Not Your MTV

Andy Mann treats video like abstract art

Just a month or so ago, I was seated, much against my better judgment, on an inordinately large panel convened to discuss artists in the community, or the art community, or some such well-meaning topic. Doubtless there was among the 14 of us someone with something interesting to say, but we never found out for certain, because one of the panelists mistakenly believed that he had been invited there to deliver a lecture, which I mentally titled "On the Failure of Our Museums to Serve Local Artists, and the Incorrigibility Thereof." This distinguished guest (I know you're wondering, so I'll just tell you: It was artist Bert Long) rambled on and on along a less than original route over this tired and downtrodden territory, taking a break in the bivouac of a claim that he was concerned about younger artists, not himself. The rest of us assumed a stoic air.

The whole thing was recorded on video just as many Houston art events over the past two decades have been: with a camera operated by Andy Mann. Those who dared to interject were quickly beaten back by Bert's sonorous soliloquy. Except Andy, who interrupted, and from his half-bent posture behind the tripod admonished Bert for a good long while. Everyone perked up at this, and Andy didn't stop. Eventually Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe got up from his seat at the table, walked over to the video camera and swiveled it around to point directly at Andy's face. Without missing a beat, Andy shifted his aim so that he was delivering the tail end of his diatribe -- the message of which boiled down to "Quit whining, Bert" -- straight into the camera.

I had never seen a person in a documentary role break through the "fourth wall" in such a manner. That Andy Mann did so without pause or compunction says something not just about him as a person, but also about how he views his chosen medium. To Andy, turnabout is perfectly fair play. The video camera is not a barrier that divides operator and object. He's not a predator; he's not trying to "capture" anything with his camera.

At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.
At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.


On display through December 18 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway,

Instead, his work bounces and spins, undulates and sparkles. Known for his Video Christmas Tree, now going on its tenth year in Tranquility Park, and video kaleidoscopes on view at Aurora Picture Show, No tsu oH and the Children's Museum, Mann has been Houston's video artist of choice for some time. Still, Mann calls his career a "huge failure," and a call from DiverseWorks earlier this year asking him to do a one-man show -- rare for that venue -- did little, in his eyes, to make up for that.

Mann, who has pancreatic cancer, refused to memorialize himself in a retrospective. Instead, he asked for enough video monitors to realize a large-scale version of his multiple-screen abstractions. The result, "VideomusicVideo," centers on a stunning stepped pyramid of 25 televisions, all flashing the same raw video run through different effects. (By the time this review is printed, the pyramid may have morphed into something different because of the arrival of ten more monitors.)

There are other works in the show as well. Hidden in the narrow gap behind the wall that provides a backdrop for the pyramid, Andy installed an anti-monument to the life -- and storage problems -- of an artist. "Dead Art Gulch" is a junkyard of paintings and objects that failed to sell, warped in the rain or otherwise fell apart. Two of Andy's major pieces from the '70s, he notes, were stored in a basement for years and finally discarded. But the pièce de résistance of "VideomusicVideo" is the pristine, glowing pyramid.

Except for that, DiverseWorks's huge central gallery has the appealing look of a raw, haphazard studio space, with a camera, tables full of equipment and cables and, in one corner, some electric guitars. There are also a couple of modified turntables on which Mann has placed his paintings, giant versions of those "spin art" craft paintings you used to be able to make at places like AstroWorld. The workaday look is due to the fact that Mann planned to create most of the video for the show during the show, in the gallery, shooting live action in front of the pyramid to create endless repetitions (he has shot some, but not as much as he'd have liked).

Mann says his make-do attitude is "anti-imagination," and by that he means there are no characters, no plot and no story. Part of the rigor of his work is using what's in front of him, with few attempts to structure elements beforehand. "[There's one] thing I've never had, and that's a production budget," he says. It's a perfectly Andy Mann idea: to make a video that consists of himself playing the soundtrack of the video on the guitar, sitting in front of a monitor showing himself playing the soundtrack of the video on the guitar. Out of almost nothing, he creates images that ripple with the suggestion of infinity.

The rest of what he feeds the glowing pyramid is equally stunning. In self-referential moments, the screens flash pictures of themselves, the pyramid looking like some post-Aztec gift to the gods. On December 1, Day Without Art, Mann showed a long, intricate video that flashed a picture of Bill Graham, a Houston gallerist who died of AIDS. "Bill! Bill! Bill!" Andy can be heard shouting, without affect, on the soundtrack.

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