Big cities with vibrant art scenes have big art fairs, right? Sure. So it stands to reason that Houston, home of lots of great art, should have one as well. In fact, Houston should have two of them. Oh, that’s right! They do! Since I didn’t really pay any attention to the scuffle concerning the politics of fairs here, I can’t talk about that. If you’re looking for juicy tidbits on that subject, please direct your browser elsewhere. Allow me to suggest The Secret of Invisibility –it teaches you how to be invisible, especially in crowds!
Truth to tell, the Houston art world needs art fairs so that folks from around the globe can see how rad we are.
The big question is, though, is this: Do I need an art fair in Houston, Texas? Do I need another art fair in general? Well, in the spirit of YesQuest 2011, I decided to find out.
First, I should mention that I don’t like to drive. I know—in Houston—it’s weird. Whenever I bring this up, someone invariably talks about hellacious traffic or fear of being flattened by some drunkard with a gun rack in a Ford Super Duty. But traffic doesn’t bother me, and I’m used to herds of SUVs corralling me at every traffic light. No, I’m just too lazy to open the gate and pull my car out of the driveway. Really! It’s a drag! Just this morning I opened the cumbersome iron gates and backed out of the compound, only to find a flattened, fly-ridden dead squirrel that I guess I’m going to have to pick up. Also, the whole idea of finding a parking space or having to pay for parking in Houston just chaps my ass. I won’t go into it. So my lovely and talented editor here at Glasstire, Ms. Kelly Klaasmeyer, agreed to pick me up. YesQuest saved!
Before we ventured over to the fair, located in the George R. Brown convention center, we crossed the street—or should I say, Avenida de las Americas? Sounds much more official. And international!—and we visited the Insperity Golf Experience at Discovery Green. This interactive exhibition, curated by Clint Willour, is great, by the way. Bill Davenport’s hole, a replica of the Dubuffet sculpture across the Avenida from the convention center is, predictably, a well-crafted riot. Each of the artists who participated came up with something cool and clever. And although I didn’t play, I really appreciated the fact that the difficulty level of this course was so high, it seemed to be driving the average mini-duffer mad. And I love watching golfers get pissed—especially when they break their clubs over one knee or hurl them into the nearest body of water. Real golf does that, so why spare the golfer this experience on an arty putt-putt course? Willour says that children perform best, and that makes total sense. Children aren’t burdened by all the anger and angst that just won’t let a player be the ball.
After that, we wandered over to the convention center, and boy did everything look great. Dimly lit. Homey. Each booth tastefully decorated. Unfortunately, we’d entered the Houston Antique Dealers Association convention.
After righting that wrong, we found the Houston Fine Art Fair in the next hall, and were we lucky we got there in time! They were just honoring Donald Sultan with the Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. Yeah, that Donald Sultan sure has been an influential fixture in the Houston art world. Not that he’s a bad artist or anything. But the logic behind honoring him here didn’t make much sense—oh, wait! He’s the brother of a curator who no longer lives here–now it makes perfect sense!
I guess that gesture—honoring a widely recognized artist that has never really had anything to do with Houston, Texas, kicked off the event with a cosmopolitan flair. Not like that pathetic, provincial Art League, which gives lifetime achievement awards to Houston artists. That would have made the whole fair—and Houston, in general—look like small potatoes, right?
Ultimately, that was my dilemma with the fair as a whole. Afterwards, people asked me what the fair was like, and all I could say was, “It was an art fair.” I haven’t been to these events across the country, but I have been to most of them in Manhattan. The Armory. Pulse. Scope. Volta. After a while, even when galleries innovatively made their “booths” in hotel rooms, it was always a tiring and mind-numbing experience. One slogs around and looks at more art than one could possibly process, and I guess that’s okay. It’s all about getting the stuff in front of the viewers and potential buyers. So in that respect, the Houston Fine Art Fair was a big success. We’ve finally got what most cities with respectable art scenes have: a whole lotta art briefly packed into a big conference hall. Go, us! In a few years, these events should gain some momentum and maybe attract the attention that Houston art deserves.
I then decided that the Houston Fine Art Fair and the upcoming Texas Contemporary Art Fair are good things. Good for the city, good for the economy, good for all involved. Marshall and Victoria Lightman, with true dedication to the Houston art community, were instrumental in arranging this event should be gratefully acknowledged
But all of that stuff doesn’t really address my primary and crucial concern: me. Because, as with all fairs, I was in hell. What’s really gross about going to the Armory show in New York is running into a Houston artist, curator, or collector around every corner. You wind up acting delighted to see them (sometimes you actually are), you make inane chitchat for a minute or two, and then, as when you’re in the grocery store, you keep running into the person whom you’ve greeted in the produce section in every other aisle. Where’s that secret of invisibility when you really need it? It’s a little painful.
