Like anything else, very good or great exhibitions are far and few between. Like everything else, you have to sift through the crap for the jewels. So to have two jewels in Houston concurrently is rather nice. Usually the must-sees are staggered throughout any given year. Unfortunately, one of the must-miss shows is also on view at the same time and same place as one of these jewels. In hierarchical order of quality, here they be:
1. Superb – Every Sound You Can Imagine at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
2. Great – American Civil War Field Notes: Sketches From Cairo to Columbia at O’Kane Gallery, University of Houston Downtown
3. God-awful – Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Avoid like the plague the video show at CAM. I tried to but couldn’t. Or didn’t. Should’ve.
In the upstairs gallery  the bottom rail on top but that’s a mistake. I was on my way out of the show in the downstairs gallery  and was about to leave and then out of some guilty sense of obligation I went ahead and took a peep (which is the correct term for describing how to view this show. More on that in a minute…). When any show’s subtitle contains stuff like "works by black artists" or "gay artists" or "blind artists" or "anything but just plain artists" you know you’re in trouble. Why on earth does this show have the criterion that all the participants are black women? What a completely stupid loser idea. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who would align themselves like this or agree to have their work in a show with a subtitle like this is either really desperate or really awful or really stupid or some combination of the three. Don’t believe me? How about this for a title/show idea? – "Swish or Sweet: Gay Artists of New York in the Early ’60’s." The dumbass curator for that limp-lame idea would include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, etc. See what I mean? Pretty goddamn stupid, no? And do you think any of those guys would allow their work in such a show with such a title with such a criterion? You’d goddamn better believe they sure as shit would not. Curators who do dumb shit like this deserve a good swift kick in the ass and a hearty, "Wake the fuck up, Silver!" Check out the image that was selected to advertise this show:
If that image doesn’t scream, "Can’t miss this!" I don’t know what does.
And if this weren’t bad enough, much of the show is designed like a peep show. Viewers may go from black room to black room (I kid you not) to peep in voyeuristically at various offerings. If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll arrive at Kara Walker’s room at the exact moment of the shadow puppet simulated cumshot (Milk? Gesso?). At least her stuff looks like it belongs in this format. Almost all the videos are yawners too. Adrian Piper is quickly rocketing up on my list of all time crummy loser artists. Philosopher my ass.
I just can’t stand to write another word about this show. It gives me the creeps in so many ways.
My advice would be to close your eyes and ears and have one of the museum guards take you by the hand and guide you to the downstairs show Every Sound You Can Imagine. It’s a lousy title but with the stuff that’s here, who cares? This one could be classified as one of the must-see shows in Houston of the last few years. The reason for this is that it contains some of the all time great pieces. Not just music score pieces, all time great pieces of any form. For me, seeing the score for Fontana Mix or 4’33" (the famous so-called "silence piece") is like viewing the Declaration of Independence. I get chills. For chrissake, 4’33" is one of the greatest pieces of all time. Top five, hands down, no argument. So many of the ideas behind late twentieth century art would never have happened without this piece. (Okay, so they may have eventually happened, but it would have taken about 50 years longer to get there.) Why there’s not a crowd of admirers lining up like they do in front of the fake Mona Lisa in the Louvre to see this show is baffling to me.
Problematically, these two pieces, Fontana Mix and 4’33", are grouped carelessly along with almost two dozen other works along the back (west) wall of the space. It’s a horrible installation and does nothing to indicate their importance. And there’s one big title card for these and all the other works in this arrangement. So for the viewer, you have to walk back and forth to confirm the details. 4’33" deserves its own wall and to be seen in its entirety, not as it’s displayed here.
It’s rare to say that every piece in a show deserves careful and patient consideration, but every work in this show deserves careful and patient consideration. Every one. And many of the pieces deserve entire essays or books devoted only to themselves. In lieu of that, I offer some notables, along with brief notes, below:
Herbert Brun – I have a fondness for early experimental computer music works and as such it was a real treat for me to see a score, or in this case, a selection of the score of mutatis mutandis which I first saw reprinted in Computer Music Journal years ago. Fortran algorithims dance in my head.
Dick Higgins – Symphony #186 from his Thousand Symphonies wherein Dick blasted a stack of sheet music with a machine gun is a quintessential Fluxus tour de force indictment of organized music. Killer.
Alison Knowles – Dick Higgins’ partner in crime is represented by a lovely print/score of onion skin stains. Another poetic example of Fluxus’ expansive and embracing approach to music.
Steve Reich/Philip Glass – I throw these two in together because the show does and because no matter how much they may fight it, they’re joined at the hip. Steve Reich, by far the more experimental and talented of the two, is represented by a page from Desert Music, Glass by Einstein on the Beach. Desert Music is not Reich’s best, not by a long shot, but it’s fun to see his obsessive notations curiously and quaintly done by hand. Glass’s relatively gigantic John Hancock on this title page leaves no doubt as to whom the composer is. Must be a Zen thing.
