I laughed out loud upon entering Oasis, a show by Iva Kinnaird and Christina Macal at Matchbox Gallery at Rice University in Houston. Kinnaird’s Fountain #3 — oversized yet disarming — reads as a silly and weirdly hopeful corporate fountain or backyard suburban water feature.
Comprised entirely of crap found in a friend’s garage, Fountain #3 is emblematic of the off-handed bricolage seen frequently in contemporary art. There is absolutely nothing new about employing irony into one’s work, a kind of flying in the face of the art world’s pretentiousness. If someone were to describe this work to me sight unseen, I would have shrugged it off as yet another attempt at bored millennial irony. Yet Fountain #3 is genuine, even audacious. Why is that?
That’s because Kinnaird understands the importance of sincerity and has a unique ability to infuse that sincerity and genuine humor with the dismissive irony that drives the work. So often artists use humor less for the sake of being funny and more to demonstrate just how unpretentious and smart they are, just as viewers will laugh at a work — not because it is actually funny — but because they think they are supposed to and don’t want to feel like they’ve missed the point. Because humor in art so often twists into an obnoxious posturing tool, the authentic silliness of Fountain #3 is refreshing. It takes courage and vulnerability to be genuinely funny.
However, that humor can also oversimplify the impact of Kinnaird’s work, letting the viewer off the hook at the punchline rather than lingering in the unanswered questions and gray areas. That’s why Fountain #3’s pairing with Macal’s paintings is important and mutually beneficial: Macal’s geometric abstractions encourage us to linger not only with her paintings, but also with Kinnaird’s formal considerations. The askew ceramic tiles in Kinnaird’s piece oversell the narrative of loosely cobbled together crap, but the drowned lamp — and its submerged plug — eventually feels less like a throwaway decision, and finally more sinister. The water serves as a source of nourishment for the branch as new leaves grow, but it also reads as a slick, gross, oily pollutant as it pools on the dusty glass of an old entertainment center.
Similarly, Kinnaird’s work makes the fullness of Macal’s more imminent. By themselves and at first glance, Macal’s paintings could read as dry, but here we feel the kind of mark-making that’s evocative of the body: erotic, fleeting, dangerous, banal. Sculptural decisions — like the layering, painting upon, and removal of tape — feel incisive, even surgical. In the work #27, we can imagine Macal repeatedly digging her fingers into the painting, with the paint piling up beneath her nails.
Macal’s work is at its best when she lets that incisiveness falter — but only subtly. The best example of this is #19, where ripples of paint flagrantly disrupt an otherwise smooth circle, like errant skin. Its contrast with the perfectly drafted cathedral-esque yellow and pink lines is delightfully frustrating. The sloping lines shooting downward create a sense of continuation ad infinitum. But the slight irregularity of the circle’s perimeter reads as a tactile glitch — the butteriness of the browns slamming up against the perimeter with the violence of an ankle sprain that is deliciously grotesque.
But it’s important that the glitchy-ness is tightly cropped, to maximize the tension between her impulses to both carve the perfect lines and screw them up. In #24, the flapping perimeter of paint, while sculpturally interesting, wanders into the decorative, which in turn minimizes how it registers viscerally within the viewer’s body.
While just a small, student-run gallery, Matchbox has steadily been showing stronger and stronger exhibitions like Oasis. On this track, it has the potential to be one of the more dynamic alternative spaces in town.
‘Oasis’ is on view at Matchbox Gallery at Rice University in Houston until March 17, 2018.