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The Good, the Bad and the Humidity

Eleven artists work up a show about Houston past and present

Humidity. It's one of the defining aspects of life in Houston. It's always there to greet you on your return to the Bayou City. Walk out of baggage claim and leave the airport's air-conditioned biosphere -- it feels like a flight attendant wielding giant tongs has draped an extra-large hot moist towel over you. I like to think of it as Houston giving a big warm "Welcome home!" hug, but others may disagree.

Humidity is just one of the themes of "Layered Evidence: Uncovering Houston," an exhibition at Lawndale Art Center that explores our multifaceted and undeniably odd city. Organized by Caroline Goeser, Susana Monteverde and Sara Wilson McKay, the exhibition grew out of an open call for artists making work about Houston. The trio made studio visits and eventually selected 11 artists. Because much of the work was made specifically for the show, no one really knew what exactly was showing up until days before the exhibition opened. Beyond climate, work in the show addresses the personal histories of Houston's inhabitants as well as the city's political history. The show is somewhat uneven, but there are enough strong pieces and ideas to make it worthwhile.

Back to humidity -- Kelly Pike had the audacity to create a humidity chamber in Houston. Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle. Pike has built a giant plastic cube between the four pillars of Lawndale's main gallery and placed humidifiers inside on clear Plexiglas pedestals. To enter It's Not the Heat… (2003) (whose materials are listed as "plastic and steam"), you leave your shoes outside on a strip of carpet. You walk through a tent-flap-like door -- just to make sure no moisture escapes. Inside, four humidifiers work nonstop in an artificial re-creation of our swampy and damp city.

Bubble Gum (2003) shows young Islamic girls in a bedroom.
Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center
Bubble Gum (2003) shows young Islamic girls in a bedroom.

At the opening, people stood in the plastic box chatting while their bare feet stuck to the plastic floor. Kids danced and slid on the plastic floor -- a giant moist Slip 'n Slide. Several days after the show's opening it smelled like a locker room. Who knows how that environment will develop. It may turn into process art, a giant petri dish growing new, better, stronger, faster molds. I can't wait to see what happens…

In addition to its climatic infamy, Houston has always been known as a "business über alles" kind of town, ever since it was founded by the Allen brothers in a swampland real estate scam. And it was business sense rather than a sense of justice that fueled the 1960 decision of local businesses to integrate their lunch counters. This event is the subject of Bill Thomas's work blackout (2003). Protests by African-American Houstonians, many of them Texas Southern University students, threatened the pocketbooks of the city's capitalist luminaries -- so stores such as Foley's, Weingarten's and Walgreens sat down for a nice businesslike solution.

They would desegregate their lunch counters but they just wouldn't tell anybody until after everything was already said and done. They figured that way they could avoid white backlash as they ended black protests. The city's newspapers were complicit. While news of the desegregation ran in The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston papers didn't mention a word of it until a full week later.

Thomas is a native Houstonian, and his mother managed the "whites only" basement luncheonette and the "colored only" Gulf Room of the Foley's lunch counter. He also has his own history with Foley's. Thomas's FotoFest 2000 installation about race relations in the window of the downtown store was censored by Foley's CEO. But before that happened he was given access to Foley's archives. We see the results in the Lawndale installation.

Black-and-white photographs are blown up large and hung on opposite walls. They present two vintage views of the segregated Foley's cafeterias. One image shows tables crowded with white people. The other shows black patrons clustered at tables at a far wall. We see the class and employment constraints of the time. The white customers are in dresses, hats and business suits. With the exception of one man in a suit, the black diners are all in porter and waitress uniforms.

A row of bar stools on a linoleum- covered platform stretches between the two photos like a bridge between the two groups. Thomas has littered the floor with giant copies of The Houston Post's front page, for the seven consecutive days the story wasn't reported. The placement works okay, but you wonder if there isn't another solution; maybe the pages need to be a little crumpled. Also on the floor is an enlarged memo detailing the lifting of restrictions with "DO NOT RELEASE BEFORE 12:30 AM, THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 1960" typed boldly across the top. Copies of out-of-town papers that reported the event a full week earlier hang in the windows of Lawndale. Thomas presents us with a little-known part of Houston's history.

The front pages of the newspapers effectively conjure up a sense of the times. So do the contemporaneous articles about the integration in which waiters and black patrons are described as being nervous -- a time when sitting at a lunch counter is a defiant political act.

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