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Local artists show off their work at Lawndale's annual Big Show

This was the first year Lawndale Art Center's annual Big Show charged an entry fee. The $15 to enter three works was as much an attempt to keep the entries down to a more manageable number as an opportunity for the non-profit to generate some revenue. With 838 entries from 338 artists, Lawndale wound up with even more entries than last year.

But with 84 pieces extracted from the original 838, this year's Big Show is downright sparse in comparison to previous incarnations. Selections were much more rigorous this year. Last year's Big Show had almost twice as many pieces and its redeeming works were overwhelmed by a hodgepodge of creativity with wide ranging degrees of success. The 2003 exhibition still has some clunkers, an inherent part of every juried exhibition, but they are nowhere near reaching critical mass.

The Big Show is an annual ritual for many local artists at all levels of development; it is a chance to have their work seen by an outside juror as well as have a shot at prize money. This year's show was juried by Abby Messitte, Co-Director of Clementine Gallery in New York. Having the show selected by a commercial gallery owner from New York certainly didn't do anything to hurt participation. Clementine Gallery has shown the work of several Texas artists and just gave Houstonian Robyn O'Neil her first solo New York show. In her juror's essay Messitte confesses her soft spots for "meticulous, process-oriented work, humor, and pop culture." She adds that "it almost goes without saying that the intelligent integration of pop culture into art can make it contemporary, relevant and profound." A lot of work being made in Houston is right in tune with Messitte's tastes and she gave Robert Pruitt the $1,000 first prize.

Pruitt keeps turning up all over the place with his witty and politically incisive pop-based work. One of Pruitt's strategies is to take found images and objects and subvert them with an African-American point of view. His New Kiddz in the Hood, (2003) took first place. It's a digital alteration of Moving Day, a classic image by Mr. Americana Norman Rockwell, that shows a black family moving into a white neighborhood. In the original image, the new children and the neighbor children shyly size each other up. Other than race, the only difference between the two groups is that the new boy and girl have a cat; the neighbor children have a dog. The boys all have baseball mitts, the girls both have pigtails and all the children are all still clad à la "Dick, Jane and Sally." Rockwell's image earnestly strives to emphasize sameness with the minor exception of color.

But Pruitt rejects this patronizing attitude; in his version the little girl in the pink dress now has an Afro. Pruitt pushes the image into contemporary life to make it about a larger clash of cultures. "Revolt" is graffitied on the side of the moving van. Two cans of Krylon spray paint rest in a chair next to Public Enemy's 1991 "Fear of a Black Planet" as Pruitt foreshadows the ascendancy of black popular culture via rap and hip-hop. Instead of black children trying to blend seamlessly in with white children, today those same white suburban children eagerly try to mimic the dress, language and imagery of black urban culture.

Taking a plastic action figure as a point of departure, Reparations now!, (2003) is Pruitt's Africanized Incredible Hulk. Pruitt re-pigmented the Hulk's green skin and glued "AA naps" on his head. Through his witty manipulation, The Hulk has been recast as a superhero to exact justice for African Americans.

George Szepesi's 65 MPH Patriotism, (2003) has its own political import. The piece incorporates the artist's collection of car-window American flags discovered on the side of the highway. (Remember, pre-September 11, only die-hard nationalists displayed flags other than on holidays like July 4th or Memorial Day. Today practically every tenth car looks like it is a part of a state motorcade -- Houston hasn't seen this many flag-flying cars since we hosted the G-7 economic summit.) Szepesi's piece presents a map-covered canvas with four tattered and grubby nylon flags. Labels document the location and the date of each find. The execution feels a little awkward -- there are some kinks to be worked out in the presentation of information and objects -- but Szepesi's ideas are interesting.

Other works are riffs on cartoon imagery. Wyatt Nash's third place Wish it Was Winter Because it's Really Hot, (2003) looks like a cartoon outtake. The wall sculpture features sections of fake bricks topped by smoothly round blobs of dripping snow. It's a witty piece, made all the more so in the context of Houston in August. Jason Ramos's The Punch shows Honest Abe in a stovepipe hat and string tie punching a hooded ninja against an institutional-green background. It's a visually dynamic and entertainingly goofy pairing of characters as the 16th president battles a killer ninja.

I'm not sold on Betsy Odom's second place Hot Rod Kittens, (2003). Stumpy little plaster kitties are colored with a two-tone paint job in a Hot Wheels allusion but the crudeness of the paint job and the sculptures doesn't work. The painting at least, if not the forms, needs to be more slick for the idea to work. Odom has this kind of strange hit or miss hobbyist aspect to her work. Her painting Tape Chickens (2002), is entirely rendered in species of tape -- duct, masking and strapping. Creating an image entirely from something as ubiquitous and prosaic as duct tape is a witty idea, but the end product just feels lame and hokey. Her obsessive Sea Cucumber, (2003) fares a little better. For this piece, an amoeboid blob of foam was studded with orange corn on-the-cob-holders. Here the obsessive and odd almost click.

There is some nice abstract work in the show as well. Denise Ramos's 14-foot diptych has hazy, undulating vertical stripes. The pale blue-grey tones create a kind of hypnotic panorama. Dandridge Reed has haphazardly decoupaged rough squares of brown fabric onto a dirty pink canvas. The result is formally satisfying, with a casually purposeful effect. Ibsen Espada's Swimming Upstream, (2002) feels like just that. The work's vertical splotches of sanded down color feel kinetic -- a flurry of color seems to be rushing over the canvas.

Melanie Crader pushes her ironically girlie brand of minimalism in a witty new direction. Instead of the sparkles and trim of earlier works, here she is simplifying feminine shapes into abstract yet evocative forms. The Classic Cut (with Scallop) from The Basics Series, (2003) is a pink, panty-esque shape with black scalloped edging.

There are two nice video pieces in the show, a division sorely lacking in most juried exhibitions. This may be because not that many people enter video, but I'd also wager most video doesn't get seen all the way through. Images and objects require significantly less viewing time. For a juror weeding through hundreds of selections, committing to long minutes of video can be taxing.

Joe Ives' My Canvas, My Friend, (2003) gives a Geppetto and Pinocchio spin to the relationship between artist and artwork. We see the melancholy artist sitting alone, dangling his feet in an apartment complex pool. He builds a canvas in his studio and returns to find it sitting upright on the floor wearing one of his shirts. The two become fast friends as the canvas accompanies the now cheerful artist to eat Tex-Mex, riding shotgun in the car. In the final scene the artist and canvas gleefully jump into the pool.

Tape 5925: Amy Goodrow is a mock confessional documentary, in which the artist, Eileen Maxson, plays the role of Amy Goodrow. Goodrow tells her story in an intimately close head shot. The image itself is visually striking, a messy black bob, a blue shirt against a lime green background. She starts out with banal personal information, her major in biology, a hobby making greeting cards, and then in the same depressed monotone she begins to talk about her affair with her high school math teacher. Maxson based the piece on a girl whose story was told in an Oprah Winfrey Presents TV movie. Maxson found a copy of the show on an unmarked video. The real Amy Goodrow wanted to be on The Real World. Maxson added an audio track of an MTV guy chatting blithely on the phone while the girl's tragic story unfolds before him. She effectively conjures the pathos and the disposability of human tragedy in the era of reality television.

The 2003 Big Show has quite a few nice surprises, and you don't have to look too hard to find them. It is a requirement for entry that none of the work has been shown in Houston before, so it is a good place to discover new works by artists you may or may not know.

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