The San Antonio art scene has always intrigued me. As a longtime denizen of Houston, I realize that Houston has a lot to offer in the way of art: a wealth of great artists and galleries, museums generally rife with interesting exhibitions, lectures and events — that’s all great. But when I hit San Antonio, I sense a can-do spirit and an intensity that only a smaller city can provide. This year, when visiting during San Antonio Contemporary Arts Month, which goes on each July, I felt this vibrancy as never before.
Now, this was a whirlwind tour, and I saw quite a few things, including a small child on a leash, a greenish-cast pool at my Motel 6 accommodations and the basement of the Alamo. In a 24-hour period, I saw—by the grace of caffeine and chain-smoked Marlboros—roughly 21 shows in 13 spaces, many of them solid. I’ll try to recount a few of them here.
It’s not surprising that some of the strongest work on view was at ArtPace, the “laboratory for the creation and advancement of international contemporary art,” as their website purports. Each of the artists in residence (Marcos Ramirez ERRE of Tijuana, Mark Bradford of Los Angeles and William Cordova of Houston) as well asl Oliver Lutz (New York), who opened in ArtPace’s Hudson Showroom, staged very strong exhibitions. These were the most memorable of nearly all I saw during my stay.
Mark Bradford’s quietly beautiful installation, Travis, inspired by the Travis Savings and Loan Association building adjacent to ArtPace, addresses change and displacement in history and the community. On one gallery wall, Bradford subtly replicates the decorative design on the exterior of the Savings and Loan with a metal die-cut stencil. Bradford has unevenly printed atop plaster and newspaper, and the lovely, distressed effect is that of age and decay. On the opposite wall, he has reproduced the word “TRAVIS” as it appears on the building, but that too has a nicely deteriorated look. In one corner of the gallery lie stacks of an artist-designed newspaper Bradford produced for the exhibition: Travis, cross-examined by Mark Bradford. In it are interviews concerning the shady sale of the real estate and historical details about the site. The centerfold of the publication is richly saturated color — a blue reproduction of the Travis building’s gridded exterior. An ensuing spread illustrates, also in full color, a Mexican-American battle. While this exhibit appears almost minimal on the surface, the amount of labor and research that went into it bleeds through. It’s a surprising and thoughtful approach to the subject, and a perceptive view of the artist’s temporary surroundings.
All of the other exhibitions at ArtPace, for various reasons and with highly differing effects, focus in one way or another on the automobile. Oliver Lutz’ Paint it Black in the Hudson Showroom is cryptic at first. When you enter the gallery space you are met with several large, glossy black canvases, quite lovely in themselves. While studying them, however, you hear the sound of motors racing and when you enter the smaller adjacent space, it becomes obvious that you’ve been hearing the sounds of cars speeding around a track. Video monitors display various scenes from a NASCAR event. The images in the monitors, while photographic, have been made to look painterly. The entire exhibit amounts to a thorough documentation of these events, including photographs and studies on acetate. This venture into another culture, accompanied by paintings that seem to reference black slicks of oil, is multi-dimensional and quite mesmerizing.
Marcos Ramirez ERRE’s The Body of Crime is an ingenious and inventive work, portraying a fictitious assassination relating to a drug cartel that takes place at the U.S./ Mexico Border. The darkened gallery space is dominated by a black Chevy Suburban whose windows have been shot out. The space surrounding the vehicle is littered with bullets, each accompanied by a small, numbered plastic tent, as though the area has recently been investigated by forensic examiners. On one wall a film explores the different protagonists of the narrative: the assassin, the policeman and the victim (all portrayed by ERRE). Mug shots of ERRE’s personae hang on the opposite wall.
The vehicle in William Cordova’s piece, located in the upper gallery, is a police car sawed in half and covered with names of social activists. Cordova’s installation, entitled Moby Dick (Tracy), is a collection of culturally and politically inspired collages, drawings, installations and assemblages. The feel here is that of an urban neighborhood, augmented by a video shown on a small TV set on the gallery floor. The hazy video has a pleasantly noisy soundtrack, and it, together with everything else in the room, makes for a peculiar double consciousness: a pleasant feel for a community that itself is troublingly rife with social unrest.
Each of the exhibitions at ArtPace was intriguing and solid. I wondered, though, how much effort was put into wheeling these vehicles into the gallery spaces. I thought maybe I should drive my beat-up pickup into Mark Bradford’s gallery as a sympathetic gesture just so he wouldn’t feel left out.
Although I was unable to attend the opening party for "Exhibit with a Z" (those San Antonians always know how to party — I missed free tequila and empanadas) with Alejandro Diaz, Kristy Perez and Hector Ruiz at the downtown Soho Wine & Martini Bar, this was right up there among the best shows I saw, even without the food and libations. The bar itself provides an interesting showcase for the works. With the exception of a few of Diaz’ hilarious framed and unframed works on cardboard — my favorite being a cruddy looking gold-painted number with “Mexican Gold Card” scrawled in black Sharpie — all of the works are housed in huge glass display cases. It’s a nice effect, especially with Diaz’ neon pieces, which express sentiments such as “Everyone Will Be Famous For $15,” “By Disappointment Only,” “Happiness is Expensive” and “Wetback By Popular Demand.” I’m not sure what these huge cases are normally used for. I would say trophies, but it doesn’t seem like much of a sports bar. Whatever they normally house, however, the art makes them look better. And although the works of Ruiz and Perez don’t have the dramatic oomph that Diaz’ neon hits you with as you walk in, their pieces, often as witty as Diaz’s, look great. From a distance, Ruiz’s hand-carved wooden figures strike one as something ceremonial and totemic. As one draws nearer, however, the irony becomes clear, as the figures are painted with a Burberry plaid. The glass cases are also a brilliant vehicle for Kristy Perez’ hilarious gilded rawhide dog bones.
