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PURE EVIL at Cindy Lisica Gallery

I overheard a couple of gentlemen talking about Obama on Steel (2018) during the opening of PURE EVIL: STEEL SHARPENS STEEL, at Cindy Lisica Gallery in Houston. It started with one man ogling the painting, talking about how cool it was. The other man — perhaps it was the artist PURE EVIL himself (real name: Charles Uzzell Edwards) — responded in that kind of dismissive, bad-boy way that I guess is supposed to make the work seem more flippant, punk, happenstance: “He’s blond, so maybe it’s Eminem.” He said it in such a way that it was clear he meant that the character in that painting could have been Barack Obama, could have been Eminem, or could have been Homeless Joe Schmo from down the street. And he’s absolutely right; the content in STEEL SHARPENS STEEL does not matter. 

Summertime, historically, has not been the season for galleries to present conceptually rigorous solo work. In most galleries, summer exhibitions are often light and mildly tedious group shows. But STEEL SHARPENS STEEL epitomizes soulless art-fair schlock. And there’s already plenty of schlocking that goes on in Houston. Hell, there’s enough schlocking that goes on at 4411 Montrose, the complex that houses this gallery along with four others. So why is this show particularly disappointing coming from Cindy Lisica?

Cindy Lisica Gallery hasn’t been around a long time, but it has already built a reputation for showing work that — while not always fully mature or realized — is at least sincere. It’s hard to imagine PURE EVIL and the likes of the far more thoughtful Anthony Suber or Jennifer McClish, to name two, being shown in the same gallery. 

But of course over the last decade (much longer, really) there has been an influx of street art making its way into traditional gallery systems, which is generally a problem in itself. Some well-meaning gallery directors want to exhibit “edgy” work that’s made on the margins of society as some kind of noble anthropological experiment. (Some just see dollar signs.) The paradox of showing this kind of work in a commercial setting is that doing so it cuts the work off at its knees, politically and contextually. The crux of street art is to be illegal, marginal, populist, ephemeral. Harnessed into a gallery context, it’s simply reduced to a tidy commodity masquerading as its former self. 

STEEL SHARPENS STEEL is worse: It employs the vocabulary of street art, and the vocabulary of Pop Art, without actually embodying the spirit of either. It barks its ‘edginess’ without bite; it’s derivative of worn-out Warholian style portraiture and the Pop Art’s predictable touchstone of Mocking the Abstract Expressionist Drip. There are moments of potential in PURE EVIL’s work, like when the paint-drip tears of some of the paintings’ subjects fall beyond the frame onto the wall and pool on the floor. But the sculptural flimsiness of the pool on the floor is just a commodified gimmick, rather than genuine experimentation. 

To be fair, there are some stand-alone paintings here that work within PURE EVIL’s limitations as an artist. The pooling, bullet-hole tears feel pertinent and macabre in JFK and Jackie Last Days (2016). It suggests a push-pull narrative of how our society fetishizes the Kennedys as American royalty, and still aggrandizes and romanticizes JFK’s assassination as fodder for political trolling and conspiracy theories. So the emptiness of this painting makes complete sense, whether intentional or not. Blondie on Steel (2018) reads as genuinely irreverent, sexy, and heroic in a nostaligic, adoloscent Jem and the Holograms kind of way. But the impact of these works is muddied and lost amidst the show’s seriality. PURE EVIL seems to assume that because the tear drip works on some of his portraits, he can slap it on any old celebrity and it’ll have the same effect, and it doesn’t. 

Where STEEL SHARPENS STEEL really goes off the rails is when it ventures from tepid semi-political portraiture to vapid and total political statement. I suppose the tear-drip Statues of Liberty in AMERIKA or the “Impeach Trump” print are fine, if not completely tepid. America’s Nightmare (2018), on the other hand, is offensive. In a time where honesty feels irrelevant, where facts don’t seem to matter, a place where little kids may never see their parents again, and where the rights of everyone who isn’t a straight, white, wealthy Christian man feel genuinely at stake, the Simpsons-style cartoony text font and tear-laden Statue of Liberty represent the blasé, pretend protest art that I have run out of patience for. 

