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To Quirk or Not to Quirk

When does idiosyncrasy stop being idiosyncratic?

Most of us drew silly crap in our high school notebooks: doodles, caricatures, stream-of-consciousness imagery and commentary, maybe even an unflattering sketch of the algebra teacher with "dickhead" written underneath in 3-D letters...um, well, anyway. Save for the occasional scribble during a boring meeting, most of us stop drawing when we become adults with jobs. And even most artists try to channel their drawing skills into "real" art.

But there's a contrary trend that came to light in the '90s and continues today. Artists have been making purposefully awkward drawings that hark back to childhood, personal drawings with unbridled idiosyncrasy that seek to recapture the casual, un-selfconsciousness of high school doodles, and sometimes the doodles themselves. (Its personal antecedents are numerous and murky: punk, graffiti, Raw Magazine, visual diaries, artists such as Peter Saul, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Raymond Pettibone.) Scottish artist David Shrigley's faux-childish art is a good example of the idiom. Describing Shrigley's drawings as "hamfisted" is generous; his figures are crude, his penmanship is atrocious, and his text is often misspelled and crossed out. But it all works beautifully with his stumbling, dumbfounded, absurd and insightful take on the world.

Locally, Patrick Phipps is mining somewhat related territory, but in his own skewed, teenage boy, comic style. Phipps's recent show at Mixture Gallery featured a really funny drawing of ancient Iraq's Tower of Babel re-created as a shopping mall with chain stores such as Hickory Farms, Casual Corner and Wicks-n-Sticks. (He should copyright it, because some sleazeball Houston developer is probably already buying up land in downtown Baghdad for exactly this purpose.) Phipps creates most of his stream-of-consciousness drawings during spare moments at work. He recently compiled them into a book called Nice Krisis.

Joseph Wooten's This Was Pretty (2004) is 
appealing but similar to other works on view around 
town.
Joseph Wooten's This Was Pretty (2004) is appealing but similar to other works on view around town.

There are other Houston beacons of idiosyncrasy, like Trenton Doyle Hancock and Robyn O'Neil. Both were included in recent Whitney Biennials. Hancock constructs obscure, humorous narratives around his black-and-white-striped "mound" character. The mound allegedly has been a part of the artist's work since the fifth grade. O'Neil's iconic character is a weird little cheesy guy in a sweatsuit. He stars in O'Neil's wonderfully earnest pencil drawings, executed in a style sure to receive a "Best in Show" at a junior high art exhibition.

Art Houston just opened with quite a few drawing shows, and each has its share of idiosyncrasy. The question is, how much is too much?

"Summer Drawings and Some Are Not" at Mixture Gallery (1709 Westheimer, 713-520-6809) is a sort of catch-all collection of works on paper. There are some nice ones here, like Stephanie Martz's collages. Martz inserted images of Jason (he of Friday the 13th fame) in his hockey mask into vintage magazine photos of home interiors and beautifully landscaped estates. They're pretty funny -- campy terror lurking in designer homes. Also interesting are Danielle Dwyer's tiny facsimiles of somebody's Polaroid family photos. Cut to exact Polaroid size, the paintings are broadly rendered in oil, with featureless figures standing in domestic environments.

But when you get to the more personal, "idiosyncratic" drawings in the show's conglomeration, things really start to wear thin. Part of it could be seeing so many of them together, or not enough examples from each artist, but the drawings seem self-conscious, like they're trying too hard to be quirky with their mutant cheerleaders, little, cartoonlike teddy bear and monkey heads, and zombies (though Neil Whitacre's zombie/underwater dead guy is appealing). Leslie Nye's pencil drawings of surreal woodland, which blend tree roots, horses and human figures, are irredeemable. The artist may have been shooting for ironic high school hokeyness, but they wind up just plain hokey -- and badly drawn.

White space is another recurring theme; many of the drawings float in it. Contrary to what your high school drawing teacher may have told you, that isn't categorically a bad thing. But when everybody seems to have the same strategy, it becomes formulaic.

At Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery (4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097), the expanse of white space continues in Will Henry's drawings. Seeing them on the heels of the Mixture show isn't the best idea, but they ultimately fare better, in part because they don't have to compete with anybody else's work. Henry employs -- you guessed it -- quirky imagery! But it's rendered with superneat conviction; his ink lines are incredibly crisp and fine. I wanna be sedated (2004) features the Potemkin-esque facade of a hospital hung with a banner depicting a red cross. Blue and red pills spew from the base of the building, while striped neckties seem to sprout from nightcaplike forms growing from an invisible ground. Sedated is a well-executed drawing, and some of its elements appear in other works. But quantity becomes a problem -- after a while, the sheer volume of purposefully spare drawings makes the strategy seem affected, as if Henry doesn't want to look like he's trying too hard.

The barrage of idiosyncrasy continues at the Joseph Wooten show at Moody Gallery (2815 Colquitt, 713-526-9911). Wooten has created an installation in the gallery's back room, painting gray walls with yellow wood grain and haphazardly tacking up his drawings. Wooten's images are loosely drawn in gouache on irregular sheets of paper. In one, a network of lines has "Joe" written over it in red. A note at the bottom reads, "This was pretty then Joe fucked it up." A work with a big red-tipped match carries a "confession" that reads, "I was thinking of burning all my work and doing big fancy paintings but I'm not that good."

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