Revolution in Chrome

In the '70s, Jim Harithas's radical chic collided with the CAM. Twenty-five years later, he's back, gunning his engines at the Art Car Museum.

But this morning, a Wednesday, Harithas and his curators are hanging their next shows. Finished with the Hoover paintings, Harithas leaves the little front gallery and walks into the museum's large room, surveying it with an eye toward Saturday night's opening. He still deploys his old formula to draw a crowd: Besides the art, there'll be free food and drinks, plus Kerschen's rock band, Japanic. And here, at the museum without a board, he's free to overtly use left-wing politics as bait: Nader's Greens will show up for the petition-signing party Friday, and maybe they'll come back.

On one side of the room are Jim Hatchett's freshly hung "Dirt Paintings." On the other is one of Harithas's favorite art cars, Betsabeé Romero's Ayate, a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria whose windows are filled with dried roses, its body covered in what looks like floral-patterned upholstery. It's a deeply feminine expression of immigrants' crushed dreams, and Harithas has installed it in a kind of border stage set, atop a little hill of reddish soil.

"There's dirt on both sides of the museum," he exults. The symmetry pleases him; he enjoys making the works fit together.

An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
Suzanne Paul
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.

Faith, another art car, is as ebullient as Ayate is meditative. David Best covered a 1984 Camaro with bezillions of cheap religious souvenirs, Buddhas mixing easily with Madonnas. To the front grill, he attached the head of a water buffalo. "This one," says Harithas, grinning, "it's all about the influence of acid."

There are two works by Harithas's old friend Jesse Lott, who has been billed as "the star of the Art Car Museum." Lott, like Hatchett and many of the museum's other artists, tends to work in "found" materials. Black Madonna, left from Lott's show last year, looks like an icon carved from driftwood; the new one, Spartacus, is a nearly human-size crucifix constructed from wire and scrounged metal. In part, Lott chose his materials from necessity: Stuff you find is cheaper than stuff you have to buy. But the discarded materials also give the works a haunting flavor; they seem more personal, more homemade, more a part of the world we live in now.

In the back room, there's Know-Mad, a video game designed by Mel Chin and a team of programmers from MIT. It's basically an arcade driving game, the kind with a steering wheel and gas pedal. The screen depicts a nomadic camp somewhere in the desert; the player drives from tent to tent seeking gold balls. The text on the wall explains the piece's heady artistic intentions -- the juxtaposition of modern cultures with traditional ones, the effect of speed on a nontechnological society, the beauty of traditional rugs set against the beauty of driving -- but the high-flown ambition doesn't frighten away neighborhood teenagers, who play the game after school.

Chin is another old friend of Harithas's. Like Lott, he grew up in the Fifth Ward; unlike Lott, he left Texas and became nationally prominent. "Mel Chin, John Alexander, Julian Schnabel," says Harithas, shaking his head. "They had the sense to leave." His meaning is clear: Houston doesn't support its own.

Octo Quad Ring, Andy Mann's latest video installation, glows in the back room. Seventeen TV screens beam versions of the same image, oriented differently, as if reflected in a kaleidoscope, and in the center is a mirrored pentagram. The images, of flowers and clouds and fire, are natural and timeless; if you position yourself just right, you see your own face reflected in the pentagram's sides, part of all that swirling beauty and terror. At the end of the cycle, the screens go dark. The effect, to use one of Harithas's favorite words, is "spiritual."

Andy Mann was recently diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and the news hangs heavy on Harithas's mind. Mann, he declares, has always been a terrific artist -- "the first socially conscious video artist! one of the best cameras in the world! Houston is lucky to have him!" When Mann told Harithas that he had cancer, Harithas pushed him to work, pushed him to consider his audience: "You want them to think better of you than they do now, don't you?"

It must be Houston's lousy air, Harithas grumps: Everyone he knows is undergoing chemo, or dying, or dead. It's hyperbole, of course, but it contains a grain of truth. Lately he has felt surrounded by death.

Only days before, Ann's mother died. A few months ago artist Mark Lombardi, once one of Harithas's bright young curators at the CAM, committed suicide. And last year Harithas's old friend Norman Bluhm, the sensual abstract expressionist, died of a heart attack.

Harithas delivered Bluhm's eulogy at the Whitney, and he wrote a moving essay for a posthumous Bluhm tribute show. In the essay, you can hear echoes of Harithas's life: Bluhm's work fell out of fashion, but he stuck stubbornly to his vision of the world. Bluhm's work wasn't fully appreciated "by the New York art establishment." He lived a life "that tolerated no compromise." And his late phase -- the mature works, the last ones he painted -- was his most profound.

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