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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

As you walk through the CAM's front doors there's an eerie sensation of being drawn into a fire -- a 15-foot inferno, to be exact -- composed of stacked artificial fireplace logs that crackle and flicker. For some, Helen Altman's gridded wall assemblage evokes natural forms such as a burial mound, fragments of a forest fire or even the warm glow of a campfire. But to others, the expansive piece may summon primal fears that harken to flight, heat and loss of control.

Funneling you into the blaze, which seemingly burns but never consumes, are two wall panels set at angles, each bearing a large niche for the display of 21 glass beakers filled with colored fluids. Tre Arenz has molded clay female nudes and submerged them in the 42 large jars with black caps; the nudes test the waters, so to speak, for their disintegrative powers. The liquids, ranging from clear to Pepto-Bismol pink and Kool-Aid hues, are everyday fluids -- motor oil, Windex, dishwashing liquid -- and some are highly toxic. Passing by the installation is like looking at a science experiment in which specimens are collected, identified and stored. The figures decompose as floating entities or slink as dismembered heaps on the bottom. Faces are smooth and pressed against the glass by condensation crystals, bubbles or a "witch's brew" of thick green muck.

In the CAM's main gallery, you'll find a banquet table laden with 7,386 red-and-yellow Tylenol gelcaps by the Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing). You'll also find Anne Wallace's assemblage that presents parts -- roots, trunks, and limbs -- cut and bolted together. There's Patricia Ruiz Bayon's seven life-sized body casts fashioned from a mixture of palm fiber and paper, as well as Toby Topek's Dining Room Piece, a wall installation displaying found objects in glass medical jars filled with healing waters of the artist's creation and paired with limestone rocks wrapped in old bedsheets. In Thomas Glassford's sculptures, medical equipment such as tubing, trays and clamps encase or dangle from large gouxds. Nearby is Greg Reuter's grouping of five rows of ceramic heads suspended at eye level by wires from the ceiling, in addition to Bill Thomas's photographic tongue-in-cheek self-portraits exploring various methods of suicide.

Above the CAM's interior entrance is an installation by Eric Avery, a practicing AIDS psychiatrist in Galveston, featuring silkscreens of the artist's healthy blood smear painted on skin-toned paper. These abstract shapes, treated as oversized patterns, are seemingly transformed into mass-produced decorative wallpaper. Above them hover several 3-D spheres of the HIV virus that look like playful planetary orbs.

These are some of the works you'll see in CAM's highly anticipated exhibition "Texas/Between Two Worlds," which unites 15 artists from Houston, Fort Worth/Dallas, the Texas-Mexico border and a few points in between. Spearheaded by Peter Doroshenko, CAM's Engelhard curator, along with a four-person international curatorial team -- Louise Dompierre (associate director/chief curator, the Power Plant, Toronto); James Fisher (former curator/assistant to the director of exhibitons, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth); Sylvia Pandolfi Elliman (director, Museo de Arte Alvar y Carmen T. de Carrillo Gil, Mexico City); and Conrado Tostado (curator of contemporary art, also at the Museo de Arte) -- the show aims to foster a compelling dialogue among diverse artists working in a variety of media. To fully explore the range and depth of art being created in the state, the curators reviewed 6,500 slides and supposedly traveled thousands of miles throughout the state to visit 60 artists' studios.

After completing their rounds, the curators found that artists in Texas are grappling with many of the same universal issues that currently concern artists internationally. And they perceived the common thread among Texas artists as a general sense of alienation or, as stated in the exhibition catalog, "that great 'between,' that gray area which is neither here nor there but somewhere else, beyond complete understanding." Accordingly, that "gray area" conjures up an ambiguous stew of psychological, moral and sexual suggestions. There's a ring of humankind's relationship to death, spirituality and the environment, as well as allusions to medicine, high technology and Mexican culture. In the general impression it makes, the show is a trauma center -- sterile, hushed and twitchy. It isn't much fun, and there are few signs of hope or holistic impulses evident in the works themselves.

