and backside) is visible as he ascends above a burning aluminum-sided church. Often equating the hallowed space of the church with the museum, Acres subverts post-modern secularism with fundamentalist kitsch.

Reverend Ethan Acres...W.W.J.D.? ...2002...Collection of the artist. ...Courtesy Patricia Faure Gallery, Santa Monica


In the exhibition catalog, Terry Allen writes that “the only difference I can see in how the culture regards ELVIS, son of Vernon, and JESUS, son of God is, to my knowledge, JESUS never recorded anything called ‘DO THE CLAM.’” Accordingly, Allen’s piece is a small blue neon sign that reads ELVIS, playfully turned upside down and backwards. Jo Harvey Allen made Better Watch Out God Don’t Like a Showoff in conjunction with her play Hally Lou, about a West Texas tent revivalist. Her drawing of a serpent rising above an arid mountain pass is reminiscent of Mexican retablos and Sunday school parable pinups. Eric Niebuhr, a graduate of the University of Houston, took the title for the painting How Fast It Could End, 2003, from the intense ballad “Overheard” by the band Low. The dynamically tangled image in this painting evokes Gericault’s epic The Raft of Medusa, but was allegedly inspired by a dramatic scene from a religious film about the life of Jesus. For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell, 1999, by Tyler’s Victoria Reynolds, responds to the horrific imagery of Dante’s Inferno. Resembling both a bloody slab of beef and gaudy cut marble, Reynolds’s painted panel sees the encounter with God as both intimately primal and delicately mediated.

The show was organized according to medium, with works in each section crowded behind pew-like barriers, spotlighted within dim, gray-walled rooms. Interestingly, all of the Texas-based artists are in the painting section. The video section is a highlight, with two installations — coincidentally by alumni of the residency program at San Antonio’s ArtPace — situating contemporary visions of God within the context of mass media and consumerism. Christian Jankowski’s Holy Artwork (familiar to those who saw it during his residency in 2001) presents a TV evangelist riffing on the nature of art; while Paul Pfieffer shows an NBA star on a tiny flat screen — two projects exploring the objects of mass media worship.

Across town, Hales Gallery’s show Voodoo Shit offers up a darker, more supernatural vision of the divine. Opened in 2002, Hales Gallery shows work by international early-career artists in an industrial space in the newly renovated Tea Building. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Super God Communicator, 2004, a sculpture made of wood, concrete, and electric keyboards, posts prayers and complaints like, “Hey God what are you doing? People are getting killed.” Jock Mooney’s Inventory, 2004, running through the middle of the gallery, casually displays his collection of plastic votive figurines, scattered and bloody, atop plywood planks. The works in this show all reference the supernatural in name or image, but focus on a failure of communication as an opportunity for irreverence.

Another much-discussed manifestation of Texas in London was this December’s Turner Prize for the best contemporary exhibition by a UK-based artist, which was awarded to yet another ArtPace alum, Jeremy Deller. Deller beat out Kutlug Ataman, Langlands & Bell, and Yinka Shonibare for the big award with his piece Memory Bucket, a work involving found objects and a film, which he put together during his residency last year in San Antonio. Deller’s hackneyed presentation of the Texas ethos was greeted locally with tepid praise and even derision, but it was obviously a big hit elsewhere, where the Texas stereotype still has some life left in it. One bright spot in his film involves sublime footage of a colony of bats leaving a Central Texas cave at sunset (indeed, anyone who’s watched this majestic phenomenon from one of the bridges over Austin’s Town Lake can but hardly be moved by it).

In the exhibition catalog, Terry Allen writes that “the only difference I can see in how the culture regards ELVIS, son of Vernon, and JESUS, son of God is, to my knowledge, JESUS never recorded anything called ‘DO THE CLAM.’” Accordingly, Allen’s piece is a small blue neon sign that reads ELVIS, playfully turned upside down and backwards. Jo Harvey Allen made Better Watch Out God Don’t Like a Showoff in conjunction with her play Hally Lou, about a West Texas tent revivalist. Her drawing of a serpent rising above an arid mountain pass is reminiscent of Mexican retablos and Sunday school parable pinups. Eric Niebuhr, a graduate of the University of Houston, took the title for the painting How Fast It Could End, 2003, from the intense ballad “Overheard” by the band Low. The dynamically tangled image in this painting evokes Gericault’s epic The Raft of Medusa, but was allegedly inspired by a dramatic scene from a religious film about the life of Jesus. For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell, 1999, by Tyler’s Victoria Reynolds, responds to the horrific imagery of Dante’s Inferno. Resembling both a bloody slab of beef and gaudy cut marble, Reynolds’s painted panel sees the encounter with God as both intimately primal and delicately mediated.

