When you look back over a year, you notice how few exhibitions stand out in your mind — and then you realize why we need art criticism. That said, these are my personal favorites from the past year in Texas, picked, admittedly, from the shows I saw myself. There are undoubtedly shows that merit inclusion on this list which I simply didn’t get a chance to see. So, with the subjective nature of the following in mind, here are some of my top picks for 2004.
Starting with some museum shows, in no order of importance:
Pierre Huyghe: One Million + Kingdoms at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
This was a very compelling show of video work by Pierre Huyghe, a French artist who received the Hugo Boss Prize in 2001. True, these pieces had been seen extensively elsewhere, but are outstanding nonetheless. Les Grands Ensembles stole the show, with a large video projection of two low-income apartment buildings in a dusky setting. Accompanied by an intense reverberating sound, a misty setting, and some faint lights in the distance, the otherwise ordinary buildings contributed to a mythic, fantastical landscape that appeared to be filmed over a passage of time. Additionally, the lights within the apartments turned on and off, creating rhythms of moving light, almost as if the buildings were speaking to one another.
Luisa Lambri: Locations at The Menil Collection
Lambri showed some of the most beautifully simple photographs of spaces — just houses and their architecture. The exhibition was laid out in one of the smaller galleries at the Menil, which worked perfectly for the intimate photographs. The show included various projects from different locations, including a site-specific project on the Menil house, designed by Philip Johnson, in Houston. Lambri’s images engulfed the exhibition space, quietly breathing new life into the building itself. She views her work as self-portraits, which upon several viewings I realized was true. It was Lambri herself who ventured into each of these locations with the camera as her tool, to record her unseen physical presence in these environments, and to project her internal feeling onto every space.
There were some beautiful installations this year by Texas artists:
Michael Velliquette: the u in the i at ArtPace
This was hands-down the best installation I had the chance to encounter. Everything from the bizarre entrance of tape flaps, to the cute noises behind the rocks, to all the bright colors hanging from the ceiling — which completely transformed the space — made and you forget for a moment that you were at ArtPace. Velliquette created a bridge with a little river running below, a makeshift gazebo where you could lie down, and some colorful benches with big fluffy hands all around the room. He did all this with florescent paper, brightly colored duct tape, tin foil, fabric, and cardboard. Even though there were no real animals in the installation, it seemed there should have been some creature out of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory or the Wizard of Oz living there.
Betsy Odom: Barnyard at Barry Whistler Gallery
Odom’s fanciful installation was a farm scene, complete with a barn door, some Astroturf for grass, a picket fence, and all the creatures in the song “Old Macdonald had a farm.” Everything was made out of reflective tape, and seemed as solid as cast bronze. The animals were the brightest colors: red, yellow, blue, black, and green. Like Noah’s Ark, Odom crammed a variety of creatures into the space, including cows, sheep, ducks, foxes, roosters, and even some charming doodlebugs. Once again, the space felt transformed (I have yet to see another show at Barry Whistler that utilized the space so well), and the white box of the gallery was unrecognizable. Odom created a happy fun land where all her animals could play together.
Peat Duggins: The Battle at Hickory Ridge at the Fresh Up Club
Duggins converted the space into a miniature cardboard suburban community, with a dogfight of blimps and planes flying overhead. He confessed that the name of the community, Hickory Ridge, was one from his suburban childhood. It was a personal touch to a very imaginative, almost childlike fantasy world that he had created, complete with houses lining the streets and cars on every block. Like a giant, you were able to walk through the neighborhood looking down on the houses, which were all the same color of cardboard brown, and yet you felt inside the battle. The story began in one corner, where an architect’s desk, made once again out of cardboard (complete with cardboard coffee pot, light switches, and a pencil holder) displayed the plans of the adventure story. Duggins continued the drawings as the exhibition continued, creating a time-based piece where the adventure played out within the installation itself, referencing a three dimensional comic book.
Aimee Jones and Wyatt Nash: Skulls and Crossbones, Poisonous Pathways at Cactus Bra
This was one of the most seamless collaborations by two people I’ve seen. The installation had fabulous staged or set-like qualities, partly because of a faux forest backdrop that covered one whole wall; but also because of a rock pathway that led you into the space which was lined with exaggerated, handmade Venus flytrap plants and bloodied hands and legs (the “poisonous pathways” of the title). This all set the stage for what you were actually walking into or towards: a handmade pink plastic hammock hanging from the tree, which seemed to embody a kind of bittersweet innocence, even salvation, at the end of the dangerous path of flytrap plants and severed body parts.
