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Amazing Cleveland

James Surls and Charmaine Locke start a small-town art space

"My premise is, if you make it, we will show it," says Surls. "And that's something nobody is doing. Consider there are institutions, churches and schools with buses and spaces, who have the wherewithal to put something together but don't do it. To make a change in a community or a

government, to change their minds about art, that's important. If schools taught art and science and philosophy [and] tied them together like

the primary colors -- red, yellow and blue -- with those three colors you can make any color, and with those three subjects you can make the world. Art should be integrated into school, not sectioned off."

"If a kid comes up and hands you a great body of work, where do you show it?" Surls continues. "Who is going to show it? This institution or that museum or that gallery? Well, no, they've got their agenda and they're busy. The egg is hatched and here's this kid out in the world having to pin up the art, to show the art, to formally present the art, all for the sake of getting that psychological feedback and reward."

Amazing Space encourages artists of all ages who might otherwise be ignored by the institutions. In last year's "Fish, Fowl, and Fur" exhibition, Amazing Space packed in nearly 800 works by area schoolchildren. Upcoming events include a "T-show," for which four area teachers will select works, and a contest to design a mountain with a moat for Cleveland. Never mind what a mountain is doing in Cleveland -- it's all dreamy stuff.

Riskier still are Surls' nonhierarchical installations that place works by young children and teenagers alongside those by adults. Currently up at Amazing Space are self-portraits and landscapes by Betty Mobley, a sixtysomething widow from Corpus Christi who turned to art after her husband died -- she paints with a loaded brush in high-voltage colors. The freedom from Southern mores is evident not only in the exuberant and quite exotic images of herself, but also in her luxurious handling of the paint. Mobley takes otherwise mundane, decorative landscapes and turns them into full-throttle orchestrations of smooth and tactile surfaces -- the kind that you can sink your teeth into. The flowered jungle of Waterlilies is an explosion of churning visceral forms, of the very wellsprings of life. One senses that Mobley paints with everything she's got, or as Surls likes to say, "with both triggers."

Equally engaging is "Colors of Spring" -- local kids' drawings, paintings and collaborative collages of Matisse-like flowers, images of butterflies and even Frankie and Annette on the beach at Galveston. The unselfconscious works are curiously upbeat (okay, I really expected black-and-slash images from the teenagers).

Also showing are the post-apocalyptic paintings by Alvin Community College student John Rouse. Apparently, his art teacher told him that the highly personal images of the three graces on fire, a baby riding a crocodile, a woman in a bottle and a locust feasting on a burning landscape were too "ugly" to enter the local art competition. Pity. The smooth, thickly scumbled paintings intelligently combine the poetic mysticism of Symbolism, the lyricism of Romanticism and the free association of Surrealism.

Hanging alongside Rouse's provocative works are deliberately crude, raw images of figures drawn, gouged and burned onto wood by Connie Kelly, who is the wife of artist Bert Long. Surls tells me this is the first time Kelly has ever shown her powerful work, filled with tormented souls and monstrous beasts. There's also a couple of assemblages by Surls' mother -- little skulls, faces, eyes, a fish, various dangling charms and found materials from nature frame a garage-sale religious print and a mirror.

Back at their studio in Splendora, Surls and Locke show me dozens of drawings by Joey Madden, who also attends Alvin Community College and is a friend of John Rouse. His manic cyberspace figures and doodles are powerful visionary images derived from the media as well as from social inanities. He seems like the kind of teenager who might pore over such cyber-punk magazines as Mondo 2000 and Wired. There are figment dragons, constellations and cowboy hats, a demon coming out of a chicken's head, winged TV creatures and characters coughing their heads off.

"I think the idea of curating is like painting or making sculpture, taking the components and making a whole out of them -- something which I was able to do at Lawndale," says Surls. "It's great to look at something like this that comes your way and say, 'Yeah, I'll give that a show. We don't have to wait two years.' This is the kid who falls through the cracks. Here's someone who steps full-blown into all three areas -- art, science and philosophy.... I personally think it pays off if you treat a student like a professional. If they've already acted and reacted with professionals, if they've helped hang professional shows, then they've got the jump, the head start. But how do you solve the problem? If Amazing Space is a drop in the ocean, it is, nevertheless, a drop. So how do you make it one hundred drops without diluting the essence? That's the question. How do you extend the drop?

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