Then again, most social interaction is a little painful for me. After a few seconds of aforementioned chitchat, I wind up saying something bizarrely inappropriate. Like something out of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I’m especially prone to spitting out the memorable Ron Burgundy-to-Veronica Corningstone line: “I want to be on you.” Or something that might come out of the mouth of weatherman Brick Tamland: “I ate fiberglass insulation. It wasn’t cotton candy like the guy said… my tummy itches.
So, okay, now consider the fact that everyone you see at a Houston art fair is someone you already know and have probably just had a stilted conversation with at an opening the night before. There’s no place to hide!
Like all art fairs, there was a lot of bad art and some very good art. I was particularly wowed by Riva Yares Gallery of Santa Fe, who put on a one man Milton Avery show in his little booth, as I do appreciate this painter. I could have done without the big replication of Avery’s signature on one of the walls. Brought the whole thing down one cheesy notch.
There was a ton of appallingly bad art, but that was okay. In many ways, I am a small, petty person, and that sense of superiority and smugness is something I’m totally into.
What really bothered me was the drink line. They need to fix that the next time around. I missed most of the fair because I was standing in line for a bottle of water half the time I was there. Also, there was nothing to eat at this $100 a ticket preview party. It’s not like I expected a bunch of deli trays, but it would have been nice to have been able to purchase, heck, I dunno, a cracker, which would have kept me from nearly passing out. And there really aren’t many—if any—places around there to pick something up. I was irritated that I hadn’t packed a sack lunch, which is something that I like to do at all swanky art events. And why was there no taco truck? I mean, it’s Houston, for God’s sake. We’ve got a taco truck—many of them with upscale fare—on every corner.
And that’s what really annoyed me—not the chitchat, not the interminable drink line, not the lack of food. What was wrong with the whole fair was that it was just like a fair in any other city. And Houston isn’t any other city.
I’m always irritated when I see those Keep Austin Weird signs and tee shirts. Why? Because Austin isn’t weird. Houston’s weird. I recently heard someone say he liked the phrase Keep Houston Slutty. I don’t think it flows, but I appreciate the sentiment. Houston is, in a few ways, a hellhole, and as a resident since 1982, I wouldn’t change it a bit. Houston’s got character, and that’s what art fairs lack. A visitor probably won’t fully understand this about the art or the city if he or she just comes for the fairs.
However, in the true Houston spirit, a few of the dealers brought enough of their style and aesthetic to their sterile booths to convey to the outsider what Houston offers that other cities don’t.
Hiram Butler’s booth was a fine example. His distressed, understated tables, chairs, and rustic footstool perfectly accompanied the works displayed—which were, of course, displayed in minimalist fashion. Discovering the works propped on shelves on the outer wall of the booth was very much like walking into his gallery’s side room. It was a clever move, especially because his gallery, off the beaten path, is often neglected by the uninformed or lazy art viewer.
Linda Darke’s space, with its wacky pack of Houston’s up and coming, was kinda fun. The space was filled with quirky, colorful works and videos, and Darke’s decision to put artist Wendy Wagner at the fore was genius. Wagner’s a total hottie and might not be taken for an artist by the average drooling passerby. That she is a serious artist made me compare the scenario to Houston itself: it’s like saying, “Don’t write us off or make any assumptions—it’ll only make you look stupid later.”
My last stop was at Betty Moody’s, and visiting it, just like many of the Houston spots, was a delight. I plopped my exhausted, undernourished ass at a big round table and was enthusiastically welcomed by a group that might be in the running for Nicest People in the Entire World and We’re Not Kidding in the Slightest award. And that’s Houston, too.
Tasteful with a local feel, wacky, welcoming—that’s what much of Houston is about to me. I loved that these galleries kept their personalities amidst the uniformity of the Houston Fine Art Fair, and I’m hoping that a few of them will do the same at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair in October.
Because, honestly, the coming of the first art fair in Houston reminds me a bit of my neighborhood, and I’m a tad conflicted. I live in Montrose. It’s a little funky, but it used to be REALLY funky, with drag queens and artist studios and a crack house on the other side of my fence. In the past several years it’s become gentrified. Instead of the charming fellows who used to steal magazines like Big Black Butt and moan while jerking off until I sprayed them down with the hose, I now have a couple from Katy whose friends roar at the game on the outdoor big screen TV and toss Smirnoff Ice bottles into my yard. I’d get in trouble if I hosed them down, which totally pisses me off.
The people behind me are soulless jerks and a lot less interesting than even the worst-dressed transvestite, but my property value’s quadrupled, so I don’t complain as much as I should. So let’s hope, as an art community, we can maintain our character and keep the imported assholes to a minimum while still raising awareness of our fabulousness and the market value of works sold.
That would make a Houston art fair, like the city itself, worth it.
P.S.: I’m not the factual verification department and never will be. I don’t provide names, dates, or details very consistently. Oops.