La Monte Young – This guy is certainly one of the most brilliant and most overlooked artists, proportionately speaking, of the late 20th century. Several seminal "Composition" scores are presented from his book An Anthology of Chance Operations (edited with Jackson MacLow). I’m not sure who exactly invented the simple form of typed words on a small white note card as the standard Fluxus musical notation form (perhaps George Brecht?). Regardless, these pieces are as conceptually grand as they are physically humble. Included are #10 (for Bob Morris) which instructs "Draw a line and follow it"; #7 which reads "To be held for a long time" is a score for two musical notes, B and F#; and #2 (for David Tudor) instructs "Open the keyboard cover without making, from the operation, any sound that is audible to you. Try as many times as you like. The piece is over either when you succeed or when you decide to stop trying. It is not necessary to explain to the audience simply do what you do and, when the piece is over, indicate it in the customary way." Sound familiar? There’s more and they are all succinct and brilliant. I would love to have been a fly on Young’s wall in the fall of 1960.
Christian Marclay – Christian’s work is one of the few disappointments for me in this show. Lately he’s taken a tumble in my eyes. He’s mapped out his conceptual territory so that everyone knows he’s the "sound guy" in same way that Andres Serrano is the "body fluids guy" and as such his work comes off as more of a schtick than as a philosophy.
James Tenney – Oops. He ain’t here. Oversight!
If this show shows anything it’s that music ain’t what it used to be and it has changed rather rapidly. One has to wonder what use a musical score is any more. Given that virtually any sound may be generated by computer, composers may compose, organize, record and distribute their compositions right on their laptop. So there’s no need to leave instructions for anyone else when you can control the process from beginning to end. Musical notation, in its traditional form, is a dying, if not dead, art. Most of the works here confirm that. But pieces like those of La Monte Young point to a potential future of new ways to consider music. Who will pick up this baton?
My only complaint with this show is that many of the works are displayed in incomplete form, that is, as a selection of their entirety. For me that’s like covering up Pollock’s Number One except the bottom right hand square foot and expecting you to imagine the rest of it. It’s a bad disservice. But, having said that, I’d rather see one page of the U.S. Constitution than none at all.
Which is a nice way to segue into the Civil War drawing show at O’Kane. I’m a sucker for drawings but this show is particularly refreshing. Most of the drawings were done without any pretense of art and were done simply as visual records either for publication (as in Harper’s Weekly) or as accompaniments to letters home. Done in a time when there was still no such thing as photo journalism, published illustrations like those of Alexander Simplot were the only visuals many people ever saw of the war.
Technically speaking, the works in this show vary greatly but there are reasons. Simplot’s illustrations (the correct term) have a hatched line quality in order to more easily translate to the etching plates of Harper’s. Joshua Newbold’s sketches have that bad art student hen-scratching flattened look that reveals an unconfident eye and hand. But taken as they were made – not as art – they have a charming naïve folk art feel to them. Confederates dragging guns up Kenesaw by Alfred R. Waud shows the necessity of immediacy. It’s not like his subject’s were posing and you can tell his hand couldn’t quite keep up with what he was seeing. My favorite work in the show is Two Portraits of Officers and Two Scenes: Raising the Stars and Stripes Over the Courthouse at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Steamers on the River (How’s that for a title?) by an unknown artist. I love the test sketches of the two heads floating in the upper left hand corner. The practice strokes are left for all to see.
Siege situations like those of Vicksburg, St. Petersburg or Atlanta probably generated more drawings simply because soldiers and "special artists" had more time on their hands but that’s just my assumption. I like the neutral tone of the paper of some of the drawings allowing white highlights in an "old master-ish" way. Given that these drawings were done on the fly, in transit and carried along with whatever basic provisions were obligatory for their creators, they are all necessarily small which fits well with the tiny O’Kane Gallery and heightens their sense of preciousness. The lights are too dim, however, which makes careful, detailed study difficult. No doubt the lenders (most probably the Library of Congress) dictated these conditions but there exists protective glass these days that would allow more illumination. And lord knows more precious and fragile documents than these are given more light.
What I like about the music score show and the Civil War drawing show is that the works are modestly scaled which proves once again that small size does not necessarily equal small concepts or emotions. Also, what links these two shows is that the art works are entry pieces. That is, they are portals to bigger things. In the case of the scores, they are not the art works, the music, but directions or pathways to the music. For these the performance is the thing. As for the Civil War drawings, they too are windows, tiny glimpses, into what they illustrate – the monumental heroic catastrophe of the Civil War. For these, war is the thing.
For both of these shows, the idea is the thing. Rich ideas make for rich art which makes for rich shows. Go see these.
Useful links for this blawg:
performance by the London Symphony Orchestra (how grandly funny!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E
performance by the original performer, David Tudor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HypmW4Yd7SY
from the horse’s mouth http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag97/higgin/sm-higgn.shtml
1. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the upstairs gallery, not the Brown Foundation Gallery, just like Intercontinental Airport to me will never be Bush. Why the fuck do we have to name everything? Why mark everything like a dog marks its territory? How about Minute Maid Gallery instead?
2. Ibid. except insert downstairs and Zilkha Gallery as appropriate.
3. With apologies to Clayton Moore.
4. Hello, Richard Long.
5. Serrano’s latest offering – "Shit" – recently at Yvonne Lambert in New York, could be summarized by its own title.
See Peter Williams’ first blog, Hoo Doo Doo Doo