At Cindy Lisica Gallery in Houston through September 1, 2018

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17 Responses

    1. Amy.G

      Saw this exhibition as well , I understand defending your artists and gallery though I would have to agree with the empty and derivative comment to this work. Aesthetically and conceptually the work falls flat, gimmicky at best. No academic approach can aesthetically raise the quality of this work. Appreciate what you to do as a gallery, though sometimes we all miss.

      1. Thankfully the show has garnered a lot of supporters here in Houston, so it’s no “miss” for us. It has actually been one of the most loved! Sorry if you don’t like every show we hang, but he’ll definitely be back. 🙂

  1. Helen

    Here here. This is one of the shows that doesn’t need to be seen in this transition time in Texas arts. Poor craftsmanship and shallow attempts at making a political statement. People need to read critical writing now more than ever, we’ve digested too much garbage as of late. Thank you Betsy

    1. Leroy

      I agree with you that the show doesn’t deserve the recognition, though in your opinion does reviews such as these serve a higher purpose in keeping art galleries from serving us with aesthetically bad exhibitions? It seems to me that like Betsy acknowledged in the review that there are so many schlocked exhibitions in Houston, that be called out may keep the Galleries on their toes a little bit more instead of sleeping at the wheel. They need to learn to take the criticism along with the many compliments.

  2. Cindy Lisica

    Critical writing is needed. Un-researched, lazy journalism is not. This writer came to the opening of the show, and, instead of actually meeting or speaking to the artist, chose to quote a random guy (who she also didn’t bother to meet or cite for the article). Then, she went on to wrongly (and manipulatively) attribute it to the artist, taking a grown adult’s autonomy right out of the piece, so she could refer to him as a “bad boy” and a “punk”. (Watch out for these 50-year-old street artists! Don’t talk to them! They wear masks and come out only in the shadows of the night!) She’d rather keep both the person she quoted and the artist as random and “flippant” because “it does not matter”.

    I hate to break it to you, but there is no new “trend” or “bandwagon” here. Street art DESERVES its place in art history, and it’s not going away. It’s a really good thing that contemporary art historians recognize this. In my eyes, there is little distinction in the land of “what is art?” between Charles Uzzell Edwards / Pure Evil and the other artists I represent. They are all unique individuals with different backgrounds. (Seems obvious, but somehow necessary to state here.) He uses multiple mediums and outlets, one of which is street art (and he is no rookie at that) and another is his gallery and museum shows. He is also a painter from a long line of painters and artists in his family (see his recently deceased father, John Uzzell Edwards).

    Charley has been writing graffiti for 30 years and exhibiting in galleries for 20 years. I was introduced to his work through his previous Los Angeles gallery, C.A.V.E. Projects, owned by a good friend and gallery owner of 15 years. If Betsy had been paying so much attention to my gallery over these last few years in Houston, she would have noticed that this is not the first time I’ve exhibited his work. Along with his many other galleries across the globe, his work has been part of my diverse roster of contemporary artists.

    She thinks the work is “empty” and “derivative” (yawn). For someone arguing that the artist doesn’t embody the spirit of Pop or Street Art, she sure is regurgitating the same old art criticism that was used against 1960s Pop Art and 1980s Street Art and Neo-Pop.

    Just in the last few years, Charley has held campaigns through sales of his screen prints to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, created a large mural for the Chilean Tourism Board in the fantastic historic city of Valparaiso in 2014, has held multiple “drawing club” events for free and open to local children in art programs and other city venues in the UK, right here in Houston, and across Europe. He currently has 4 solo exhibitions, one of which is part of the founding installation of France’s first street art museum in the Alsace region of France, the MAUSA (Le Musée d’Art Urbain et de Street Art).

    According to Betsy’s argument, street artists should be banned from commercial galleries entirely. To imply that hard-working artists and gallery owners are just “seeing dollar signs” is ridiculous. This is a small, independent business, mind you. And is Charley supposed to get a proper day job and a Clark Kent-like secret identity, rather than profiting from his own artwork by doing what he does best? (which, by the way, is getting up daily at 5am to be at his studio and gallery spaces in London by 7am, where he creates his art, employs a number of young art professionals, and exhibits emerging artists by giving them a physical space and platform in a major city.) Or, should we sit back and allow the “flippers” of art to profit while these lowly street artists stay in their place, not making any money on their own work, hiding “illegally”?