The show was organized according to medium, with works in each section crowded behind pew-like barriers, spotlighted within dim, gray-walled rooms. Interestingly, all of the Texas-based artists are in the painting section. The video section is a highlight, with two installations — coincidentally by alumni of the residency program at San Antonio’s ArtPace — situating contemporary visions of God within the context of mass media and consumerism. Christian Jankowski’s Holy Artwork (familiar to those who saw it during his residency in 2001) presents a TV evangelist riffing on the nature of art; while Paul Pfieffer shows an NBA star on a tiny flat screen — two projects exploring the objects of mass media worship.

Across town, Hales Gallery’s show Voodoo Shit offers up a darker, more supernatural vision of the divine. Opened in 2002, Hales Gallery shows work by international early-career artists in an industrial space in the newly renovated Tea Building. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Super God Communicator, 2004, a sculpture made of wood, concrete, and electric keyboards, posts prayers and complaints like, “Hey God what are you doing? People are getting killed.” Jock Mooney’s Inventory, 2004, running through the middle of the gallery, casually displays his collection of plastic votive figurines, scattered and bloody, atop plywood planks. The works in this show all reference the supernatural in name or image, but focus on a failure of communication as an opportunity for irreverence.

Another much-discussed manifestation of Texas in London was this December’s Turner Prize for the best contemporary exhibition by a UK-based artist, which was awarded to yet another ArtPace alum, Jeremy Deller. Deller beat out Kutlug Ataman, Langlands & Bell, and Yinka Shonibare for the big award with his piece Memory Bucket, a work involving found objects and a film, which he put together during his residency last year in San Antonio. Deller’s hackneyed presentation of the Texas ethos was greeted locally with tepid praise and even derision, but it was obviously a big hit elsewhere, where the Texas stereotype still has some life left in it. One bright spot in his film involves sublime footage of a colony of bats leaving a Central Texas cave at sunset (indeed, anyone who’s watched this majestic phenomenon from one of the bridges over Austin’s Town Lake can but hardly be moved by it).

Jeremy Deller...Cop with Flowers, San Antonio, Texas ...2003...Courtesy of the Modern Institute, Glasgow © the artist


Down the Thames, in the TATE Modern’s massive Turbine Hall, the Unilever Series is currently presenting Raw Materials by Bruce Nauman. Audio from sixteen different historic Nauman works fills consecutive slices of the Turbine Hall with songs, whispers, and shouts. Through this installation, seminal Nauman works can be experienced through sound alone, focusing visitors’ attention on the artist’s manipulation of language and voice in works that are typically read through their brutal physicality. Through the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases, Nauman takes language beyond its position as signifier, using it as an object with spatial presence in “Thank you, Thank you”, “Feed me, Eat me, Anthropolgy,” and “get out of this room, get out of my mind.”

Farther East, in Mile End Park, Matt’s Gallery evokes the stereotypical sounds and smells of the American country lifestyle in an installation by Australian artist Richard Grayson. Grayson’s video, Messiah, a collaboration with Australian country music band The Midnight Ramblers, is installed in the gallery before rows of hay bales. Grayson asked the band to re-arrange and perform the libretto to Handel’s 1742 Oratorio The Messiah. Removed from the well-known Handel score, the lyrics, which propagate a messianic interpretation of the Bible, resound eerily of the new religious evangelism in American politics today: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” The second part of Grayson’s exhibition, a video mapping the birth charts of leaders currently involved in shaping the Middle East titled Intelligence, will open on January 16. While related in their implication of self-righteous cavalierism, the staggered installation of Grayson’s videos maintains the nuanced context of each of his thoroughly researched narratives.

Although nothing has yet been scheduled, the New Year in London will also see a new project at Lubbock-native Jeff McMillan’s East London space, Pearl Projects. This fall, McMillan participated in the Liverpool Biennial, exhibiting a recent painting in the John Moores 23 Painting Prize show. At Pearl Projects, McMillan has maintained a strong connection with his home state. Exhibitions in the last few years at Pearl Projects have included Hills Snyder and the Reverend Ethan Acres alongside international artists.

Traditionally, artists in London who look towards America have been most responsive to the contemporary art scene in New York, and more recently, Los Angeles. Now, however, not only is the contemporary art scene in Texas becoming more visible and adventurous; but the locus for America’s history and identity is shifting, shedding more light on us, warts and all.

100 Artists See God, Institute for Contemporary Art, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH. Through January 9, 2005.Voodoo Shit, Hales Gallery, 7 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA. Through January 8, 2005. Raw Materials – Bruce Nauman, TATE Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Through March 28, 2005. Richard Grayson, Matt’s Gallery, 42-44 Copperfield Road, London, E3 4RR. Pearl Projects. 28 Old Nichol Street, London E2 7HR.

Images courtesy the artists and galleries.

Lillian Davies is an American writer living in London.

also by Lillian Davies

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