“Get a Rope” at CTRL Gallery

Tough enough...Blue Mustang by Luis Jimenez at the Denver International Airport

“If picante sauce commercials have taught us anything, and they have, it’s that Texans know the real spice when they taste it, and won’t hesitate to string up effete East Coast imitators. But not everything from the Big City is processed, easily consumed pap; some of New York’s artists are making work that’s fresh, chunky, immediate and authentic enough to satisfy even the grimiest Texas palate.”

The above statement is the opening salvo from the press release for the current exhibition Get a Rope, at CTRL Gallery. The only thing more offensive than the statement itself is the gratuitous use of the semicolon. The show is curated by Kathy Grayson; “artist, curator and [one of several] gallery director[s] at Deitch Projects, NYC.” The premise of the show is to “bring a Downtown NYC insider’s perspective to CTRL with a show comprising many of that scene’s luminaries, some of whom also have a personal connection to Houston.”

I don’t usually quote press releases, but since they’re giving me the rope, I might as well use it. The show itself is a mixed bag but the real point and the real failure of this exhibition is the curatorial perspective. Grayson takes the famous Pace picante sauce commercials in which a couple of cowboys on a cattle trail who discover that the chuck wagon cook has used a salsa made in “Noo Yark Citee” in their meals turn and squint into the camera and mutter “get a rope” as the organizing principle for the exhibition. The commercial’s genius lies in its ability to convince “city folk” that the salsa is the real deal and its ability to boost the self-esteem of “country folk” by telling them that nobody can make salsa like they can. Everybody buys. If you’re trying to sell hot sauce this is smart. If you’re using it as an idea to organize a contemporary art exhibition around, it’s little more than cultural caricature.

Since CTRL opened, the thing that I’ve enjoyed about the gallery is its unashamed mission of bringing hip art from the East, West and European coasts that has little or nothing to do with Texas to Main Street (literally, not Obama-figuratively). What makes it even more acceptable is the fact that in addition to some occasionally interesting, brand new art that we might not normally get to see, a few Houston stalwarts like Katy Heinlein, Jamal Cyrus and John Sparagana periodically get the whole space to themselves. To be fair, I don’t think this basic mission has changed but bringing in Grayson as curator has resulted in an extremely weak and condescending show.

Patrick Griffin's Country Music, 2009


I’m sure there are those thinking, “this a commercial gallery, not a museum, give it a fucking rest!” This might be easier for me to do if the whole show was not based on this ridiculous premise of “Texas” vs. “New York” in which there is not a single Texas artist except ex-Houstonian-current-New Yorker Patrick Griffin, the weakest artist in the show and the curator’s boyfriend. Dash Snow doesn’t count. He’s about as Texas as Julian Schnabel.

The theme and execution of the show is so silly that the conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but imagine that this is just a cover to send a Jeffrey Deitch-sponsored scouting party to do an in-depth investigation of the as-yet-not-completely-destroyed Houston economy and collector-base. Let’s hope the work wasn’t shipped in crates infected with smallpox.

Before I get to the work in the show, I should explore this notion of “Texas-as-the-next-place-for-authentic-cool-art” that we’ve been hearing about for the last ten years and is further exploited by Grayson in Get a Rope. As she attended both Sidwell Friends School and Dartmouth College, no doubt nurtured on a regular diet of post-colonial theory, I find it a little shocking that Grayson would organize an exhibition that relies on the age-old notion of bringing enlightenment, in this case an “insider’s perspective of Downtown NYC art,” to the pagan denizens of a dusty region far away.

Grayson isn’t alone in her notions. Gavin Morrison gave a recent lecture at the Modern Art Museum Fort Worth about a theoretical proposal for a “Texas Pavilion” at the Venice Biennale. Morrison is Scottish and is the curator of the University Galleries at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. A portion of his discussion involved a work by the artist Sean Snyder whose project Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania deals with the conflation of the architecture of the Southfork Ranch and former Soviet architecture in a scaled-up version of the Southfork ranch built by a corrupt Romanian billionaire named Llie Alexandru. Larry Hagman visited this reproduction and it is rumored that George W. Bush attended Alexandru’s wedding there. After this discussion, Morrison suggested that this story, for him, represents the cultural identity of Texas and its impact on far-reaching corners of the globe. He suggested that Snyder’s piece and others like it might form a rough idea of what his notion of a Texas Pavilion at the Venice Biennale might look like.

