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

And when did the show change from a juried to a curated exhibition? Notices were received piecemeal by artists, many of whom were left hanging as to whether they'd be lucky enough to receive a studio visit. Upon acceptance into "Between Two Worlds," some artists were given the option to create new work specifically for the show. As a result, one-third of the artists received partial subsidies from the CAM, clearly showcasing some artists over others (this brings up the thorny notion of curators as "set directors" who leave an imprint on a show, if not on the artist's esthetic development).

Moreover, twelve out of the 15 artists have some sort of Houston affiliation -- six live here and six are represented or shown at Houston galleries. Perhaps the five curators didn't need to leave the city to organize this show after all. Worse still, there's no catalog essay to state the process or clarify the theme. Missing too are the curators' statements regarding their interpretations of the art produced in Texas. (Doroshenko says they all went on vacation. He also says he feels that juror's statements are "hokey.") But those statements help us make sense of an exhibition and a specific period of time long after the work has been taken down and forgotten. Futhermore, the possibility that the show would travel to Canada and Mexico was supposedly nixed because of "logistics" and the strain on CAM's budget.

What we're presented with, then, is a show that manages to alienate the artists and community at large. At a cost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars (including the thousands spent on the curators' travel expenses and honoraria, installation, slick catalog and video "jukebox"), one of the country's major venues has brought together work that finally, after great labor, reinterprets nothing. And it seems to be a fluctuating show as we speak. While CAM tries to downplay the costs of the exhibition (repeated requests for a copy of the budget finally resulted in a document with many holes, while verbal inquiries resulted in vast discrepancies), Doroshenko changes the thematic variables. During a recent lecture at Lawndale, the curator clarified the theme of the exhibition from exploring gray areas to "death as the final frontier" and the "void between life and death," but with a nod toward Houston's "exploding computer business."

Of course, death is one of art's enduring themes, and the conventions in which it is cloaked tell us a great deal about a society's inner life. Art upsets us by exploding and extending human consciousness, revealing the emptiness of conventions by looking under the surface. Often it is dark under the surface, and unpleasant -- but art exposes reality with its conscious light. Well, given this loaded topic, I simply don't see it in the majority of works on view. When artists in this show do approach death, it is with an air of ironic detachment, tabloid sensationalism or unreflecting sentimentality.

As far as the sub-themes go, AIDS is treated here in strictly antiseptic terms. Doroshenko doesn't address how the disease has loosened up sex talk or renewed a dedicated caring between people. Why is AIDS an important topic in this show? Why are pills important? To further reveal their seductive nature? To get high? As toys? As cures? As anesthetics? What about suicide? Why is it funny? And what about the issues summoned forth by the actions of Dr. Kevorkian? But Doroshenko neither explains nor takes responsibility. The curators don't tell us anything. It's up to us to wade through this gray mush and figure it out. Essentially, the exhibition follows a scattershot thesis that makes Texas look like it's trying to keep up critically with L.A., New York or Berlin -- thereby making us look provincial, if sadly behind the times.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But you wouldn't know it by the inept installation at CAM. Painting is pretty much treated as a non-issue in this show. All three works by David McGee -- he and Kelli Scott Kelley are the only painters included -- are obstructed from clear view by Thomas Glassford's loofa-and-chrome sculpture. Moreover, looking at Nicosia's enigmatic photographs requires squinting through the red glare caused by the Art Guys' pill installation, Dusk, and Helen Altman's Inferno. Situated between Wallace's bulky tree trunk with gnarly roots and Bayon's mummy-like effigies, Jesse Amado's seductively intimate cones and tubes created from layers of felt, thread and metal zippers seem little more than elegant wallflowers. Moreover, by aligning Casey Williams' large black-and-white photographs, which pair the seemingly disparate images of electric power lines and generators with kitschy classical sculpture or a crystal chandelier, and Toby Topek's gray knickknack shelf of bottles and objects, the curator saps the mysterious elements of both groups, leaving a formally composed and quite tasteful, but lifeless, environment. All in all, the installation looks like a cross between a pharmacy and a home-furnishings shop. The challenge is for us to separate our own feelings as viewers, to be careful about being provoked or seduced, and to look for the emotional truth in the mixed messages.

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