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Site, or Sight?

At Project Row Houses, where the art is may matter more than what the art is

A little background for those of you who haven't been paying attention: In 1993, Houston artist Rick Lowe and arts administrator Deborah Grotfeldt purchased 22 abandoned row houses in Houston's Third Ward. They transformed seven of the houses into sites where artists could do installations, and five others into housing for young single mothers. Still others became a daycare center, a store selling handmade items, a charter school devoted to conflict resolution and a "spoken word house" for poetry readings and the like.

The operation was given the title of Project Row Houses, and was designed to do a job that many alternative art spaces have slowly started to pursue: Use art in the service of social good. That's why many people consider it a model program for reaching out to new art audiences, and for proving that art can make a difference in people's lives. With its unique floor plan -- the houses are in a double row, like a miniature neighborhood -- Project Row Houses captures the imagination. It definitely captured the imagination of journalists, who have highlighted it in endless feature stories, Women's Day spreads, New York Times articles and magazine covers. But if the row houses themselves have been scrutinized attentively, what's been placed inside them hasn't garnered the same notice. Because of the special function of the art that shows up in Project Row Houses, it doesn't invite what might be considered normal critical commentary -- at least, no critic has ever reviewed it.

Personally, I can think of lots of reasons to shy away from reviewing PRH's offerings. One is the conflation of the art with the idea. Rick Lowe himself has often refused to draw a line between the two, and calls his work at PRH a merger of "my artistic energies with my community activism," adding that he is less concerned with the art itself than what that art is supposed to do.

But if you can't separate the art from the project's social mission, then it's easy to confuse a critique of the art with criticism of the project. Though Tierney Malone, the curator of the current round of installations at PRH, says that the PRH artists would welcome critical commentary, it's difficult to assess the art's success, for on what criteria would one base such an evaluation? PRH's mission is to wed art and culture with community service -- nowhere does it say anything about the quality of the art to be presented. Rather, it's abundantly clear that quality (admittedly a subjective concept) isn't the primary goal. Connecting with the neighborhood and the history of the location, exposing visitors to the process of making art and, at least originally, addressing themes relevant to PRH's neighborhood are more important.

Just as those goals determine a great deal about the work you see at PRH, the architecture often seems to dominate the installations, which are tightly contained by the row of seven identical houses they occupy. In a way, the houses have become the medium, and if the medium is the message, it is partly responsible for the thread of sameness that has snaked through PRH's exhibits over time. Many of the installations, for example, have used the contributions of area residents -- photographs, sentimental objects, children's drawings, oral histories -- though the artists in the current round seem to recognize that this technique has become dull. Many artists, including one in the current round, walk into their row house and see, rather than a set of possibilities, only a house. Thus they put a bed in the bedroom and a dining table in the kitchen. Still other artists find God at Project Row Houses, creating altarpieces or other meditative spaces.

Even normally excellent artists can be sucked under by the sentimental cuteness of the little houses -- for example, last spring Fred Wilson, normally a sharp institutional critic, transformed his part of a house into a bedroom scene with an empty wheelchair. As a soundtrack of a thunderstorm played, water dripped from various places in the ceiling into tin buckets -- a dreary, filmic, cliche-ridden scene.

It's not that bringing art to the poor, as it were, has to be this way. There are other approaches, as was shown back in 1971 when art patron Jean de Menil asked black New York painter Peter Bradley to curate a show that would engage Houston's black community. Bradley's idea was to mount an unapologetically "elitist" show of high abstraction, with black and white artists alike, without making a point of the race of the artists. He wanted to mount the show, however, in a non-elitist setting, one where people who didn't normally attend art shows would see it. He chose the De Luxe Theater, a deserted Fifth Ward movie house on Lyons Avenue, as the site for the show.

The De Luxe Show, which included purely abstract painters and sculptors, was a sensation, with 1,000 visitors on its opening day. Everybody talked about it; Clement Greenberg, the day's most notable art critic, attended the opening and praised the show. Using the old theater was a newsworthy idea, to be sure, but most writers dwelt extensively on the actual art. Yes, some said that the De Luxe Show was too extreme, that the audiences needed to be prepped with art that was more relevant to their lives, but Peter Bradley had no truck with that idea. He didn't think one should coddle one's audience by proving that art could be directly, didactically relevant to their life, could be a scrapbook of their neighborhood. No, Bradley preferred to let line and color speak for themselves.

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