$30,000. The Arthouse Texas Prize is a great amount of money befitting a large state that has, outside of New York and Los Angeles, the largest concentration of working contemporary artists. While this is a fact that those outside of Texas may not be aware of until now, Arthouse endeavors to remedy the situation by shining the spotlight on four smart, innovative, and exciting artists.
Not only does the monetary amount of this new biannual prize make it the largest regional visual arts award in the United States, but it is on the scale of other prestigious arts awards — the Turner Prize, the Beck Futures Award, the Hugo Boss Prize and now Houston's own Hunting Art Prize—and will undoubtedly bring international attention to the visual arts scene in our state while fulfilling one of the primary goals in establishing the prize. With this award, Arthouse drives forward their 90-year mission to “promote the growth and appreciation of contemporary art and artists in Texas” and specifically, seeking to, “highlight artistic potential and acknowledge a body of work that embodies promise, intellectual acuity, personal vision and creative achievement”. A lofty goal, but one that was accomplished with the selection of four short-listed artists that are working in original and inspiring directions: Eileen Maxson, Robyn O’Neil, Robert Pruitt and Ludwig Schwartz.
Engaging arts professionals from both Texas and beyond Arthouse formed a jury comprised of Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze; James Elaine, Curator, UCLA Hammer Museum of Art; Vernon Fisher, artist; Dave Hickey, independent art critic and curator; Kathryn Kanjo, Executive Director, Artpace; Shamim M. Momin, Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art; and Valerie Cassel Oliver, Associate Curator, Contemporary Arts Museum. Their task was to sift though the 117 nominations provided by eighty arts professionals familiar with the Texas art scene and chose a short-list of four artists with the primarily criteria being that the artists are currently, and for the past three years, residents of Texas; are producing a significant body of work; and have not had a solo exhibition in a major museum in the last three years.
Inspired choices they are and Maxson, O’Neil, Pruitt and Schwarz each bring to Arthouse a selection of older work mixed with new pieces created for the exhibition that charts their development throughout the past several years bringing them to this point. Working in diverse media including painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and installation the artists each embody a rigorous approach both aesthetically and conceptually that, in turn, creates a dynamic exhibition.
Robyn O’Neil creates snowy mythical scenes out of pure white paper and graphite pencil. Her narrative landscapes are epically scaled and are populated with small, middle-aged men clad in sweat suits scattered among trees and animals. The newer multi-paneled pieces are consciously referencing art history—these mysterious drawings evoke Italian Renaissance alter paintings, yet the subject matter, while spiritual in the sense of communing with nature, is much more fantastical. In earlier work, O’Neil’s meticulous drawings conveyed a pure, innocent quality yet in her growth, there is now more of a symbolic undercurrent of violence, alienation, and an apocalyptic tone juxtaposed with the beautifully rendered natural elements. An easy interpretation is O’Neil’s comment on humankind’s impact on the landscape but she pushes it so much further then that simple reading by also bringing forth ideas about human connection, alienation, social constructs, and power relationships.
For example with the triptych, As ye the sinister creep and feign, those once held become those now slain, 2004, O’Neil’s mammoth sized buffalo is the center piece. This regal beast watches over the destruction man has wrecked upon himself. Felled trees, hanging men, those brought to their knees by the devastation wrought around them, and those still participating in stripping the barren land are scattered throughout a snowy landscape backed by imposing mountains and a dark turbulent sky. The sinister — mankind — has come full circle, it is now us who are perishing as nature, stronger and ever evolving, has taken its course and watches benevolently as man inevitably generates vengeance upon themselves as they fail to connect with each other.In opposition to the bleakness and melancholy featured in the other work and in many of O’Neil’s previous drawings, As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand, 2005, has a more optimistic tone. This five paneled piece is again inhabited with the artist’s signature men spread among stark trees in a snowy landscape formed by the pure white of the paper. What is different here, are the groups forming between the men as they come together out of their usual isolation. Hugging, joining hands, and lifting each other up, the men connect both one-on-one and begin to form a larger circle echoing the compositional structure—all while embodying a joyfulness and buoyancy lacking in previous pieces. This is a rebirth of sorts, wherein man has united together to rise above and move past the divisiveness and havoc hinted upon in As ye the sinister creep and feign, those once held become those now slain.
