Dumb and Dinky

New micro-galleries may go for the small and the stupid, but hey, they're still a breath of fresh air

In a time when programming choices at non-commercial galleries are often made by committee or viewed mainly as grant-getting opportunities, a strong personal vision can be difficult to find. What's more, organizations such as the Contemporary Arts Museum and DiverseWorks have high stakes riding on each exhibit they do -- a healthy chunk of budget, a standard of professionalism. As a result, larger organizations tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. But several new artists-turned-curators are using smaller spaces with microbudgets and fewer strings attached to take advantage of the chance to be kamikaze -- or at the very least casual.

One such curator is Eric Niebuhr, a graduate of the University of Houston's art department. In September, he asked artists around town to make Shrinky Dinks, a kid's handicraft that uses special plastic that's molded, then shrunk in an oven to 40 percent of its original size. In the end, "The Incredible Shrinking Art Show" included more than 70 artists, but still looked uncrowded in UH's 13-by-21-foot Small Projects Gallery, a space that invites low-budget proposals. Sprinkled among works from lesser-knowns such as Stefan Salinas and Audrey Herber were Shrinky Dinks by the Art Guys, Jackie Tileston, Gael Stack and Al Souza. The medium -- the finished works measured only a few inches -- was perfect for the space. Niebuhr says he hoped to open doors for artists who usually work in an established format by "taking seriousness out of it." Unlike Houston's megashows, which are also venues for lesser-known artists, a smaller show such as Niebuhr's can reflect a personal, selective aesthetic that's more fun to explore. As Niebuhr says of curating a show, "I view the whole thing as a work of art."

That same attitude can presently be found in the show at Subspace, which occupies the tiny area where DiverseWorks's bookstore used to be. The organization originally intended the location to be an "Artist Resource Center," but after being convinced that such a center would duplicate services already available elsewhere, DiverseWorks's Artist Advisory Board (AAB) decided the best way to serve Houston artists was to provide another exhibition space. Board member Bill Davenport agreed to be Subspace's first curator. "Subspace was conceived as a parasitic organism that would use DiverseWorks's resources without using their staff or ideas," Davenport says. "The less they know about it, the better."

In many ways, Davenport is an ideal first choice -- though he'd never curated a show before taking on Subspace, he has a rare knack for finding underexposed artists who are also good. The current "Show 'n' Tell" is his fourth exhibit -- earlier ones included artist Jim Rizkalla, whose down-on-their-luck trash sculptures had made him a standout in larger group shows around town; San Antonio artist Elizabeth McGrath, whose soft, anthropomorphic sculptures had been shown at her home city's prestigious Pace Gallery, but not in Houston; and Denton artist Erick Swenson, who brought an entourage from Denton's student-run Good/Bad Art Collective for what was billed as a "dangerous art" show. Swenson's show included a chaise longue with working burners for seats, exploding cigarettes and a mock glam-rock band performing in the back of a U-Haul outside.

Through such shows, Subspace has proven to be a breath of fresh air. And with its impossible naivete and stubborn eccentricities, "Show 'n' Tell," which is something of a 'zine version of an art exhibit, continues that freshness. A common thread of stupidness runs through the works by three Houston artists -- Caroline Bowles, Elisabeth Jackson and Delfina Vannucci. Bowles assembles toys and knickknacks on plastic merchandise displays affixed with bits of New Age bookstore wisdom. "We are all here together," reads one sign, referring to a plastic polar bear, a group of penguins and a fake ice cube pendant that share an overturned plastic bowl as a pedestal. A Chinese checkerboard becomes Indra's Net, where Smurfs share the cosmos with Fisher Price Little People. "Where are the Wise Women?" asks one piece that poses the Three Stooges in front of five matching books on the major world religions. The messages are "serious," but the goofy presentations are disarming.

Jackson chooses ingenuous girl-dream subjects such as lipsticks and penises for her glitter-and-paint works on paper. I Wanted to Show You My Cat features a shiny sticker of a cat -- duh. A further glimpse into Jackson's boudoir world of a 15-year-old is provided by a giveaway comic book that accompanies the show. It's full of dangerous, sexy women, some doodled repetitively, others engaged in snippets of action that, like trailers for proto-lesbian movies, stop just short of becoming plots. And Vannucci's A Punk Wish is a conglomeration of the endearingly dumb. In one section of her piece she writes "I'm staying with my parents" on different pieces of paper she found at her parents' house and sticks them on the wall. She organizes biographical detritus into an aesthetic -- old pencils with logos are mounted on the wall and labeled "where I went to prep school," "where my dad worked," etc. Yes, it's dumb, but it's an engaging dumbness -- it's idiosyncratic and simple.

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