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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.

It's difficult to say which approach is better. The De Luxe Show's paintings and sculptures defied context entirely; the work was, in fact, widely touted as "museum-quality." In contrast, PRH's exhibits depend very much on their context -- some of them are even completed by the viewer over time, or are completed by specific workshops and activities that take place there, which you have to visit the project to find out about. So it is with "Round Six," the current round of seven exhibitions in seven of PRH's houses.

Going from left to right, the first house one comes to is the Strictly Roots house. Instead of inviting a visual artist to use this house, whose interior walls have been torn down to make it one big room, the curator asked a braiding salon to set up a temporary branch here. The artist's statement says that the installation (as I would loosely refer to it) "seeks to challenge the parameters of the hair care industry by redefining natural hair sculpture as a public art form." How it does that, though, is not exactly clear. Plunking a braiding salon in a house intended for art is not enough. At times -- though not according to any publicized schedule -- the proprietor of Strictly Roots actually braided hair in the row house. That ended because the house wasn't air-conditioned, leaving me to look at an unedifying frieze of pictures of women with braids, clipped from magazines and affixed to the wall, and a note saying where to call for an appointment.

In the next house I found "The Magisterium," Dan Havel's installation of large beakers filled with colored liquids and magnifying glasses trained on the skeletons of small animals. Billed as "a laboratory where the ancient science of alchemy will be explored," the installation disappoints due to its stasis. Perhaps it was naive of me to expect a real lab -- here there are no experiments to be performed, no substances to transmute, no explanation of the seven steps to be used in the attainment of gold. There is, therefore, no metaphor to be had, despite a vague instruction to the viewer to make "personal associations that will promote the power of the alchemist within."

Two other artists in the current round of installations have created what I would call prescriptive environments -- settings that attempt to encourage some specific action or epiphany on the part of the viewer, though they're not exactly complete works of art in themselves. Bert Sample's beautifully ornate installation, "Eyuphuro," resembles the lobby of a Moroccan luxury hotel. Sample painted the floor of his house with richly colored patterns borrowed from Spanish mosques, surrounded by a border of repeated black-and-white painted ziggurats. In the windows, cutout patterned screens filter the light. And in the center of the room, a bundle of dried palm fronds is clustered like a giant, tropical flower arrangement, from which soft drum music emanates. It's an elaborate place to hang out, really, with a fresh, open feel. Local Muslims pray there, and Sample himself hosts teas -- by invitation only -- for "women from all parts of the world." The space is obviously dedicated to serve those who are close to PRH, if not necessarily the day-tripping viewer.

In "LIGHTHOUSE/spirithouse," Michelle Engelman has arranged a kind of lounge-cum-playroom. In one area, she appears to have transplanted part of her actual living quarters, complete with books, a jar of incense and photographs. Again, amateurish arrangements of magazine images, this time of the National Geographic ilk, are stuck on the walls. In another area, colored chalk serves as an invitation for guests to draw on the floor, perhaps to complete a mandala that is already partially drawn there. And in a third part of the small house, cushions are strewn on the floor under a suspended painting of what appear to be two animals. The cushions are inviting, until one realizes how little there is to contemplate in the thin, lackadaisical lines of the painting. In this installation, there is no message so clear as the beam of a true lighthouse. Rather, Engelman has mixed and matched, or really mished and mashed, tidbits of vaguely Eastern culture to create a contrived atmosphere of relaxation, meditation and study. Is there something about PRH that makes artists seek out the unbearably trite? As the artist herself says, her LIGHTHOUSE "floats on the edge of meaning and perhaps even purpose."

The next installation, by Third Ward artist and eccentric Motapa, is even worse. If curator Malone expected Motapa to install his elaborate paintings, he must have been sorely disappointed. Instead, Motapa simply hung black-and-white, low-quality-Xeroxed collages -- in some cases, several copies of the same collage -- that feature photos and headlines having mostly to do with African-Americans (Nelson Mandela, Mickey Leland, Bob Marley, the artist's mother) and Motapa's own fantasies. "Motapa Museum of Natural Health, Science and Fine Art, Curator of Museum, Dr. Alkebu Motapa," one poster reads. Pale in comparison to, yet in the same vein as, some of the Orange Show's folk art environments, these obsessive cut-and-paste jobs provoke impatience rather than interest.

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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