Getting Sauza-ed

Notes from the (corporate-sponsored) underground

An untitled piece by Kathryn Spence looks for all the world like a shelf full of well-dressed rabbit dolls, the sort of toothache-sweet tchotchkes someone's grandma might assemble in her spare time. Knots and Falls, by Kenneth Riddle, involves gun barrels, Prozac bottles and sulfur.

The End Is Overrated, by Terri Friedman, is a wall-hung thingum made of plastic sheeting. A fan inflates it with regular bursts of air, so it appears to take slow, labored breaths. The title is emblazoned across the thingum's belly. The hipsters nod: Life may be trashy, but death is banal. Everyone dies. People have been doing it for ages.

DiverseWorks's Web site explains that the show concerns the sculptors' materials, the plastic sheeting and rabbit dolls and Prozac bottles: "Here material is not transformed into object. Rather the inherent composition and quality of the material calls our attention to a whole, autonomous thing -- where the thingness of the thing is its own physical nature."

By this light, you can consider Tamarie a designer: The thrift-store jackets and leopard pants and Jessica Rabbit dresses each retain their essential character, even as they are fused into a strange new outfit.

The Thingness of the Thing, Part II

To transform a gallery of high-concept sculpture into something like a nightclub, you need:

Around 200 people

Models swanning about in Tamarie's thrift-store clothes

Two bars dispensing free tequila drinks

Waitresses bearing nachos and quesadillas (" 'Munchie Munchie' munchies!" joked someone wearing black.)

A Cosmopolitan City

There are rules for corporate-sponsored awards ceremonies, and one of them is that the corporation should explain its noble purposes to any journalist in attendance.

Avery Schmeisser, Sauza's main representative, is a sleek northeastern woman, as polished as Jody Hughes is awkward. She used to work for the Lincoln Center, and these awards were her idea. Sauza is all about purity -- 100 percent blue agave, not the rotgut you drank in college -- and what better represents purity than the arts?

She explains that the awards are good for everyone involved. Sauza gets publicity and artistic street cred; DiverseWorks gets a party and a giant cardboard check; each honoree gets a crystal plaque and a big bottle of tequila.

Houston's "Stay Pure" awards are the first anywhere, Avery says. Houston's strong in the arts. It's a big city, diverse and cosmopolitan. And besides, it's a good tequila city. Texans love tequila.

A Cosmopolitan

1 1/2 ounces Sauza Tres Generaciones tequila
1 ounce Cointreau
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce cranberry juice

Shake with ice. Serve, without the ice, in a martini glass, garnished with a twist of lime. The cosmopolitan will be tart and bright pink, and the partygoers will not suspect its power. As they drink, they will seem to themselves less like awkward real people, and more like rock stars and fashion designers.

Jody Hughes's Naked Self

In a small uncrowded outer room, DiverseWorks has erected little shrines to each of the "Stay Pure" honorees. At Jody Hughes's shrine, a videotape shows him wearing a Deborah Harry-ish wig and a rock 'n' roll stage costume. He dances with the microphone like a geek-boy teenager in the privacy of his own bedroom, enacting some fantasy of gender-bent stardom. You are embarrassed to watch: embarrassed for Jody, because he looks silly and vulnerable; and embarrassed for yourself, by your voyeurism and the way he reminds you of those MTV bands you used to love.

"I am a real person," he wrote. You would feel more comfortable if he were not a real person -- say, if he were one of those '80s performance artists who got naked and smeared himself with blood or chocolate syrup. Their nudity was just the physical kind; it didn't reveal their inner lives so much as it attacked the culture that oppressed them. They wore nakedness like a suit of armor; they were undressed for battle.

Jody Hughes gives the opposite impression. Fully clothed, he looks completely unprotected. On that videotape, he reveals his awkward secret self, and you wince and look away.

Absolut Irony

The rules for social gatherings require making people comfortable, minimizing their anxieties or at least converting them into a joke.

Tonight, Jack Massing, the ceremony's emcee, provides the jokes, a social lubricant at least as necessary as alcohol. Sometime after 7 p.m., Massing calls the ceremony to order and introduces himself as "one quarter of the Art Guys." You are supposed to laugh: Massing is short, and his tall partner, Michael Galbreth, is out of town. And you do laugh, though the joke is only mildly funny, because you are supposed to laugh, and because you are rooting for Massing.

In a way, Massing's presence itself functions as a joke to relieve the evening's tension, though no one ever explains why. But as DiverseWorks's regulars surely know, the Art Guys owe their recent national-level successes to riffs on the relationship between art and money. Money, more than sex or even fame, is the thing artists secretly crave (and need: Artists and art spaces have to pay rent and phone bills). But of course, they can't chase money shamelessly; they are supposed to "stay pure."

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