Although a few of these artists are very good, most aren't in this context, because their work seems saddled with a programmatic need for professional explaining and bodes only a return to grad-school methodology -- which may soothe museum curators but will surely suffocate viewing pleasure with its low-voltage gloom. Many of these artists are young and only the best of them avoid sophomoric clichŽs of jerryrigged work. It takes a long time to figure out what "serious" really means here. There is sometimes an antic kind of charm on view, but it's surface charm.

Emerging as the anomaly of the exhibition is Nic Nicosia's group of tinted black-and-white photographs exploring such complex themes as marriage, children and middle age. The staged dramas, which probe the darker side of domesticity, those in-between moments that address our unresolved fears and desires, are mature works redolent with undeniable psychological power.

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.

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.

In more than one instance during the exhibition, however, the CAM aims for truth and social responsibility, but comes up short on both counts. To commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, Eric Avery conducted a public HIV testing at the museum. As part of the performance, a small group of people in the Houston arts community volunteered to have their blood tested for the HIV virus to acknowledge Day Without ARTcaps?. As Avery and volunteers spoke about demystifying and normalizing HIV testing as well as the importance of HIV education, TV news cameras caught the anxious faces of groups of elementary students and teenagers attending the event.

But for all that, the Art Guys' three sculptures composed entirely of non-prescription drugs proved the more powerful lures. During Avery's "performance," someone from the group kicked out the bottom of Noon, a floor-to-ceiling "rope" of 3,840 pink Excedrins, thereby spilling and cracking about a dozen pills onto the floor. After the testing, I saw a group of teenage girls ogling Dusk, with its array of row upon row of seductive little modules of toy jacks fashioned from pills. Believe me when I say those girls weren't looking at the piece as art, but simply as a cute Lego version of drugs. Similarly, those suicide photographs may influence some depressed teen to plug in a toaster while soaking in the bathtub.

I'm not for censoring artists by any means, but as long as the CAM is bringing in busloads of kids to the exhibition, it has a responsibililty to realize that an eight-year-old or a teenager may not go beyond the literal presentation of such works. Without proper aids or guidelines to discern the meaning of the show, the CAM conveys a total disregard for a younger generation that's already being X'ed out. If Rolling Stone, that up-to-the-minute barometer of music, culture and politics, sees fit to publish a feature article on teenage suicide and drug abuse in its December issue, maybe the CAM should reconsider its education program before soliciting schoolkids. Amazingly, the CAM's "Young People's Guide to Seeing" includes a small repro of the Art Guys' stacked "pills" with the instructions for "Making TEXAS art at home." In looking at the exhibition, another section coolly directs children to look for heads without bodies. What is the CAM thinking?

Curiously, "Between Two Worlds" opened concurrently with the Dallas Biennial, which was juried by the Blaffer Gallery's Marti Mayo, Houston artist Benito Huerta, University of Texas at Arlington professor Al Harris and Women and Their Work's Chris Cowden. Organized by DARE (Dallas Artists Research and Exhibition) on a shoestring budget, the upbeat and energetic show took the all-inclusive approach, choosing to focus on the true breadth of creativity throughout the state. The catalog isn't fancy, but it does reproduce one work and publish a statement by each artist, in addition to jurors' essays and acknowledgments about the selection process. reviseIn contrast, the CAM catalog has no curator's statements, no artists' statements -- each artist has a work in the catalog, beautifully reproduced, although some of the pieces are not actually in the show (a deadline problem, Doroshenko says).

At the Lawndale discussion, Doroshenko was right on target in saying that "an institution in a large metropolitan area must believe in the local artists or they'll move." We desperately need an artists' support system here just as much as we need for CAM to be on its toes rather than to breed cynicism. But one minute Doroshenko refers to himself as a liaison to the art community, and the next he's telling the same audience that it'll have to wait five more years before the CAM attempts another Texas show. So what message does this particular exhibition send to the community? Maybe how to cleverly fill up a space with numbers, all sorts of permutations and combinations. At any rate, the show doesn't tell us anything we don't already know or haven't seen regarding art, culture and society. Texas is loaded with good artists and a variety of capable work. We've also got vital institutions. Then why can't some curators show it to the best advantage and take it seriously? In the end, "Between Two Worlds" is a lazy exhibition that reveals too much about design, presentation and purchasing power and conveys little understanding of what it means to be an artist in this state.

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