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Tasty Tread: ArtHouston: Massive Attack

Given the hundred or more competent artists laboring in kitchens, bedrooms and warehouses here, it was surprising to see the lack of breadth in the talent offered by local galleries under the aegis of ArtHouston. Three strata seemed to emerge after a barrage of gallery openings and 5 x 7-inch cards.

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The first and most troubling is made up of the just-out-of-grad-school wunderkind whose work fails to be anything other than derivative and painful. Second is the vein of pet projects based on gallery owners' tastes in wine, shoe size and favorite vacation destination. Third is the offering of prints, famous works reduced in stature and imitation works done by some boob in the Heights, all of which should be wiped from memory except that I was supposed to go out and see "37 galleries both introducing new artists and celebrating established ones," a mission that I tried to take seriously.

J. Hill's outdoor piece at Sonja Roesch Gallery


1. Graddies n. unripe fruit sold in cold, expensive baskets

The exhibition of works by Mick Johnson and J. Hill at Gallery Sonja Roesch is a spare show. The well-lit gallery is a blooming flower of a space, right up there with the high ceilings and white décor of Lando Calrissian's Cloud City in Star Wars. A black office desk arrests the dreaminess of the gallery, but the art hardly registers in the surrounding void. Johnson's sculpture is the literal prompt for the show's title, onlanguage, with its interjections of hesitation or uncertainty almost written out on cloth strips that are attached to plastic 'periods' holding the 'real thought;' the resemblance to retractable velvet ropes is unfortunate. Hill's work is surprisingly funny, a series of techno-dada one-liners. A digital play on children's telephones made out of paper cups and string is charmingly uncomfortable, but the twitchy cardboard box to its right is a spot-on joke activated by the movement of the viewer.

At the other end of Midtown, right near the future intersection of the Richmond rail line with the existing tracks, Inman Gallery presents two artists on their way up through the artist residency world tour. Gilad Efrat shows four of his photorealistic paintings made up of monochrome swirls, wipes and slices. There's too much palette knife, but the trompe l'oeil effect is tangible, as if we were viewing etchings of photos. In his new work, Carl Suddath cleans up the touching awkwardness of his sculpture, and the results are less attractive than his other work. The garden-tool green on an architectural piece distracts, and the larger size resists intimacy, falling primarily into a commentary on utility. Suddath's drawings from the show are large, full of geometric lines and still hand drawn, but without the erratic and emotional strokes that shine in his other works on paper.

The longest gallery name in these here parts is Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery. One of the sweetest-looking spaces in town, with its cozy garden and lazy southern feel, the gallery over in what used to be called the West End uses the locale well. The burnt wood sculptures by Dean Ruck are lyrical and interesting, but the 'Texas' feel of being firmly tied to natural materials and investing a lot of meaning in the work based on the wood dramatically lowers the bar for viewer interpretation. Darryl Lauster has one of his translucent pink eagles on display as well. For a greater appreciation of Lauster's work, head over to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for 4 Stories 4 Artists , where it soon becomes apparent that if you make anything translucent pink, someone will like it and think it's deep.

What can a show be about if it is titled Venti Americano ? Is it politically conscious consumer culture frustration? A madcap Italian across the pond delighting in all things American? A personal statement immortalizing a regular coffee order during the grueling enslavement of painting day in and day out for a year? Unfortunately it's boring, and nothing in Howard Sherman's artist statement could make me feel anything about this group of paintings. Perfect above a sofa, but really just a remix of the work of several already famous painters, this is a valiant effort to steal that falls flat on its canvas face. McMurtrey Gallery takes a chance here on this UNT, HCC and UT grad, but he needs a little more time in the oven.

I really hope McClain Gallery was responding to the sofa-topping potential of ArtHouston; otherwise I see no reason for it to let this exhibition on the wall. Rob Reasoner's stated goal for his works is "to create a visual experience reflecting his desire for order and perfection." Maybe we should expect perfection to be this boring. The best thing was Googling Rob Reasoner: he's a Chick-Fil-A manager in North Carolina. The highly crafted bulk of the show is an ode to '80s graphics, punched out of steel and given a candy coating; the rest is a group of paintings of colorful vertical lines. I don't know. Maybe a cocaine dealer would like the show.

