Don’t Mess with Texas Artists: Abstract Art Finds New Life with Texas Women Artists

by Jacky Cortiaus December 17, 2022
Installation view of various mixed media works on a wall and a sculpture on a plinth

Liz Gates, “Co-emergence,” 2020, diapers and felt on wooden stretcher.

New abstract artworks by regional Texas artists bring to mind the idiom “Don’t Mess with Texas,” although in this case, perhaps, “Don’t Mess with Texas Artists.” Originally an anti-litter campaign slogan, the phrase became part of the Texas vernacular as an expression of the state’s pride in its tough and independent nature, and now that colloquialism includes regional abstract artists. The Art Museum of Southeast Texas presents an exhibit of such artists in Contemporary Texas Women Artists: Abstraction Here and Now. A showcase of women artists who work within a 200-mile radius of Beaumont, this show truly demonstrates the vibrancy of abstract art being made now. This eclectic collection brings together various paintings, sculptures, and site-specific works that touch on change, time, and connectedness.

One of the first pieces seen when entering the exhibit nearly blends into the wall, yet it catches an attentive eye and sets the tone for this exhibition. Liz Gates is a Houston-based painter, sculptor, and mixed-media artist who’s artworks feature themes of gendered labor, self-manifestation, and feminist mother identity. At the entrance of the show, Co-emergence is made of cloth diapers and felt on a wooden stretcher. The diapers are patched together like a rough quilt, and cover the outline of a frame. The underlying wooden stretcher gives the appearance of a canvas mounted on a wall. This visual of the outline of the “canvas” elevates Gates’ diaper quilt, to be viewed and experienced as any other artwork hung in a museum or gallery. Gates’ work — even in its abstraction, devoid of reference — calls to mind the numerous mother and child images throughout art history, from the Madonna and Christ in Renaissance sculptures to Mary Cassat’s Impressionist paintings. In order to inspire new associations and narratives, Gates deconstructs the imagery of motherhood and presents a more realistic viewpoint. Her piece may also allude to the tough reality of motherhood — the vast amount work (that never seems to end) to wash and care for a little one — as opposed to the dreamy imagery of Cassat or the glittering image of the Madonna.

Installation of tubes of neon fluorescent lights

Adela Andea, “Rapscallions Organoid System,” 2022, mixed media, site-specific installation.

Adela Andea’s Rapscallions Organoid System stands out as the heart of the exhibit. Various wires of light crawl up the walls and across the ceiling like veins, connecting multiple organs made of lights and other materials. Mounted on one wall and suspended from the ceiling are masses of objects resembling hearts — connecting the veins and other organs, and pumping them with life. Vibrant colors draw visitors in and create a whimsical atmosphere.

The imagery of the hearts and veins, combined with the lights and materials, connect nature and science. Andea’s work also encourages viewers to consider their relationship with technology: what captivates our hearts? Her use of vibrant lights brings to mind the fluorescent works of Dan Flavin, however, in contrast to Flavin’s minimalism, Andea’s dynamic site-specific installation is whimsical, energetic, and thought-provoking. Working from Conroe, Andea creates work that demands audience attention and comments on the swift adaptation to changing systems in our modern age. This artwork brings together unconventional and contemporary components to not only connect natural and digital systems, but also viewers’ understanding of the changing world around them.

installation of various framed works hanging on the wall and three small sculptures on pedestals

Bethany Johnson, “Untitled (Safe Keeping),” 2020, paper, cardboard, fabric, Styrofoam, sandpaper.

Bethany Johnson’s Untitled (Safe Keeping) consists of three objects made of stacks of tightly packed paper and cardboard, all in terranean colors. The blocks of paper material are all roughly the same size, and one mimics two individual pieces merging together into one. They all form gradients of colors, such as white, blue, brown, yellow, teal, and gray. The visible layers remind viewers of tree rings or layers of earth, as well as the gradual impact of time. Reminiscent of a geological cross-cut, Johnson’s works are inclusive and is a multi-layered meditation on time and metamorphosis. Their connection to nature also reminds viewers of the damage often caused by material consumption: that layers of waste will build over time without decomposing. Johnson, who is based in Austin, creates these objects by stacking and cutting waste materials, which are then tightly bound together with hidden screws and bolts. While beautiful and captivating on the surface, these objects are imbued with a darker narrative of the effect of over consumption on nature.

