Big Show, Small Vision

At Lawndale's "Big Show," the artists get lost in the "grid"

Don't go to Lawndale's "Big Show" expecting the alarmingly raw and rigorously heterogeneous works that often characterize juried exhibitions. My first impression of the show -- hung salon-style with one wall composed mostly of colorful figurative work, the other of monochromatic abstractions -- is that it looks good, perhaps too good.

In saying this, I don't forget that large group shows really prove the dictum "you can't please all the people all the time." If it's not the artists who are in the show that one quibbles over, it's the artists who are left out. But juried art shows are the casting calls of the visual arts world. And as one of Houston's semi-regularly scheduled, evaluative venues for work submitted by artists living within a 100-mile radius of Houston, the "Big Show" has become an increasingly visible exhibition for new sensibilities.

The "Big Show" provides equal access to all artists, well-known and emerging, those with formal training and those who are self-trained. Juried shows such as these are often the most open and democratic crapshoots around. Rough diamonds may be positioned alongside more and less competent works, in sum presenting an artistic milieu of paradoxical humor, unabashed pleasure of execution and a thoroughly idiosyncratic spirit. Indeed, large group shows of contemporary art can reflect the importance of self-expression and an unflagging belief in the social reward for individual accomplishment.

To be sure, the "Big Show" generates a powerful, even seductive, cumulative charge. As you amble through the gallery, you don't find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with definite propositions, but instead feel yourself falling for the show's irresistible rhythms. Juror Tom Moody, the Dallas artist, art critic and curator, has admirably assembled 109 works -- paintings, sculptures, assemblages, photographs -- by 78 artists; the result is not just a cohesive installation, but an installation so tightly organized that it leaves little room for interpretation and expression of individual artists' concerns. The "Big Show" is less a juried show than it is a curated overview; it's less about the individual works than about a particular aesthetic.

Rather than use wall labels to identify individual works, Moody has devised an elaborate checklist along with maps or "seating" charts of the installation. The clusters of works present a kind of language, visual rhymes of sorts. But what are they telling us? Moody never gives us the path, the conduit. Oftentimes works look` pinned to the wall for design purposes, perhaps as punctuation marks. Some examples don't hold up other than being, say, number 43 in the upper left-hand corner; others would do better if taken out of the group aesthetic. Moreover, trying to examine the individual works is like playing a game in which one must constantly flip back and forth between the installation and accompanying charts. Art's primary appeal is visual; ideas alone cannot hold an exhibition together.

Curators set up the way we view art. They deliver a certain message and their intentions are revealed through their installations. Some curators attempt to possess a work temporarily, even use a show to leave their imprint. At Lawndale, the visual lexicon of both painterly and detached gestures, media imagery, cartoon-style commentary and "pathetic" adventures in tastelessness are all presented in much the same way as Moody's "sampling aesthetic." Taken as a whole, the "Big Show" looks suspiciously like Moody's own work, in which no subject is more privileged than another. Writing about Moody's exhibition of paintings at Gray Matters in Dallas last year, one art critic noted his "conglomeration of various styles" and "yet another gridded layout, this time divided into 12 black-and-white line drawings on one side and 12 brightly colored abstractions on the other." Perhaps what we're seeing at Lawndale, then, is a reflection of the juror rather than of the region.

It's okay by me for a show to focus on the juror's aesthetic -- the problem is that Moody doesn't go anywhere with it. Standing before the gridded walls of earth-toned abstractions and high-voltage figurative works, one tends to focus on the whole, the group rather than the individual pieces. For the most part the art melds into the walls with the veneer of professional correctness. Nobody steps out of line in this exhibition. Although issues of feminism, ethnicity, ecology and global politics are present, they don't seem to come forward. After perusing the exhibition, odds are that you'll remember the installation more than the individual works. Contrastingly, Moody's stylish installation enables many works to look better than they have a right to.

So what's the message coming off these walls? Moody's confusing catalog essay doesn't provide a clue. Couched in "boomer" art jargon, Moody flits from inconsequential statements about beauty to inane barbs against art professionals. Moody missed a prime opportunity in his essay to help locate the art of the '90s, which some art professionals have compared to a smoggy day, an inversion layer hanging over our heads. Similarly, the art at Lawndale has a numbing sameness about it. Is art really just about style? Is art just feeding on itself?

Art does seem to have just moods and phases rather than distinctive moments now. Anything is acceptable for an artist to undertake: any style, from romanticism to conceptualism; any media, from chocolate to CD ROM. This openness, this freedom to deconstruct, appropriate, simulate and re-present is also accompanied by a good deal of aesthetic flailing around. If visual culture is all used up, what is to be represented, and how? At Lawndale, we feel part of the action but also operate at a safe, anonymous distance from such issues.

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