Len Davis at Hooks-Epstein Gallery


2. Pets n. kept for companionship or amusement

A commitment to abstract art is a terrible thing to waste. Galleries regularly open and close with the sole intention of exhibiting nonrepresentational work. I think that's the point of Wade Wilson Art, but I'm not sure. Introductions , an exhibition of unfashionable abstraction, demonstrates a frustration with the way art is going today, and the gallery website quoting Clement Greenberg drives the point home.

Dean Day Gallery seems to have a devotion to bad representation, one decimal point away from Holiday Inn style. Linda Ruth Dickinson doesn't disappoint with her ocean sunset landscapes, which come across as useless and haphazard elementary school experimentation.

Len Davis uses popcorn in his assemblages ? now how long is that going to last? Using Joseph Cornell as an influence and a crutch, Davis needs to take a step out from under that shadow. The only other element in the work is a boiled symbolism, literalness presented along with illustrative wording. On view at Hooks-Epstein Gallery.

Yigal Ozeri is a very experienced painter, who recently has trained his eye on The Montfort, a 12th-century castle in Israel. On view at The New Gallery are several tepid oil paintings of the scene, but a couple of smaller works display a surprising photorealism, more amazing for their approximation of a saturated '70s color photograph than for their approaching of reality.

Booker Lowe Gallery has picked its horse and is running with it ? aboriginal art. The primativist painting and sculpture on view is raw and inspired. New work by the 'Art Gang' of Queensland, Australia, is led by Fiona Omeenyo. Much of the work is unstretched canvas painted in hypnotically uneven patterning with fingers or splattered with pigment, not the typical aboriginal work by a long shot.

Located just outside Rice Village, Gremillion & Co. Fine Art takes gallery presentation beyond even the level of luxury espoused by maven Barbara Davis: the courtyard, door buzzer and stairwell make an impression long before the paintings of Marie Thibeault appear. This LA painter brings her 2D Julie Mehretu -influenced work to the table in palatable hues. Gremillion is a compound of two buildings, and all galleries and offices are stuffed with delicious paintings. Wandering through the gardens and galleries, poking your head into offices to examine a print or sculpture, you will find that it's well worth the visit.

Christopher Deeton at Barbara Davis Gallery


3. Fakers n. contrived and presented as genuine

Watermark struck a chord with the ArtHouston crowd by setting up bins to allow viewers to flip through photographs as if they were records. Combined with a cool, dark interior and softened modern feel, the bins prove to be a good way to break the ice. The military nostalgia photographs on the wall by

Will Michels, however, fade into the 'chill' vibe. Their close-up shots in soft black and white don't hold much weight, the simulation of a “living history” showing through in the antiquated US military garb and the calm, clear-faced models posing far from the battlefield.

With Sabine Stromeyer, Thornwood Gallery decided to put its best foot forward. Her rough surfaces and collaged natural sponges glow in a deep red hue that is well composed and delightfully superficial. Oh yeah! Never mind that they're just copies of Yves Klein paintings in different colors and with silly titles.

Taking the useless to new heights (up there with Sean Scully), Christopher Deeton has decided to rip off Franz Kline, but with the dyed canvas technique of Morris Lewis. Truly repetitive and demeaning. On view at Barbara Davis Gallery.

Johnny Robertson has called his one-person show at Anya Tish It's all about atmosphere, but his paintings have all the ambiance of a flat tire. Robertson reaches for the light of Southern California but only achieves the gaudy stucco walls of Miami. These flat paintings saturated in pastel shades may go well above white couches.

John Cleary Gallery mounted a great show, as it has in the past, with The Great LIFE Photographers . Of course it's good! It's all those nostalgia pictures Americans have come to know and revere. Not that it's anything new, but it's good to see some Weegee anytime.

Sicardi Gallery installation shot


Finally some Good Shows!

Still in the midst of a massive construction project, The Art League of Houston has jammed its small gallery for one of the last times, and the exhibition Collectors X 3 is a real treat. Drawing from the collections of Clint Willour, Al Souza and Betty Moody, this salon-style show needs more lighting and more air to breathe, but the rare drawings, prints and a few paintings are glad to see the light of day. Former Texas Artist of the Year Luis Jimenez is well represented here, as are the Art Guys and Sharon Kopriva.