    What exactly is “art fair schlock” in this article? We are left to assume that there is some relevance to my gallery or the artist… But, not every street artist is Banksy (or at those price points)… Is it Banksy’s unauthorized resellers she’s picking a bone with? I’m just guessing. We can’t know, because Betsy hasn’t identified anything/anyone specific. Maybe the readers will just love the handy catch-phrase?

    According to Betsy, seems that all art fairs are the same “art fair schlock” and all street artists are the same. Again, I’m all for critical writing, but I’m not into this hater-speech against the artist.

    She concedes that there is one painting that “makes sense” – JFK and Jackie Last Days (2016) – yet again she takes away the autonomy of the artist by saying “whether intentional or not”. Let’s be adults. I’m going with intentional. Her selection of that one painting out of the dozens of works in the show is actually simply a matter of taste. Not everyone will relate to each piece in the same way. That’s the essence of the art world, isn’t it? There’s room for a whole lot of varying feelings, opinions, desires and tastes.

    Well, Betsy says she has “run out of patience”. I guess it doesn’t take much work to tire her. That’s ok. In the meantime, Charley will continue to actively draw attention from larger local and global audiences and comment on, celebrate, and question the issues of the day through visual art. I will continue to strive to create resources that don’t just exist without action. I’ll be teaching Art History to MFA students, writing, researching, speaking, and yes, curating exhibitions, running the gallery, and attending art fairs… as long as we can survive in it.

    While I invite anyone like Betsy to come up with, invest in and support a new system to replace us commercial galleries and support artists’ careers, Charley and I will go back to working 7 days a week.

    1. Mark

      I read this and was just laughing at the arrogance of the author. Art Fair schlock? Really? Street art doesn’t belong in galleries?

      Your response was much better than anything I could have written. I have a new gallery to visit.

  3. Chris Becker

    One of the things I love about Cindy Lisica’s gallery is I never know what to expect when I go in. Every show she has presented has been a surprise, and I really welcome that unpredictability. For me, PURE EVIL’s exhibit speaks to larger vision that certainly connects back to Lisica’s deep knowledge of and love for Warhol, as well as her ongoing mission to turn the proverbial “white cube” inside out to present uncompromising and powerful work, work that is part of a much larger conversation about art that includes pop, graffiti and portraiture.

    I wish this reviewer had spent more time looking at and describing the range of subject matter in this show instead of projecting dark ulterior motives and/or a lack of sincerity on the part of the artist, the people looking at the art and/or Lisica. I would welcome a step back from and a more objective consideration of the art on the walls (and the installation in the middle of the space, which isn’t mentioned).

  4. Advice jo

    Hey, respectfully, act like you’ve been here before. One (negative) review is not bad for business.

    Also, apparently if the show is doing well there are a lot of people in Houston with a limited palate.

    1. Cindy Lisica

      “Don’t pay attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.” – Andy Warhol 🙂

  5. Melinda Laszczynski

    Of course street art deserves a place in art history- but context is important and the gallery has much different connotations than the public. I think that’s where the “schlock” comes in. Zhang Dali is a great example of a graffiti artist whose work is non-shlocky.
    Thomas Kinkade also employed a factory and churned out a ton of work, but that doesn’t excuse bad paintings.

  6. Anya Tish

    Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. No one so thoroughly appreciates the value of constructive criticism as the artist and the art gallerist. Even when criticism parts company with reality we do not resent it, but find it disappointing in that it fails to serve the purpose for which it is intended, to seek to explain the meaning and significance of the work. Ms. Huete’s disparaging comments concerning the exhibition “STEEL SHARPENS STEEL” – that it “epitomizes soulless art-fair schlock. And there’s already plenty of schlocking that goes on in Houston. Hell, there’s enough schlocking that goes on at 4411 Montrose, the complex that houses this gallery along with four others,” carries sadly more venom than responsible, thoughtful analysis and interpretation.

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