Contextualizing both pieces within the exhibition is an earlier small work, And he shall leave his brethren to love that which is flawed and harmless, 2004, which helps to illuminate O’Neil’s process. This piece almost functions as a detail demonstrating the artist’s conceptualization of her epic works as she created multiple drawings as tools to envision the larger narratives. The scene of a single twisting and gnarled tree and one lone man highlights the isolation found in bigger pieces while providing an intimacy and emotional tone that, in its spare simplicity, becomes even more poignant.
Melding found cultural objects with historical materials Pruitt creates new signifiers that remark upon African American identity in the twenty-first century. Presented straightforwardly but with a sense of humor, Pruitt’s sculptures subvert the characterizations of these found artifacts in his altering of ritual objects, items from popular culture and existing forms that carry negative connotations. His juxtapositions create new implications that call into question the object’s original associated meaning and illuminate various stereotypes regarding African Americans.
Several of the works shown expose the violent undercurrent associated with gangs. Presented in a Nike shoebox lined with velvet a .38 caliber prop gun is adorned with a gold Air Jordan logo in Just Do It, 2004. Referencing the popular shoes that many young people were shot and killed for, Pruitt examines the psychology behind achieving a social stature along with the marketing and commercialism that not only blatantly targeted young black males, but also helped to contribute to the frenzy of desire for the shoes, ultimately costing lives. A related sculpture, Glass Slippin’, 2005 is formed by glass shards covering a pair of 1985 Air Jordan high-top gym shoes. Bejeweled and fetishized in a sense, the shoes speak of both of the impact sports icons have on the culture while also emphasizing the discrepancies between the wealth of these successful athletes and the impoverished states of many of their admirers. Pruitt often takes a humorous approach as is seen Bubble Gun, 2005 a colorful conglomeration of chewed gum pressed and molded over an Uzi gun. Here, paradoxically, danger lurks under the surface hidden by the playful and innocuous gum while still sustaining its character as a power object.
A more subtle and elegant work, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2004 consists of twelve gold chains linked together and attached to the wall in sweeping curves. Based upon a map depicting the routes taken by slaves as they left from their original countries, the work is a compelling statement in itself and is also connected to the present in metaphorically, revealing how people have become bound and chained to material culture. Pruitt’s major new work for the Texas Prize is a wonderful confluence all of his previous ideas. More layered in meaning and seeped in collective memory, Do This in Remembrance of Me, 2005 functions on one level as an alter to slain rap starts, and on another level, as an investigation into social and cultural iconography. A table engraved with the phrase “In remembrance of me,” is laid with a variety of objects including a draped table cloth; four white tapered candles placed at the corners; African masks and figures; a bowl of cowry shells; piles of candies (including DumDum lollipops, Tootsie Rolls, and Hershey Kisses); a bowl of hair clippings; Catholic candles; porcelain figures; and jars of other material such as rocks and cotton balls. Underneath the table sits bouquet of flowers and an I-Pod connected to audio speakers emanating rap songs sung by dead musicians.
Connecting past and present, Catholicism and African religions while evoking Yoruban and Santerian alters Pruitt offers both a memorial and mediation on the influence of many rap stars, issues of race and class and the spiritual links between Africanism and African-Americanism.
Ludwig Schwarz aims to critique art world dialectics by exploring various issues such as the allocation and categorization of high and low art along with the positioning of art in relation to consumer culture, popular media, capitalism, politics, and art marketing. Smartly tying together painting, sculpture, video and installation in a conceptual manner Schwarz’s work embodies a theatrical aspect. In an early work, Untitled (for Miss Eva), 2002 the artist melted together multiple diamond and gold rings into a small sculptural tower. Presented on a pedestal with an itemized receipt from the pawn shop where he attempted to hock it, the piece speaks of the commodification of art into investment objects. Additionally he explores the intersection of a high and low aesthetic by taking what is typically thought of as beautiful objects (diamond rings) and creating a monstrous piece of almost un-wearable jewelry.