The Latin American bent of Sicardi Gallery, next door to McClain, has become ever more hip since the MFAH has begun acquiring the works of modernist South Americans. Marked Pages may be a slice of the next generation: the sparseness and exacting lines of '70s Argentine sculpture is here, but the show is all drawings. Marking a high point of juvenilia, Ricardo Lanzarini's series Emergetes [Emergencies] is a set of fluid and spirited imaginings that meander through interpretations like a schizophrenic. Ana Eckell's collage Tinta Mutante [Mutated Color] is another great work in a similar pubescent vein, a book of anybody drawings familiar to those of us with doodles in the edges of our Trapper Keepers. Not as successful is Miguel Angel Rojas's derivative post-pop, constructed of US bills and coca leaves, and Maria Fernada Cardoso's decadent drawings made with butterfly tongues may comment on art as commodity, but the personality just isn't there. Lots of cut paper and string, and Arthur Luiz Piza's horrible '80s constructions round out an intriguing and coherent show.

Oh, the parties! The Station should be singled out for attention for its openings alone ? the mix of art car patrons thrown into a locals-only mix of artists and anarchists is truly a sight to behold. The anticipated set by Daniel Johnston was abrupt and expected, while Ron English held court with a throng of hip-hop kids and LA people, and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers wandered through the crowd dressed like a pimply teenager from 1980. The gallery ? large, well lit and warm, with fresh wood floors and 12-foot walls ? held room after room of disparate artists. Power Pathos is more about individuals and imagist tendencies, varying wildly in material and style, with Daniel Johnston's outsider reality explored in inspired marker drawings; the Juxtapoz world of Ron English, unabashedly representational and painting oriented; Clark Fox treading pop waters with a clear political bent rare in galleries these days; an almost airbrushed Southwestern gaiety that might actually be useful as the '80s rush back at us, courtesy Anthony Ausgang; and Gibby Haynes' tortured soul gore in underwhelming watercolor rushing at youth angst and solidifying this Texas musician's reputation as a Peter Pan Thug 4 Life.

Deborah Colton decided to split her huge space in two for this year's ArtHouston, and it's quite the split! Daniel Kayne exhibits his Urban-Mix chatter, a jam-packed collection of compositions in metropolitan squalor and debris, most of the snapshots containing all or part of a stencil, sticker or wheat paste. The opening crowd gushed and jostled, pointed at favorites and stared hard. Graffiti artists should beat this schmuck up: he's making money off of others' artworks, sanitizing the process of viewing these works in the ghetto passing by outside your car and lumping them together as anonymous fodder for easy 5 x 7 postcard consumption. Throw in an artist statement about 'spiritual awakening,' and the plastic wrapping is complete. Would this artist, as a spiritual man, wheat paste, tag or otherwise graffiti outside the law? Does the intent of the original artist, more likely from a darker place than Kayne's, have any effect on the viewer and subsequently the buyers of this work? Strewn throughout the other half of the gallery are several constructions and videos by Teresa O'Connor ? who doesn't leave her creation in the hands of others. Tattered furniture and household debris evoke the same aesthetic as O'Connor's gallery mate, but the presence of real objects carries much more weight than their representation. On small screens and eight feet tall on the wall, O'Connor plays out multiple identities. Some, like The Forty-Something Male Singer , succeed in inhabiting a gap between parody and sampled reality. With the impressive backdrop of the city seen from Deborah Colton's window, the understated sculptures and their intimate inhabitants strike a beautiful, alienated minor chord.

Jose Lerma once said that Houston is the only city with more galleries than artists. Until the galleries get beyond this stale stage of exhibiting artists not in town, their doors will be locked to real ambition. I visited 26 spaces out of ArtHouston's total, and it did serve as 'a way to further art awareness during the summer months,' but the portrait was that of the gallerists and their narrow perspective ? the myopic view of a small group intent on their individual priorities. From this vantage point, it really does look as if we're a satellite hick city. Tirades would be appropriate, and art schools in town should be dismayed. It seems that all the artists in town are on their own, and no one is coming to help you.

 

1. ArtHouston Press Release, 2006.

Images courtesy ArtsHouston, Hooks-Epstein Gallery and Barbara Davis Gallery.

Sean Carroll has worked with Project Row Houses, Lawndale Art Center and The Comtemporary Arts Museum. He was also the co-director of the Art Crawl for 2005.

also by Sean Carroll
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