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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.

A good deal of the art on view looks facile and quickly made, even provincial -- including works by award-winners Sandra Skrabanek, Bill Davenport and Kelly Klaasmeyer. Using black-and-white photocopies glued onto plywood, Skrabanek creates stylized floral shapes with such powerful media images as a human fetus, skeletons, insects and worms. Davenport's interplay of needlepoint and cartoony "boy art" has neither the material inventiveness nor irritating edge evident in the hybridized visual language of his earlier painted plywood sculptures. Klaasmeyer's elaborate, gold-embroidered box of gouaches cataloging items from her dead grandmother's drawer -- a canasta score pad, a motel key -- is of little technical or sentimental interest.

In his catalog essay, Moody cites L.A. artist Jim Isermann as a touchstone for many of these artists. Isermann's stitched-together swatches and remnants purchased at swap meets revisit the formal conventions of modern painting and sculpture. But Isermann's stained-glass and fabric works are labor intensive, even if genuinely preoccupied with a total belief in image; many of the artists in the "Big Show" are simply preoccupied with ironic distance. There isn't really much here that's provocative or eccentric. The pastiche of styles is blatantly derivative, even feeding off our own community by producing a little Karin Broker, a Billy Hassell, a Liz Ward, even an Art Guys piece.

The few successful examples at Lawndale are not mere entities or objects, but are agents, resurrecting abstract art by investigating the very motion of the eye across, in and through the surfaces of the works. They move. Consider Kathleen Packlick's Discovery, composed of rows of concentric circles in flux, a kind of textbook diagram that simultaneously reads as colorful marbles, eyes or planetary charts.

Among the few photographs selected for the show, which Moody ghetto-izes in Lawndale's small gallery, are Amy Blakemore's enigmatic, time-displaced vignettes that confound the commercial perversity of religion and superstition. Positioned on the "color" wall, Forrest Prince's purposefully ramshackle, formally designed placard of homilies takes on renewed evangelical meaning within the context of this exhibition: "You can forget Mary Boone. Abstract, like all other self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual art forms, is out. Truth is in."

What is the truth? Truth in materials? In ironic distance? In image, mark, line? What does the show say about the immediate and personal experience of a single work of art? Moody seems to say that there's nothing really unusual about the compulsion to encode in the era of techno-speak; but then neither does it seem strange to reflect back on our own conscious experience. If anything, Moody's emphasis on presentation, coding and grouping promotes further dialogue about the nature of art. As such, the "Big Show" goes beyond the superficial issues of who was selected and who was left out. It's really about trying to understand the thing that connects all artists. In this case, however, the grouping is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

"The Big Show" will show through August 27 at the Lawndale Art and Performance Center, 4912 Main, 528-5858.

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