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Site, or Sight?

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

In comparison, Kaneem Smith's installation seems an incredible respite. A relative newcomer to the Houston art scene, the young sculptor clearly has a good head on her shoulders. Her artist statement is blessedly brief and intelligent, rather than intolerably gabby. Even her highfalutin title, "The Resurfacing Mortification of the Past Is Inevitable," held my interest -- though quite somber, it actually sounds as if she has a clear concept to get across, and she does, with images rather than words. Smith convincingly transforms her house into a non-house by covering the floor with a soft layer of scented mulch. She's constructed five long canoe-like structures out of canvas saturated with brown wax and stretched on a grid-like armature. Mottled rather than smooth, the boats, which reference slave boats, appear as if they have been submerged for some time. They hang from the ceiling in a tight fleet, making the viewer feel as if she is underwater, looking up. One cannot walk among them -- they are not inviting. Rather, these vessels of mortification keep to themselves, unexplored, rotting and only barely confronted.

In the last house of the seven, a dark structure with shiplap instead of Sheetrock for interior walls, former Houstonian Natalie Lovejoy has created an installation based on her experience of sexual abuse. I didn't care at all for Lovejoy's poetry -- "A flash of light / A flame of hatred / boiled Anger / pent up" -- but I did care for the little girl with an anxious smile that Lovejoy placed cutouts of throughout the house. In the bedroom, the black-and-white girl hovers near the door. Behind her, an empty pair of man's slippers point their toes toward a rumpled, eerily empty twin bed.

Lovejoy tells her viewers that the installation is "my step in letting go of that baggage," and that she hopes it can inspire others to do the same. In that sentiment, she iterates the hope that permeates Project Row Houses: that neighborhood folks, children and resident mothers will be inspired by their surroundings (art and urban renewal together), and encouraged to envision a new possibility.

Project Row Houses has, thankfully, never insisted that the artists who exhibit there be black, but the original intention was that the artists should address concerns relevant to the surrounding African-American community. Such a requirement raises its share of questions. Is there a universal quality about art that makes all art relevant to every individual? Does art have to be "relevant" to be appreciated? Some African-Americans complained that the De Luxe Show exhibited "white man's art" (though half the artists were black), but others engaged with it on an aesthetic and intellectual level (though at least one critic thought audiences were more comfortable because they knew Bradley and some of his colleagues were black). At Project Row Houses, the standard of relevance has become so broad as to be essentially meaningless, and that's a blessing. The degree of relevance of art has little to do with whether or not it works, and to say otherwise is to condescend to the audience.

Perhaps Rick Lowe is right when he says that seeing an artist at work -- particularly an artist in one's own neighborhood -- is a thousand times more valuable than seeing a painting hanging on a wall at a museum, though I would say the two are valuable in different ways. And perhaps the artist at work doesn't have to be very good, or have to be completing his or her best work, for that experience to be valuable. But if the goal of art is to teach, inspire and enable, what could be lost by selecting more artists with clarity of purpose and formal integrity? To be interested in the process is fine, but if the end result doesn't concern you, how will it concern those who learn from you?

"Round Six" will be on display through September 15 at Project Row Houses, 2500 Holman, 526-7662.

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