Unlike the politically charged works of ERRE and Cordova at ArtPace, the artists of "Exhibit with a Z" all work with identity issues, using a refreshingly humorous approach.
The impulse to lampoon serious issues of race seems to arise frequently here, and it is also found in Cruz Ortiz’s Puffy Taco Plate Company at ThreeWalls. Ortiz peppers his makeshift banners and scattered screen prints with Spanglish ("Noche Hot"); the artist also puts a crudely fashioned catapult in the center of the gallery. I was told it was used to launch beer cans at the opening, but I didn’t witness that. I miss all the fun.
Another thing I came to love about San Antonio was its many artist-run spaces and the whole aspect of chance that sticks to them. Would I be lucky enough to find the gallery doors open? Who could tell me what the art was about? Better still, when I spoke to Michele Monseau, who runs Three Walls, I was told that I could call Cruz Ortiz and ask him a few questions, but that he might not return the call. I didn’t bother. When in Rome…
Though the commercial gallery scene is limited, the offerings here were solid. Joan Grona had three good shows up, my favorite being that of William Amundson, whose quirky, ironic send-ups of suburbia and American culture were totally captivating. Cartoon-y in nature (think Chris Ware), Amundson’s delicate works in colored pencil had titles like Eighteen Custom Family Homes (depicting nearly identical McMansions) and Tree With Sponsors. Each was witty, low-key and delicately rendered. After trekking through miles of politically inspired art, these sly, quiet pieces really stood out.
Also interesting were Estevan Arredondo’s playful works in rich, handmade pigments at REM Gallery. Unlike the experimental or identity-laden works I’d seen around town, Arredondo’s works were something very different: lively abstractions; nicely handled splashes of semi-iridescence. Though works like his wouldn’t be out of place in many of the commercial spaces in Houston, they were an anomaly here. Painting for painting’s sake takes a back seat to statement in San Antonio, for better or for worse. I suppose that after hoofing it through several alternative spaces and experiencing their wares, it may not be so surprising that more conventional white-cube works started looking radical.
San Antonio has a small-town feel, and as in just about any other small town, one starts to recognize the usual suspects. Fortunately, San Antonio has a plethora of interesting and talented usual suspects, so it was nice to reacquaint myself with the works of many that I’ve known for years. In a group show at Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center, "Playing with Time," I came across Chris Sauter’s shed-like construction that showed last year at the now-defunct Finesilver Houston. Filled with large, strange objects that somehow recalled the shapes of both cattle skulls and models of the female reproductive system (I know: weird), together with all the documentation of the piece’s creation, it made a big impression. Videos by Karen Mahaffey, Potter-Belmar Labs, Justin Boyd and Joey Fauerso were also quite strong.
Speaking of the usual suspects, mention must be made of local-girl-made-good Joey Fauerso. Her work showed up in many arenas: in "Binocular Rivalry,"a two-person show with Michael Velliquette at Sala Diaz; at the previously mentioned Blue Star exhibition and as one of the new acquisitions in the San Antonio Museum of Art. I’ve always considered Fauerso’s handling of paint extraordinarily exquisite — she’s one of the best painters I can think of. Yet I’ve always been a tad stupefied by her choices of subject matter. Her current paintings, on view in both the Sala Diaz show and at SAMA, reinforced both notions. She presents us with several magical, saturated landscapes contained within an irregular oval shape. I was intrigued when I was told that the shape mimicked a human mouth, but I remained baffled about the whole thing, as I have occasionally been baffled by similar works of hers. What does it all mean? Her move into video, however, while retaining the beauty of her color sense and brush-stroke, managed to clarify her choices for me, illuminating things that I’d previously found hard to wrap my head around. In one video, inspired by her upbringing, a figure floats in a gorgeous, painterly atmosphere. At one point, the man opens his mouth to reveal the stars and sky that surrounds him. All of a sudden I got it, and the accompanying watercolors made perfect sense.
If a small community is always a bit incestuous, nowhere is it more hilariously staged than at the Cactus Bra show "Art by Osmosis." It’s an exhibition of people who are affiliated with artists in the community (I heard someone call it “the show of people who are sleeping with the artists”), and while it’s wildly uneven and at times downright weird (one person’s partner is a Wiccan and has constructed a mini-shrine), it was fun. Nick Lester (husband of Cactus Bra’s Leigh Anne Lester) made a CD of tunes pertaining to art, and Connie McAllister dressed her mannequin like a personally invented superhero, complete with a lasso of truth and a red “bat-phone” (so to speak). Pretty hilarious. While it was evident that in many (most?) cases the artmaking should be left to professionals, there were some really nice touches. McCallister’s inclusion of vials with pulverized text (presumably there to empower her character), for instance, was a nice riff on Dario Robleto’s practices.
So much to see, so little time, so little space. Let’s not pretend that I’ve represented it all fairly here. Random mention: Constance Lowe’s "Equivocal Topographies" at the Southwest School of Art and Craft is beautiful; her “ink-blot” drawings, delicate works done with colored pencil on film, are amazing.
The offerings of Contemporary Arts Month San Antonio are an interesting mix. Many of the galleries and art spaces are located in or near the Blue Star Arts Complex, and the rest aren’t more than a five-minute drive away. It’s worth making the trip and easy to check it out once you are there — even if you don’t manage to see the basement of the Alamo.
Laura Lark is an artist and writer in Houston.