With his new installation, created for Arthouse, Schwarz revisits these same issues and ambitiously broadens his exploration. Untitled (Family Portrait), 2005 is comprised of eight large-scale paintings, a mammoth wooden crate/carrying case and two video works. Originally a painter, Schwarz has co-opted the process out to other artists; he sends his snapshots and computer compositions overseas where they are reproduced in paint by traditionally trained Chinese artists to his specifications. Walking into the installation is like being part of a bizarre theater set. Assailed with both abstract and figurative works compressing various styles, sounds and moving images Schwarz navigates the viewer through a maze of visual cues that at once takes itself seriously while simultaneously poking fun. One of the most compelling elements are the conventional family portrait rendering Schwarz, his wife, and their various pets—a cat, dog and two birds. Here he not only puts himself up for scrutiny—but following the threads of his ideas regarding capitalism, consumer products and the collision of art and daily life—he is essentially selling himself. The two video components also relate back to both capitalism and the promulgation of media imagery embedded into art. In one work, Schwarz pieces together vignettes that range from slapstick circus performance, to dancing and the documentation of the artist making a transaction at pawn shop; in another, almost hidden behind the large crate, the artist is repetitively utters the phrase “Move the zombies out of here” while working himself up into a frenetic state recalling a whirling dervish spinning around his studio with the camera focused tightly on his face. Schwarz locates his art within both commercial and rarefied spheres yet a sincerity and purity in his approach keep him from becoming too cynical which allows the works to function beyond a straightforward criticism of the world in which it inhabits.
With wit and sensitivity Eileen Maxson’s videos and installations focus on ideas of spectatorship, entertainment media spectacles and how we construe ourselves in a media driven culture. Two of the artist’s early videos are featured within the exhibition charting her interest and development in these concerns. In Michigan, 1971, 2002, the artist combined found footage of a home movie depicting her young parents goofing around with a voice over from her father talking in the present time about his thirty year career with the Shell Corporation. This intimate view into their private moments is off-set by a commentary that, in its removal from the era, becomes a distant rationalization. With Tape 5925: Amy Goodrow, 2002, Maxson assumes a character from a television movie. By portraying this character as she auditions for MTV’s Real World, the artist reveals all of the anguish and emotion the young woman went through as an eighth-grader who had an affair with her math professor. Simultaneously, the tape is fast-forwarded by a disdainful MTV staffer who is concurrently conducting a cell phone conversation while making fun of the girl’s plight. As seen here, Maxson’s creative video explorations into the connection and disconnections between people in a media driven society are the basis for her large-scale work at Arthouse.
Walking up to the entrance Maxson’s constructed beige and tan façade can be seen through the windows. Grand Opening, 2005 is an interactive installation that invites viewers to walk both in and around her imagined storefront and in doing so parades them in front of Arthouse’s windows. This device both engages the passerby on the street while collapsing the space of an anonymous superstore inspired by the 2004 opening of Houston’s huge IKEA store. Colorful plastic flags surround the space and on the opening night of the exhibition, the storefront entrance was initially barred by a red ribbon, making way for perfomative aspect that culminated in a ribbon cutting and official grand opening presided over by the artist, a security guard and the staff of Arthouse. Once the ribbon was cut, a closer view into the interior of the space reveals a television monitor broadcasting fictional News 70’s reportage of the events. An excited consumer (played by Maxson) eagerly awaits the Grand Opening and relays her views on how the store will impact the community and her life in particular. Intentional technical difficulties interrupt the closed-captioned remarks and function to both elucidate the situation and mediate the hypothetical mounting excitement. Maxson humorously examines how the media generates and manipulates events into almost ridiculous spectacles along with how easily people are swept away in the hype and exhilaration of the media attention. By conflating the real world and a dream world the artist punctuates, in an innovative and bold way, how anticipation and expectations can converge to create alternate realities.
It is appropriate that this engaging and monumental installation invites the viewers into the space and fitting that this discussion ends with it as Maxson was chosen as the first recipient of the $30,000 Arthouse Texas Prize. Are these four among the most promising artists in Texas currently? I believe so, and although there is only one $30,000 prize winner, each of these artists, I’m sure, will continue to make great contributions to the art world both in and outside of Texas.
Images courtesy Arthouse
Jennifer Jankauskas is an independent curator and writer living in San Antonio.