Jason Villegas: Beast Taxidermy at Commerce Street Artist Warehouse
This installation involved a taxidermy shop/animal kingdom gone awry, and it was again a show that took over the space. This is an important quality with installations — not necessarily that the artist has to fill the space with lots of stuff, but that he or she achieves an engulfing transformation, which in turn engages the viewer in a way the basic space alone could not. In Beast Taxidermy, every element of the installation connected to the next, like a run-on sentence. On one floating wall, the snout of a humpback whale made of fabric and duct tape protruded into the space. The top corner of this wall was clawed by a giant bear on the reverse side. This creature’s menace was undercut, however, by a cute little trail of bear droppings/offal, which a tiny squirrel was chewing on, and so the story continued around the space. In Villegas’ hands, the most mundane materials — cardboard, felt, tape — became animals with an amazing emotional presence, which together combined to form a grotesque, fantastical narrative.
I hesitate to place the following in the category of installation, but the entire show — paintings included — created a beautiful installation within the space.
Hilary Wilder: Laguna at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery
This show involved a series of paintings hung against painted sections of walls that surrounded you and circulated the space. With beautiful attention to detail, Wilder drew the painted images from an actual Laguna Beach wildfire, but her hand on the canvas was so delicate, and had such ability with various textures and surfaces, that the original images became completely transformed. I got the most pleasure out of the details in the exhibition — a strip of color on one wall that matched the beam in the ceiling, the fact that the exhibition continued behind a door that you had to open to reveal the entirety of the series, and most of all, getting up close to each image and looking at the pencil line covered with the gouaches of texture from the paint.
There were also some nice solo shows in various galleries:
Michael Smith at Dunn and Brown Contemporary
was my first introduction to his work apart from the ArtForum article that had come out just prior to the show. This exhibition was a quirky display of school portraits, a funny slide show of Saturday Night Fever-style dancing, and various other videos that had an early Saturday Night Live feel to them. The best part of the show for me was recognizing people in the class photographs from when Smith taught at Yale. Smith takes pictures with every class he teaches, so he keeps getting older and the students stay the same age.
Malerie Marder at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary
Curated by Keitha Lawrence, this was a fascinating group of nude photographs of the artist’s boyfriend, mother, father, and various other people placed in banal home interiors. There was also a remarkable video, At Rest, a 12-minute loop that showed naked people sleeping. The film was sped up, so you got the sleepers’ whole night in a matter of minutes. These photographs and video sexualized the people almost to a point of being creepy (I don’t think I’ll ever forget one older man’s uncircumcised penis rising and falling stickily from his thigh to the even rhythm of his breathing), but this sense of ewww was mitigated by their comfortable obliviousness to the camera, and, in the case of the still photographs, to the other people in the frame. Mader says that she wants to photograph the fantasy of people’s lives, and
the awkward psychological moments thereof were captured in this luscious show.
Robbie Austin: Milk + Honey at MAAS Projects
This show proved that this stay-at-home father had been busy. Austin made a huge leap in his sculptural practice by incorporating drawings, more color, and even a bit of humor in each one. As one of the first shows in this brand new space — an offshoot of Mixture Contemporary Art — this was a sincere, “sweet” show in the best way. My favorite piece was The one that got away, a drawing of a girl’s mouth on wood, with a makeshift fishing pole coming out of her tongue and a fishing line, complete with a red and white floater, on the end. It was drawn like a snapshot of a child sticking her tongue out at you, but the fishing pole added a funny twist that made all the difference.
Sharon Engelstein: Shapey at Mixture Contemporary Art
blew me away as an exhibition that utilized the whole gallery space and activated the audience so well. At the opening, people were amazed, not only by Engelstein’s craftsmanship, but also by her ability to create personalities for her sculptural shapes. The variety of placement — on shelves, pedestals and mantels — gave each of the ceramic blobs their own “home.” Also, the use of color was thoughtful and purposeful: a silver line around the waistband of one object, a bit of wall painted orange behind two pieces on a shelf, and pink lips on one piece contributed to sketching outlines of personalities, which the viewer then unwittingly filled in.
Harrell Fletcher: Loving Laura More at Aurora Picture Show
This was a special treat of an evening. First off, Fletcher’s work has been influential to me personally since I was a student in San Francisco. The evening began with Laura Lark, another wonderful Texas artist, introducing Harrell with a speech of praise for him and his work. My first introduction to Laura Lark was from the website Learning to Love You More, where one can read her life story; so it was rewarding to read a piece of her story out loud at Aurora that night. With Fletcher as our conductor, the audience read paragraph by paragraph this story to each other, and watched videos which other people had made of scenes from this story. Afterwards, we were lead with Fletcher through a recording of our voices going from soft to loud, like a crescendo, which was to be played in the elevator for the Whitney Biennial.
Images courtesy the artists, McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Barry Whistler Gallery, and The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.