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Gray Matter of Concern

Both a bang and a whimper? The CAM's long-awaited Texas show may burn bright, but it doesn't burn deep

There are a few raw, still-developing talents in the show. Kelli Scott Kelley's paintings are romantic in a neo-Surrealist way, portraying a sort of mutant world that's partly wacky alchemy experiment, but also an observation on fantasy, vulnerability, the body and the slippery slope of identity. In David McGee's large canvases, like Inferno IX: Bronwyn's Red Rain, black shoes seemingly fall into the states that all souls are heir to: disorder, disease, ecstasy, fear, an electrifying anxiety, even willful self-destruction. The painting's black tarlike ground creates an equally toxic backfire of psychic and physical pollution. For these artists and others, the near future looks to be slightly medieval, a time of plagues and repressed sexuality. If they share a recurring theme, it's the conflict between the inevitability of decay and our lust for preservation. Still, don't go to the CAM expecting some cathartic experience. Precious few works deliver a kick in the head, preferring the elegant and indulgent over the unrepentant and relentless. You don't enter into and live these works as if they were your idea (for as long as you can bear), so much as just look at them.

To understand why, one needs a savvy grasp of what shows like this require: big-bang installational strategies, with slick presentation tightly focused on sucking in viewers. If that sounds formulaic, itÕs pretty much what the entertainment-intensive condition of much contemporary art has come to. The depth here is sorely lacking.

In "Between Two Worlds," most complexity of artistic response has been ironed down into puerile rhetoric, one-liners that have no further resonance once you've perceived their meager point. The mix of witless conceptualism and pseudo-documentary merely tells us that whatever snippets the curators gleaned from full-throttle national and international exhibitions -- such as "Helter Skelter" at MOCA in L.A., the Whitney Biennial, "Corporal Politics" originated at ??, "Post Human" from ??, and the Venice Biennale -- are to be "gotten" like a punchline. If anything, the curators themselves fall into the compromise of their own high purpose, since the show -- so cleanly installed -- manages to neutralize the enigmatic and raw qualities of the artists' works into a kind of slick expertise that many of these same artists have railed against. Driving these failings home, much of the work in "Between Two Worlds" is all too derivative.

If the "gray area" was indeed the overwhelming theme that Doroshenko and his colleagues saw, they devised a show that was not truly, in "PC" terms, representative. If "Between Two Worlds" seeks to forge a sound dialogue in which the border experience is to be interpreted symbolically as well as socially, then where are the truly passionate responses to a zone bristling with political tensions and bigotry?

Perhaps, in this instance, there are larger issues at stake than the work itself. A slew of questions seems to overshadow the whole endeavor. Although there has never been a group show without a gripe, "Between Two Worlds" is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Much of the problem is the imposition of a theme that hasn't been thoroughly digested. A show stands or falls according to its thematic structure. And by all accounts, these curators have attempted to impose a framework, a "gray area" -- on a state the size of all New England put together. As such, it's a stretch to fit something so broad and fuzzy to the works and make it stick. The curators open a Pandora's box of variables -- Catholicism, body orifices, medical metaphors, myths, border conflicts, life and death -- without representing the depth of pluralistic tendencies prevalent in art. As it stands, the curators treat such themes in ways that are simplistic, reductivist, derivative, quantitative and formulaic -- none of which, by the way, really characterize Texas art. Just as many of us ask whose body and whose power controls it, maybe we should question whose values and whose judgment dictates this revisecuratorial mandate.

The biggest problem with the exhibition is the manner in which it was put together. From start to finish, this is a show that's ill-conceived, inept and even, perhaps, dishonest. According to Doroshenko, the project began two years ago when the CAM decided to do away with a "top 40" format such as the 1988 Texas Triennial and organize a broadly based Texas show with a theme. revise(The Triennial was the last time the CAM originated a show of Texas artists for the upstairs main gallery. The only other Texas artist to make it into the upstairs space in these past five years was Vernon Fisher, in a touring show which was curated elsewhere.)

CAM's formal call for entries to all artists over 21 and its team of international curators served to galvanize the art community. As a result, over 6,500 slides were submitted by artists who had not been given the opportunity to exhibit work in CAM's upstairs gallery for several years.

The curators, however, weren't satisfied with the response and went outside the original stated parameters of the exhibition, making studio visits to artists who didn't submit work. Later on, they invited artists into the exhibition who never submitted materials, but were chosen simply to round out the theme of the show and cover their bases. Tell me, after viewing thousands of slides, was death the overriding image? Or was the "gray area" so limiting that the curators had to disregard the original prospectus to find what they were really looking for all along? Doroshenko says that the theme became evident only after traveling thousands of miles and visiting hundreds of studios. After all this, they saw "something." Never mind that a fifth curator was added to the project mid-stream without so much as a press release.

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