The lady in heels knitted her brow, bent her knees and took a mighty swing, as if she were gunning for the 18th green at Augusta. There was a loud crack of coated plastic meeting painted wood as her ball caromed off the gaping maw of Elvis and ricocheted around like a hot-pink bullet before finally coming to rest on the playing surface of another hole, beneath a blubbery, ten-foot-tall balloon creature with many limbs and a sinister scowl. Heads up.
Art aficionados and miniature-golf freaks tend to run in separate circles, and this well-heeled chick had obviously never wielded a putter -- at least not the minigolf variety. While both "real" golf and midget golf have their subtleties, the latter invariably requires a feathered touch. Success on the junior links is measured in inches, not yards, and the bullish art babe was approaching "The King's Hole" -- Gregory Amenoff's par-three Presley tribute and the eighth cup at "Putt-Modernism: An Eighteen-Hole Miniature Golf Course and Exhibition" -- like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator crashing a tea party for the Queen. No, no, no.
"Putt-Modernism" is a semisuccessful merging of modern art and "baby" golf. The touring exhibit's threadbare and patchy in places -- its fake turf is balding, and many of the installations sport divots and dings courtesy of free-swinging art babes -- but its unkempt appearance can also be viewed as testimony to the show's popularity. And there's the ultimate point: What fun it is to tromp around on off-the-wall artwork by Houston's Mel Chin, cheese-doodle whiz Sandy Skoglund, Cindy Sherman and Nina Yankowitz.
But "Putt-Mod" has bigger problems than presentation. Most of the holes are too crudely simplistic to tickle the fancy of true minigolfers (Dina Bursztyn's "I Don't Think So"; Joan Snyder's "To the Pond and Painting"), and many others display the self-conscious pretension that so often overburdens contemporary art (Elizabeth Enders's snootily formalist "Patriarchy"; Chin's Gulf War-themed "Shelter," which is untimely and a little dumb except for the battle footage that flickers in the bottom of the hole as you retrieve your ball).
You want a successful mating of art and minigolf? Test your mettle against some of the marvelously inventive, mischievously crafted holes in John Margolies's photo-intensive book Miniature Golf, a paean to lowbrow commercial art. Or play the handful of commendable highbrow holes at "Putt-Modernism." Best-of-show trophies go to:
*Yankowitz's "A Landscape and Metallic Topiary" (hole three, par three). Crafted from copper and aluminum shavings, this piece looks like an explosion in a Brillo factory; it's a real trick to shoehorn your sphere through one of the narrow slits in the tiny scouring-pad gate fronting the tee. The hole's central motif is a metalloid giraffe munching on what appears to be a disco ball. Whimsical.
*Elizabeth Murray's "Untitled" (hole four, par three). The least-adorned hole is arguably the most challenging. The simple straightaway is barred by a plug-ugly cast sculpture embellished with a dangling leaf of stone, and the player is forced to navigate his/her orb through a ball-sized tunnel. Deceptive.
*Skoglund's "Sketching with Cheese Doodles" (hole five, par two). The cup is stashed behind a revolving platform guarded by suspended animatronic bunnies -- all lavishly festooned, in classic Skoglund style, with radioactively glowing cheese snacks. With a little forethought, shooting for par is a no-brainer, but who can think amid the orange onslaught? Cagey.
*Pat Oleszko and Ward Shelly's "Censorama" (hole 14, par three). The aforementioned multi-armed hot-air balloon named "The Censor" dominates this visually arresting, subtle-as-a-sledgehammer swipe at the Far Right. Shoot left and you should -- ahem -- nail the cup in a couple of strokes; scoring activates a jiggling electronic pod of hard-nippled inflatable breasts. Titillating.
*Honorable mention: Chris Clarke's "Blood on Your Hands" (hole 18, par two). You won't need your club -- or two shots; if you fail to birdie this baby, it's your karma. The work excoriates former presidents Reagan and Bush for their (non)policies toward the AIDS epidemic. You can, too; just drop your ball in the medical-waste container and watch it shimmy down a crimson-neon ramp that leads to pay dirt -- and course's end.
-- Clay McNear
"Putt-Modernism" continues through August 9; Houston artist Tommy Fitzpatrick leads a tour at noon Thursday, June 25. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. University of Houston entrance 16 (off Cullen Boulevard), 743-9528. Viewing is free; the "putter" fee is $5, $3 for kids.