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The Way We Were

Artists wax nostalgic over the primordial Lawndale

Rough-hewn, figurative and creatively cribbed together from scrap materials, Lawndale Saturday Night (1998) embodies a particular Houston aesthetic. A collaboration between Noah Edmundson and Don Kennell, the work evokes early Lawndale nostalgia. It's a part of "Lawndale Art Center: Still Crazy…After All These Years, Celebrating 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Houston," curated by Gus Kopriva.

Lawndale Saturday Nightis a funky diorama featuring a miniature exhibition, a bar, a band thrashing to a punk audio track and a bunch of tiny marionette-like figures on the dance floor. Carved from wood, the jointed figures have a quirky, folk-art feel to them. A single motor drives the diorama; on the dance floor, rotating disks cause the dancers' legs to jump. Little models of artists like Carter Ernst and Paul Kittelson are said to be among them.

At the makeshift bar, drinkers lift their elbows -- and beers -- and little scraggly dogs crouch on the concrete floor. Edmundson and Kennell have a fantastic eye for detail: The cluttered makeshift bar is scattered with miniature empty beer cans. An old red pickup truck with a debris-laden bed is parked out front. The scene is vintage free-wheeling, seat-of-the-pants Lawndale at its best; the dust, heat, sweat and stale beer are almost palpable.

The show includes quirky Houston-esque work like 
this papier-mâché sculpture by Jesse Lott.
Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center
The show includes quirky Houston-esque work like this papier-mâché sculpture by Jesse Lott.

Lawndale was born in 1979 in a former cable factory at 5600 Hillman in the East End that had been the temporary home of the University of Houston art studios. UH administrators had apologetically moved the artists and faculty into the raw, unheated, un-air-conditioned building after a fire in the art annex, a.k.a. the art barn, a giant Quonset hut on the main campus. But there was nothing to apologize for; the students loved the new space. The building would spawn Lawndale Art Center and become the stuff of legend -- a sprawling, funky art space where epic parties happened.

It had holes in the floors big enough for young artists to fall through. There was a great rooftop where, according to Kopriva's exhibition catalog essay, students were wont to cavort naked, escaping the building's stifling heat. And there was space -- tons of it. The painters were upstairs, the sculptors down. There was so much space, some artists took up residence. One lucky student set up his studio/squat in an old conference room with a connecting bathroom. The students spent long hours in the studios. Even those who didn't live there might as well have. Dinner was often barbecue set up on a grassy patch that had broken through the asphalt parking lot.

Space is a liberating force for artists. The abundance of square footage in the building led artist James Surls, then a sculpture professor at UH, to start organizing exhibitions and performances in it, creating Lawndale Art and Performance Center. The space gave the students a place to show and created a much-needed alternative venue for presenting art. With Surls's efforts, Lawndale became a hive of activity for the Houston art and performance-art scenes; in addition to exhibitions, it hosted acts such as Sun Ra and Black Flag and performers like Spalding Grey, as well as political events (one was called "Rock Against Reagan").

"Still Crazy" offers glimpses of Lawndale's early years and the Houston art scene in the '80s and '90s, with works from the period and later pieces by artists involved with Lawndale during the time. Lawndale moved to its current site in 1992 and dropped "Performance" from its name. With a spiffy remodel completed last year, it's now a nice, grown-up organization, but there's still a nostalgia in the art community for the primordial Lawndale.

In addition to Lawndale Saturday Night, Kopriva has included a lot of other quirky Houston-esque figurative work in the show. Among them is one of Jesse Lott's untitled monumental papier-mâché works, circa 1992. Lott first showed work at Lawndale in 1979, its inaugural year. Standing eight feet tall, his figure of a man in flared pants, platform shoes and a wide collared shirt is plastered with vividly colored scraps of magazines and posters. His arms and legs are attenuated, calling to mind Giacometti, but his stance is dynamic and his torso thick with a rounded belly. The head and hands are exaggeratedly large. Lott has taken the kind of energy and gesture normally found only in drawings and translated it into three dimensions, creating a work that feels completely unconstrained.

Sharon Kopriva was Surls's graduate teaching assistant, and she's known for her creepy assemblage sculptures of nuns and popes. In Prey For Us (2005), she presents one of her best works yet. The figure of an altar boy stands on a floor of stained marble tiles. He faces a crucifix on the wall where the projected shadow of a figure wearing a bishop's miter looms. "Prey for us" is written on the wall in red crayon. The crayons scattered on the floor are a bit of overkill, but overall Kopriva has pulled off a succinct work with a political edge.

In 1979, Bert Long organized "POW WOW," which, with 500 miniature paintings, has to be Lawndale's most epic show to date. It was something only someone with Long's force of personality could pull off, and that personality is evident in his huge painting Ride the Tiger (2002), which depicts the artist naked astride a tiger with hypnotic eyes. Long wears huge, thick glasses and his beard and flowing mane of hair stream behind him. He holds onto the tiger with a Captain Hook hand as they streak through the sky, flames erupting around him. The image offers up a host of metaphors, and it's really wonderfully painted, with the tiger and Long rendered in a style that melds kitsch and surreal. The background is a gorgeous rush of color that looks like it's been scraped over.

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