I’m not sure what this means or what it would look like but it seems like Morrison and Grayson have a similarly two-dimensional impression of Texas and its art world based on soap operas and salsa commercials. More than anything, Snyder’s piece aims to represent the cultural identity of Hollywood, not Texas. I suppose confusing Hollywood and Texas is nothing new, but the problem is that they seem to be making a case for Texas as an exciting and authentic idea or place while simultaneously insulting it. This has always been the most essential component of the colonizing impulse and it’s weird that once we’ve gotten a tangible grip on the idea that we shouldn’t do it to other countries, races and cultures, we should start doing it in our own country.

Of course the only reason this is happening in Texas and not say, Kentucky, is because there’s oil money here. That’s fair, but in addition to money we also have a phenomenally unique, insane culture and art scene that it would be nice to see taken seriously. I wish Luis Jimenez was still alive and that any additional Deitch Projects commercial-gallery-curators had to submit their proposals to him to determine if he thought they were effete East Coast imitators. Depending on his determination, they would either be allowed in or sent back to the Big City singed from the heat of a 32-foot tall, 9,000-lb. fire-breathing Blue Mustang. But Luis isn’t alive, so we’re left to ask ourselves, "is Get A Rope really grimy enough to satisfy the palate of a guy who lost an eye and his life making his sculptures?"

Terence Koh's video GOD, 2007


I’ve just realized that in my indignation I haven’t gotten around to talking about the art. I think there’s a reason for this. It’s because shows like this have nothing to do with the art of which they are comprised. Yes, the artists are all relatively young. Yes, they’re all from New York, kind of know each other, and probably party together sometimes. There are a couple of loose connections like homosexuality and a general, albeit kind of tame punk rock attitude. And some of the work is good. Is any of this enough to bind these artists together into a compelling show? Or is Grayson just using the work as an excuse to create a show that has some kind of outsider cache in an increasingly decentralized art world?

Just to present some kind of range, I thought Terence Koh, a gay Chinese-Canadian-American-minimalist-installation-performance-video-photography-artist presented the best work and Patrick Griffin, the ex-Houstonian, presented the worst. Go figure. The best advice I can give concerning the actual art in the show is to go to CTRL and see the work. If you still have any money you should bring your checkbook because despite the fact that this show really annoyed me, I want every gallery in Houston from Colquitt to Isabella Court and beyond to survive this economy. If we stay strong and keep our integrity maybe a hundred years from now we’ll be the next L.A.

Get a Rope
February 27 – April 18, 2009
CTRL Gallery, Houston, Texas



Michael Bise
is an artist living in Houston.

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3 responses to ““Get a Rope” at CTRL Gallery”

  1. Michael,

    I was in Houston this past weekend for the first time in nearly two years. It was great to get back and see the new spaces, new faces, and new scene thriving in the bayou. Of course, I made it my mission to see as many shows as possible and surprised myself by making it to over a dozen spaces. And quite honestly, I thought the show at CTRL was one of my favorites, on par with the shows at CAMH and exceeding by far the CORE show, which I had extremely high hopes for. I’m not inclined to bemoan a situation where artists from other regions import their wares to try to capture a new audience base (I assume more than just Oil Trust collectors exist in Houston). Rather, the entire system is symbiotic, right? Doesn’t it help Texas artists just as much to have artists from other places show there? In a sense, they become de facto, mini-ambassadors of the Texas scene when they return to New York (or Berlin, London, Beijing, Sao Paolo, etc…). That seems to be a much more productive, positive way to intertwine the Texas art scene into the larger fabric of a globalized Art World. Plus, the work was stellar! But I’m open to debate on this…..

  2. I absolutely agree. This is a completely uninteresting, slightly offensive, neocolonial snoozefest of an idea for a contemporary art show. I also think you may be onto something with your idea that this was merely a scouting party into the Houston economy. Only time will tell.
    Well done, sir.

  3. Pace picante sauce tastes like it was made in New York. Real texans make their salsa from scratch.

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