Painting on My Planet

by Bill Davenport July 4, 2014

“have u seen this?” said the text, “WTF!” It was Olivia Flores Alvarez’s list of the “Top Ten Painters in Houston” in this week’s Houston Press, just out.

The first thing I did, before reading her list, was make my own list. It wasn’t hard—I’m always looking at Houston art, and am, by nature, a scorekeeper. What I really did was update my running list of the best artists in Houston, remove the non-painters, and skim off the remaining top ten.

Then I read Alvarez’s piece. I expected to argue; the whole point of making lists is to haggle over who goes where, who’s moving up, and who has fallen off. Like Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty, it’s fun, if you don’t take it too seriously.

Of course our lists wouldn’t match exactly. But, as I scrolled through her four pages of online pictures, counting down to #1, there was no overlap. Not a single name on her list matched a single name on mine, anywhere.

We’re on different planets. Let me tell you about mine.

On my planet, the best painters are trying, through painting, to show themselves a truth about the world that they have not been able to see before, and then they’re showing me. New truths are hard to come by. It’s difficult, demanding work. So difficult, in fact, that few of them, even with the best educations, and the most earnest efforts, succeed even occasionally. It’s heartbreaking, really. But sometimes it works, and then there’s a new truth in the world.

On Alvarez’s planet —let’s call it Planet A— the best painters make paintings. It’s indoor work, diverting and varied. If you’re persistent and personable, it can be a living. It’s useful work. People need paintings; there are far more blank walls than there are new truths to fill them and not everyone really wants a new truth staring them in the face before breakfast, anyway.

It’s honest work, too, if you’re not claiming more than you can deliver, but, sadly, most painters on Planet A, and most of their fans, including Alvarez, live under a widespread delusion that they’re actually on my planet, planet B, and they are doing what painters on my planet do when they go into the studio. It’s no wonder why: planet B gets all the news coverage. Books are written and stories sung about the heroic goings-on here.

The stories are so fantastic that many people on Planet A suspect Planet B is a fiction, a myth made up by people who claim to live here, or to have visited, to aggrandize themselves. I don’t blame them: stories are a big problem here. On Planet B, artists, and especially their dealers, are so desperate to possess those elusive new truths that bullshit claims of actually having one in hand thicken the air on Planet B like factory smoke in Beijing. You can hardly breathe. In this, I guess our planets aren’t so different after all, except that, on my planet, once in a while some of those amazing stories are true.









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Cody Ledvina is a new mother July 4, 2014 - 16:43

where’s your list dummy?

Robert Boyd July 4, 2014 - 20:18

You little tease–what are the top 10 painters on planet B?

Delfina July 5, 2014 - 01:58

I have to agree with Robert Boyd: you have to tell us your list! Perhaps readers could chime in with theirs as well. (I don’t know Houston art well enough to make my own.)

And this piece is wonderfully written.

Bill Davenport July 5, 2014 - 09:53

I promise I’ll publish my list Wednesday. I wasn’t trying to tease; I purposely left both lists out of this piece so as not to distract from my larger point, that there are different lists! If my list was in there, it would be the only thing anyone would talk about.

Gediminas Murnikovas July 7, 2014 - 15:07

Best subject of BD’s in a long time. Glad you left the lists off.

David Hardaker July 5, 2014 - 11:06

Nailed it.

Vincent Fink July 7, 2014 - 13:30

So which planet are you on?

David hardaker July 7, 2014 - 18:10

Planet A. I’ve got technical talents but I know what Bill means and he’s right. If someone wrote a great idea down on a piece of paper I’d rather pin that to the gallery wall than have a technically proficient but unoriginal and empty painting. That’s why I don’t represent myself.

Peter July 5, 2014 - 11:56

Here’s TF: Top ten lists thicken the internet like factory smoke in Beijing. Popular ideals of beauty fit the pageant judging format better than personal appreciation of truth-seeking does. And Kasem was always about top selling songs– pop trends by capital democracy not conceptual and/or aesthetic authority. Boobs and dollars are criteria simple enough to measure for scoring and declaring winners, and if those games are at all interesting, its only in their reflections of the audience and/or judges, the fans and the refs, not really the content. So the sport you’re playing is not really the game you’re scoring, and all planets are fictions. That said, bring it! We can’t wait to spar with your opinions!

Dean Keaton July 5, 2014 - 12:29

Why don’t you make your point, you’re making me tired all over

Jonathan Leach July 5, 2014 - 12:36

This is a great response Bill. I am not unlike any of the other commentators, in that my first reaction half way through reading your article was wanting to see your list. After a moment, when I realized you had not provided a counter list, I was relieved. You can post one Wednesday if you want, and start the list debate, but might I suggest not posting a list. In fact, I have, as an artist, seen many lists and found them all to be heavy handed and absurd. I have been on lists, won things as an artist, gotten second, third, and last place in contests. Being placed as a creative person among your peers is a gross feeling, a sweet yet acrid awful taste, like eating an entire fruit pie, and knowing you are going to throw up and knowing it will taste a little like strawberries. If you are interested in preserving the truth on planet B, let the individuals who see the work in person make there own list. The truth of painting is in the physical and intellectual/emotional interaction of the viewer and the work in its presence. Everyone’s list is going to be different, corrupted by experience and the limit one can see in city that has 12 openings a week. I respect your theoretical list, and can imagine it including really great artists we all need to know about. Instead of making a Top Ten, just tell us about them and how/why the work is important. Treat them and the rest of us with the respect of individual focus, not buzzfeed brashness, like Olivia’s list. I am pretty sure most every artist that ever entered a contest, did it for the same reason I do, for the desperately needed prize money, there is no other reason to subject oneself to the horrible act of being judged and rated amongst your friends and fellow artists. Lists are for consumers and consumer culture. Critiques and reviews/interviews are better suited for understanding the fact that Houston has way more than 10 great painters within the city limits,and that with each year that collection of talent only deepens.

