Graphic Ideas

In 1942, Peggy Guggenheim opened a Manhattan gallery to exhibit the new "isms" that Americans were increasingly curious about: surrealism, cubism, futurism and so on. The gallery, called Art of This Century, was a popular spectacle, if not exactly a commercial success. Its unusual design -- sculptures were displayed on chairs, paintings were mounted on hinged arms and a "Kinesthetic Gallery" allowed viewers to change the display at the push of a button -- attempted to place art more squarely in the daily lives of visitors. During its short life, the gallery became a locus for the transfer of art world power from Europe to New York. Guggenheim and her advisors (Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp among them) diligently searched out new talent. As a result, artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, all later recognized as among America's most important painters, received their first substantial exposure.

Now, a new gallery in Houston has borrowed Art of This Century's name. Housed in a long-deserted defensive driving school on West Gray, AOTC boasts a storefront window, fake oak paneling, indoor/outdoor carpet, a leatherette unit couch and a television (constantly on). Just as it takes a while to get used to someone with a deadpan sense of humor, it takes a while to catch on to AOTC. Like its predecessor, it intentionally ignores accepted art gallery conventions: there are no clean white walls, no disinterested receptionist, no morgue-like quiet. Just as Guggenheim planned the circus atmosphere of her gallery as a perfect backdrop for the surrealist objects she displayed, Jeff Elrod, director of Houston's AOTC, designs his exhibitions to play on the industrial-grade quality of his space.

To name a gallery Art of This Century in 1942 was optimistic, a grand statement of confidence in the new "non-realist" painting, as it was called then. To name a gallery Art of This Century in 1996 is to pick apart that very optimism. It's obvious at first glance that the new AOTC has neither the means nor the desire to exhibit the masterworks that shaped the 20th century's view of art. However, there's a hint of sincerity in the name's promise. AOTC is offering a contrasting view of this century's art; its interest is in art saturated with irony, art obsessed with consumer culture, discarded art. Its catalogs -- photocopied affairs stapled into cheap folders decorated with wood grain contact paper and electrical tape -- are as much a calculated critique of the standard museum and commercial gallery as an inexpensive documentation of a show. Written by artist Mark Flood, the catalogs mock glossy, four-color publications designed to flatter artists and their collectors. Instead of an essay, one includes a "multiple lack of choice" quiz. Another satirizes the endless requests for help that artists receive from nonprofits by noting that "we're asking all artists to make little balls of antimatter to hang from our special 'fund' tree."

It's his ability to dictate exactly what his gallery will show, unfettered by a commercial gallery's market demands or the bureaucracy that saddles nonprofit institutions, that is AOTC's strength, Elrod says. And indeed, his current no-budget show, the gallery's second, reveals an eye for the new that's rare among Houston curators. In the art world's sagging economic climate, AOTC may be one of the few venues that can afford to gamble on a trend.

"Hines & His Circle: Tragic Fading Supergraphic" gathers the work of three young artists independently obsessed with "the dank industrial-decorating trend" (as the catalog defines it) called Supergraphics: Glasgow, Scotland native Robert Montgomery, New York artist Giovanni Garcia-Fenech and Elrod himself. The three painters take very different approaches to these ubiquitous designs, resulting in a show that is coherent without being monotonous.

Though the term Supergraphics may not be familiar to most people, the Supergraphics look definitely is. Popularized by the Yale School of Architecture in the late '60s and '70s, Supergraphics are linear designs (rainbows, arrows, curving stripes) that were used to decorate cheaply made, monotonous or massive buildings. Modeled after geometric abstraction paintings, but strictly architectural in function, these murals with their clumsy color combos aren't difficult to find in Houston. Horizontal bars of thick, industrial paint grace a side wall of Chief Auto Parts stores; four-lane stripes of orange, turquoise, purple and red zip down the stairwells of Bally's Total Fitness. Supergraphics glitzed up for the '80s. Supergraphics can be read as an attempt to humanize, a distinctly corporate effort to communicate -- the notion likely being that "the little extras mean we care." By virtue of their laughable neutrality the graphics generally fail in their mission, but at the same time their liberal use in Miniskools and "cafetoriums" impacted the Zoom-watching kids of the '70s. Small wonder, then, that young artists are now looking to Supergraphics as an early aesthetic influence.

The "Hines" of the show's title is a mysterious figure, an unknown, maybe even corporately created, artist whose easel-sized, brown-and-orange geometric paintings Elrod found in local thrift stores, along with examples of Supergraphics-style work bearing other signatures. The exhibit intersperses these found paintings with Elrod's, Montgomery's and Garcia-Fenech's larger canvases. Compared to other thrift store paintings, these are oddities -- impersonal rather than sentimental works. If one can read the discarded art of Sunday painters as a record of a society's subterranean dreams and fantasies, these miniature paeans to a strictly ordered aesthetic are frighteningly naive, invested with a belief in the ordered, utopian message of Supergraphics. Or alternatively, they attest to the power of the Supergraphics aesthetic, to a desire for a life reassured by hard lines and solid colors.

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