Installation view of various mixed media works on wall, and a sculpture on a plinth

Emma Balder, “Interference with Fate,” 2022, recycled fabric, rope, thread, graphite, ink, acrylic on canvas, fishing lining, recycled foam filling.

Textiles are present in many different ways in this exhibition, but Emma Balder’s Interference with Fate marries collage and fabric in a manner that resembles expressionist painting. Made of recycled fabric, rope, thread, and other materials, this artwork is a patchwork of soft fibers — strips of brightly colored fabrics are pieced together with white patches to create an abstract design. A closer examination reveals the intricate texture of the various materials; visible stitches and rough bits of rope add unique embelishments.

Based out of Houston, Balder creates work that encourages reflection on change, interconnection, and regeneration. Seemingly random bits of textiles are sewn together to make something whole, their connectedness reflected in the harmony of the colors. The strips of color mimic splashes of paint against a canvas, but the softness of the material creates an organic outline as opposed to the squareness of the canvas. Recycled fabric and other materials find new life and reality in Balder’s work, where they continue to serve a purpose in their afterlife. 

Houston-based Erika Alonso’s It’s an Adventure invites viewers into an explosion of flowers and plants. Her use of colors — reds, blues, greens, and yellows — is warm and inviting to viewers. This painting depicts a pathway leading out of a tunnel into a lighted space, but viewers cannot quite see what is on the other side. Perhaps that’s the adventure — not knowing what lies ahead.

Alonso uses painterly brushstrokes to create whimsical and peaceful abstract paintings that are also energetic. Charcoal outlines accentuate the organic shapes of the flowers and plants, and may be a reference to Willem De Kooning’s similar use of charcoal. Alonso’s works are a kind of escapism; they invite audiences to daydream about fantastic places away from harsh reality, and provide an instant rush of serotonin with their beauty and energy.

installation view of a floating, multi-colored piece suspended in the space

Abhidnya Ghuge, “Looking Above the Thunderstorm,” 2022, site-specific installation using 5,000+ hand-dyed, woodblock-printed and embossed paper plates, fabric, hex netting, nylon thread and acrylic.

Abhidnya Ghuge’s Looking Above the Thunderstorm is a site-specific installation made of over 5,000 paper plates. The piece hangs in its own space near the entrance of the exhibit and stands out as the centerpiece of the show. Small conical shapes and fabric strips hang, like small clouds, from the main garland of woodblock-printed and embossed plates, accentuating the title’s thunderstorm metaphor. The vibrant shades of red, yellow, blue, orange, and pink cause the artwork to look like an elaborate arrangement of flowers from a distance, but closer examination reveals the paper’s materiality.

A 2021 Texas Biennial Artist who is based in Tyler, Ghuge creates artworks about positive change that happens when people and communities come together. In Looking Above the Thunderstorm, the disposable paper plates symbolize human mortality, but join together to support the beautiful garland. At first glance, audiences may not notice paper plates as the material, but it plays a role in demonstrating that something commonplace and disposable can be made useful and beautiful, especially when connected with others. The theme of Ghuge’s artwork comes at a critical time of worldwide change and uncertainty, and offers a chance to come together to look above the metaphorical thunderstorm and to build trust amongst individuals.

Abstraction Here and Now demonstrates the potency of Texas’ women artists and their masterful and innovative artworks. While the origins of modern abstract art were highlight the role of men, this exhibit sets a new standard for increased inclusion. Now, these women in Texas are manifesting a new generation of abstract art, and Texans have yet another reason to take great pride in their state. Men may have dominated abstract art before, but women, especially Texas women, are leading and innovating its new era.


Contemporary Women Artists: Abstraction Here and Now is on view at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through December 23, 2022.

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