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Jazz Show

David McGee's works riff on one another, like a certain musical genre

I always thought it would be a cool idea to mount an art exhibit that had a soundtrack, and David McGee's show at DiverseWorks proves my point. As you approach the space's main gallery, you'll hear strains of bebop saxophone. There's a point to the exhibition's jazz soundtrack, just as there's a point to the soundtrack of a movie. The rollicking saxes, bass and drums set the show's mood and even seem to enter the artworks themselves. The most interesting exhibits are narratives of sorts; they're expository exercises that advance a point of view, a particular way of understanding a set of artworks, something more than "Isn't this a neat bunch of stuff?" McGee's "Tetélestai: Notebooks from the Black Sea" is one such exhibition.

Curated by Diane Barber, the visual arts director at DiverseWorks, the exhibition is McGee's first in Houston in five years. The artist was born in Louisiana about 40 years ago and raised there and in Arkansas. From 1981 to 1985, he attended Prairie View A&M University. Known for rather baroque canvases, pastiches of old masters like Velázquez and David as well as modernist icons such as Picasso, McGee creates works that query an art history he feels doesn't include African-American artists such as himself. He's been uncharacteristically quiet in allowing so much time to go by without news from his studio.

Tetélestai begins with a kind of prelude. In the transitional space between the small and main galleries at DiverseWorks, the art is quintessential McGee. Socialite in Spring (2003) is one of his pastiches. It depicts a lithe feminine figure reminiscent of the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough or Joshua Reynolds, standing in an idealized landscape, making cow-eyes at us over her shoulder. Literally. Our socialite possesses the head of a heifer. As if that weren't weird enough, a frog sits atop her head, poking up between her short horns and flicking its tongue at a passing fly, one of several hovering about. Hanging nearby is Money Mammy (2003), McGee's portrayal of an art collector as a calculating Renaissance merchant (there are several works here critical of the co-dependency of artists, dealers and collectors).

McGee isn't afraid of tackling daunting subject matter 
-- like, say, God.
Arturo Sanchez
McGee isn't afraid of tackling daunting subject matter -- like, say, God.

Details

Through February 7; 713-223-8346, www.diverseworks.org
DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346

But the most intriguing work in the prelude is Fucked Up Hotels, a suite of paintings grouped around a beat-up old upright piano. Six in all, the paintings hark back to 17th-century still lifes, presenting tables sparsely arrayed with flowers or food (in a nice touch, a wide, shallow bowl containing a single, slowly putrefying pear sits atop the piano), along with some other elements that don't quite register right away.

Each painting is identified with a locale and a year: The Alvin Hotel '59; The Dew Drop Inn '40; The Tropic Club '58; Great Jones Street Loft '88. It was the last that provided a clue to these identifications. For it was in a Great Jones Street loft in New York in 1988 that the "graffiti" artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who has figured in McGee's work before, died of a drug overdose at age 28. Some Internet research revealed that the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young drank himself to death in the Alvin Hotel in New York. (There wasn't time for further research -- have you any idea how many hits you get when you Google "Dew Drop Inn"?)

Those "other elements" suddenly snap into focus; they are -- lovely legal euphemism -- controlled substances: a pile of whitish powder, capsules, a spoon and needle and a wine decanter and glass. The works reveal themselves to be contemporary memento mori -- dark, spare meditations on the temptations that still lay waste to promise and talent (think of Robert Downey Jr.).

At the doorway to the main gallery, we're greeted with a wall of text containing part of an early poem by American writer Conrad Aiken. The exhibition's title is borrowed from this poem (also, Section V of the same poem sits on the piano and serves as a kind of caption to the Fucked Up Hotel series). Tetélestai is Greek for "It is finished" or "It is accomplished," Jesus' last words. The poem's motif is a journey that is not so much physical as metaphysical, a journey not taken but remembered. It's written in a baroque, overwrought, self-consciously romantic style, more Edna St. Vincent Millay than T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams (Aiken's later poems are more leanly modernist), and it stands in rather stark contrast to the cool bebop saxophone leaking from the other side of the wall.

Step around the wall and more contrasts greet you. There's work in this show unlike anything McGee has done in the past. Sculpture, for example. In the middle of the gallery sits a canoe. Inside the canoe are volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, one open, apparently at random. From the middle of the canoe rises an odd tree that, it turns out, in its native Mali, would serve as both a support column and a ladder to a house. Titled Omeros II (2003) after a book-length poem by Noble Laureate Derek Walcott, this assemblage is about journeys, physical and educational, and the desire to ascend to a home.

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