Getting Sauza-ed

Notes from the (corporate-sponsored) underground

The Rules

On June 30, Jody Hughes won a Sauza "Stay Pure" Award in the "Performing Arts" category. Jody is a tall, gawky guy with hair that looks as though he dyed it with black shoe polish. His performances involve dressing in tight costumes and flailing around with a microphone. Before the awards ceremony at DiverseWorks, organizers issued a press release in which Jody explained his work:

"Basically, I am a make-believe rock star. There are rules to movement on stage, dress, talk, manner for being a rock star. I use those. The only difference between me and other rock stars is, I am a real person."

Model Behavior

Tamarie Cooper won the Stay Pure fashion award. Her friend Jason Nodler -- the head of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, and himself the winner of the theater award -- had nominated her on a lark. Tamarie isn't a fashion designer. She's a well-dressed actress, a thrift-store shopper with a flair for the weird, and her Tamalalia productions often include fashion shows drawn from her wild wardrobe. Apparently that was enough for the heads of various arts organizations, who voted for her instead of the honest-to-God designers on the ballot.

Tamarie threw herself into the role. Asked whether she'd like to bring models or show photos of her work, Tamarie decisively chose models. The afternoon before the party, she rounded up four friends, all closer to Tamarie's size (8 on top, 12 on bottom) than to Kate Moss's.

You are models, Tamarie informed them, and models drink champagne. So they drank.

Fashion designers are supposed to dress their models. Tamarie rifled her own closet for the perfect outfits. Amy wore what Tamarie calls a "blue Indian belly dancer's skirt" with an open-necked top; Tiffany, a chartreuse dress from the '60s. Despite the heat, Tamarie assigned Jodie a Lady Bird-ish dress made of black wool.

For Rebecca, Tamarie matched a little red velvet top with a pair of leopard hot pants. Amy wanted to add a red plush cowboy hat because it made her shaved head look less extreme, and Tamarie said fine. But for most of the outfits, the accessory pièce de résistance was a pseudo-price tag, a little blue square of paper stapled to the cloth, with the item's thrift-store price proclaimed in crayon, Value Village-style. Tamarie wore a slinky Jessica Rabbit-ish evening gown; its tag said $1.90.

What else? How else to do this thing right?

Oh, yes: Models snort powder. Tamarie produced Pixie Sticks.

The Uncomfortable Burden of the Alternative Art Space

DiverseWorks is usually described as an "alternative art space." Alternative art spaces (like alternative newspapers or alternative rock stations) are surprisingly standardized; they belong to a recognizable genre with its own rules. Most obviously, they often present works too shocking to appear anywhere else. They host plays whose titles can't be printed in a daily newspaper, and exhibit sculptures and paintings that make you wince. You might recognize the objects' artistic merits, but you do not yearn to display them in your own living room, next to the framed snapshots of your niece.

Alternative art spaces are, in short, in love with the new, and the new is sometimes recognizable precisely because it's shocking or puzzling; it's not something we already understand. At a DiverseWorks show, an artist would rather upset someone's stomach than bore him, would rather his audience think "huh?" or "ugh" than "how nice."

You May Already Be a Winner!

DiverseWorks's regular crowd is composed of the kind of hipsters who hate the word "hipster," and they wear black, or sleek, chic minimalist outfits, or bizarre ensembles whose components were bought at thrift stores. They know better than to look at a sculpture made of trash bags and ask, "You call that art?" Instead, they nod and crinkle their foreheads in thought. If modern life is trashy, then modern art must be trashy, too.

At 5:45 p.m. on Friday, before the party, DiverseWorks offered a photo op: As part of the Stay Pure awards, Sauza Tequila was making a $5,000 donation to DiverseWorks. The organization would receive a giant cardboard check, the kind you see clutched by lottery winners.

A photo op and a giant cardboard check? At DiverseWorks?

It seemed like an especially complicated piece of performance art, a moment that makes you think, simultaneously, "ugh," "huh?" and "how nice." Informed of the event, the reporter nodded and crinkled her forehead.

Their Quotation Marks, Not Mine

From the Sauza press release announcing the event:

"Sauza 'Stay Pure' Awards Celebrate Artists who have 'Stayed Pure' to their Artistic Visions."

Their Mothers Will Be Proud

The rules for covering an awards ceremony dictate that the reporter will list the winners, even if the list alone makes for dull reading.

The winners of the Sauza Stay Pure Awards were: Todd Frazier (music); Tamarie Cooper (fashion); Andrea Grover (film/video); Liz Belile (literature); Perry House (visual arts); Jason Nodler (theater); Jody Hughes (performing arts); Jane Weiner (dance); Christina Giannelli (also for dance); and Carlos Jimenez (architecture).

The Thingness of the Thing, Part I

"The Munchie Munchie," the sculpture show that occupies DiverseWorks's big main gallery, is the kind that dares you to ask, "You call that art?"

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."

In the way that Jody Hughes uncovers the desire for fame, the Art Guys uncover the longing for money -- and in fact, make a kind of performance out of blatantly chasing it. For the Suits Project, the pair convinced corporations such as Dunkin' Donuts to sponsor logo patches on a specially designed pair of suits; then, for a year, they wore those suits to every high-profile event possible. More recently, they designed an Absolut vodka billboard on which a real, live human applied 1,000 coats of paint to a giant Absolut bottle. The billboard was deemed a huge success, and has been reproduced in Miami and Los Angeles.

If anyone at DiverseWorks is queasy about an alliance with a tequila company, worried that these corporate-sponsored awards are a form of selling out, Massing's presence serves as an anxiety-relieving joke. Selling out would be embarrassing, but that embarrassment can fuel art.

"There's a lot of purity here tonight," says Massing. "In our hearts, and in our blood." This joke works better. It addresses the partygoers' anxiety on two different fronts: that somehow the party is impure, and that those sneaky pink cosmopolitans have revealed themselves to be stronger than anyone guessed.

The Thingness of the Thing, Part III

After finishing a cosmopolitan, a woman stashes the empty glass on a nearby shelf -- the same little shelf that holdsKathryn Spence's rabbit-doll sculpture. Outraged, another partygoer informs her that the shelf is for art (art!). The woman quickly removes the glass.

DiverseWorks's gallery has been transformed into something resembling a nightclub, but the gallery also remains a gallery, and the art remains art. And though the art crowd and the tequila mix fabulously, the tequila would not be allowed to occupy the same shelf as art. The essential boundaries remain intact.

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