Monica Melgar July 7, 2014 - 12:34

“…like eating an entire fruit pie, and knowing you are going to throw up and knowing it will taste a little like strawberries.” Nice!!!!

Damon Smith July 5, 2014 - 20:40

I wouldn’t pick any on her list either. I don’t want to look at any of them at breakfast, either.

The Art Guys July 6, 2014 - 12:20

“You can fool the fans, but not the players.” – John Cage

Lucy July 8, 2014 - 10:31


John July 7, 2014 - 04:14

“An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.”
– Shelby, “Steel Magnolias”
Hope I didn’t put you off with my low talk.

Monica Melgar July 7, 2014 - 12:33

I agree with Jonathan….screw the list!

heather bause July 7, 2014 - 14:02

Thank you Bill… I am so glad you wrote this in response to the Press article.

Living and working on Planet B is heartbreaking – not to sound dramatic. It is often difficult because one has to suspend disbelief in order to believe in the act, in the work, despite the reality of what is all around us; and it blows, makes us lose our faith in painting, depresses us, reminds us of how we are disconnected when all we want is to be connected.

I personally don’t care about top ten artist lists – Being in grad school now is what I imagine living on Planet B is like, and it is tough enough – I just want to make something I can stand to look at long enough to not paint over!

Joe Spurlock July 7, 2014 - 17:10

Heather, you might be in planet A.1

This is not a black and white subject. Lists are pretty idiotic

Richard Patterson July 7, 2014 - 15:01

First- this is a very good piece, the point being made better by not making the lists – since this might detract from the piece I think.

Second – I remember seeing a Turner Prize show in London, and one painter friend of mine said of another painter friend (who was one of the four finalists)
“God – the work is so uneven – I mean, some of his paintings are really good and some of them are just terrible’
And I said – “Everyone agrees with that”
And someone else said – “The problem is, no one can agree on which are the good ones and which are the bad ones”

A Bertrand Russell-grade paradox. Bill’s point totally stands – everyone will agree with it, and everyone who’s agreeing will be on list B – even the ones on list A.

Richard Patterson July 7, 2014 - 15:05


In the last line, I meant: “…will be on Planet B – even the ones on Planet A”

Jim Pirtle July 7, 2014 - 20:00

The List…. it is designed to maximize clicks on a web page and increase ad revenue. 5 best salads at fast food joints ….7 best Doctors Waiting Rooms in Houston … 10 Worst Places to see a ball of Foil
that is my view from Planet F which isnt even in the top 5

Rainey Knudson July 7, 2014 - 22:18

Everyone in publishing makes fun of lists (listicles), but they’re everywhere because they work — people look at them. Soemething about the human desire to impose order on a fundamentally chaotic universe…

HJ BOTT July 8, 2014 - 01:56

Thank you for addressing this issue, Bill, without your list. But we do await.

Every endeavor is subject to lists as all mammals are in their ranking, Alpha females and/or males. Most lists are inconsistent, mixing genre thus establish questionable order except for those listed, and of course those pushing the list (and their clients?), regardless of list/order intent.

Every artist has favorites (lists?) and these are, but not always, their antecedents. How big is your library?

Warren Albright July 8, 2014 - 11:17

not really useful

Dave Hickey July 8, 2014 - 11:39

It’s probably best not to bundle artists like financial instruments. They do aspire to a small modicum of autonomy. Oh boy, two more lists! Oh please.

Moe Profane July 8, 2014 - 12:05

Tell me how I make contact with this planet B. As an inhabitant of the filty sad planets that orbit the San Antonio Sun, I am new to the Houston Solar System. I have made contact with some of the folks on planet A. They are nice people and make pretty things, but I want to the worst player on a great team, trying to get better.

I’ll be in Houston this week in a group show at The Heights Gallery with what I suspect will be more Planet A people and I’m looking forward to it. What might I find on planet B on Friday though?

Tony Flaco July 9, 2014 - 09:06

Thanks Dave Hickey! Great response.

HJ BOTT July 10, 2014 - 00:01

Only a few moments remain for Wednesday’s promised Planet B list.
Take the brunt for the next firestorm as the “Pirates” cross the barriers of the “Farmers.” (Thank you Mr. Hickey for this referencing contribution.)

Will you list yourself, Bill?

Bill Davenport July 10, 2014 - 00:21

I published “The Top Ten Painters in Houston” this morning, as a separate article, at the top of the Glasstire site.

CA July 10, 2014 - 23:08

There’s another planet.


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