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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.
Near DiverseWorks at Commerce Street Art Warehouse there's yet another small gallery unburdened by mundane concerns such as, say, money and regular hours. A new artist-in-residence program has helped ensure the gallery will stay in use: Two artists a year receive a free studio, in exchange for which they must team up to curate one show and mount another using their own work. "Turnstyles," currently on view, is what artists Debbie Riddle and Sondra Schwetman came up with to fulfill their first obligation. While "Turnstyles" is a mishmash of sculpture, assemblage and painting, the individual pieces are better than the usual fare seen at CSAW. Riddle says they invited artists to show work in a different medium than they usually work in, but admits that the idea didn't quite work out.
Still, had Riddle and Schwetman edited the show, an interesting sort of white trash, Home Depot aesthetic would have been discernible. The implicit passage of time in Mike Nagy's canning jar full of bullets (Anytown, USA) bears an interesting relationship to David Fulton's One Year Strata, a collection of cigarette box wrappings strung on a vertical string to look like a crystal growth, as well as to 6 Years Gone, dated paper bags full of items to be saved and stacks of newspapers, an installation by Riddle and her mother, Linda. Motion, or rather immobility, ties several pieces together: Schwetman's Bound Feet, several cast feet in one space-saving, white plastic shoe rack; Riddle's Freeway Rug, a floor rug cast in concrete; and Bill Davenport's Frank Freed-like freeway paintings, which suggest futility even as they picture the endless road. John Gaunt's giant wall diagrams showing how to insert a doorstop and a drain stopper are a match because of their mundaneness. Donna Garoh's chintzy little found object pieces -- Groom is a boy-doll in a butter dish, packed with locks of hair -- also fit well in this group. Unfortunately, the show is littered with other works -- abstract sculptures, mostly -- which, while of fine quality, simply prove that more is less.
Spaces such as the Small Projects Gallery, Subspace and CSAW aren't without lineage in Houston. Davenport says that Jeff Elrod's Art of This Century gallery, which the artist ran out of his storefront living space, was pointed to as proof that Subspace wouldn't need a big budget to have stimulating programming. In fact, DiverseWorks's original budget allocation for Subspace was $0. Since then, the organization has received a $10,000 grant from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation to fund the project for two years. Davenport says that the curators who follow him -- each of whom will have terms lasting six months -- will decide how that money is spent, whether it's on beer for openings, supplies for artists or honorariums. "We argued successfully," he says, "to have no policy at all."
Having no policy may sound irresponsible, but it's the best way -- perhaps the only way -- to ensure that these galleries are what they should be: true alternatives to lumbering nonprofit dinosaurs. Already, they're having some impact. The Shrinky Dink show will travel to Winnipeg in exchange for a show from a group of Canadian artists calling themselves the Royal Art Lodge that will be on display at the Small Projects Gallery in UH's ARA Building January 1430 (for information, call 743-2835). AAB member Missy Bosch, who will soon take over curatorial duties from Davenport, has planned a promising "no tsu oH Series" for Subspace this spring; she's also invited Niebuhr to curate a show. His exhibit, for which he will ask artists to create special works, is tastefully titled "Donuts ... Cupcakes." Houston's lucky to be at a point where we can lay claim to more than one such space, and even luckier to have people with the initiative to fill them.
"Show 'n' Tell" is on view through January 9 at DiverseWorks's Subspace, 1117 East Freeway, 223-2846.
"Turnstyles" is on view through January 5 at Commerce Street Art Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 224-0872.