By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
The new installation-oriented show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has a catchy title "Black Light/White Noise: Sound and Light in Contemporary Art." It has a Velvet Underground-ish ring to it. Many of the works on display have a "pop" element, too. The artists are African-American, hence the "Black Light" of the title. But few of the pieces actually reflect a distinct black cultural perspective. And attempting to connect one to the art doesn't really yield significant results. Mostly, the connection here is the light/noise aspect of the work. Black or not, it's a talented group of contemporary artists. Much of the show is powerful; pieces on their own are reason enough to see this show. Unfortunately, the curating feels haphazard and aimless, and certain pieces feel as if the artists' intent has been mishandled.
A DVD, accompanied by essays and an exhibition catalog, gives extra insight into the artists and their work, but it also reveals installation elements that were missing upon this particular viewing. For example, Arthur Jafa's My Black Death seems like it was improperly installed. It's a black car, a '70s Pontiac Trans Am, impaled and enveloped by a black frame. A crushed metal sculpture lies on the floor at the back end of the car. The catalog mentions that the piece was exhibited in a darkened space (ArtPace in San Antonio) where the Trans Am could barely be seen. That sounds much more interesting than the incarnation at the CAMH, where the piece has been placed in close proximity to the brightest-shining work in the entire exhibit (Nadine Robinson's Wormwood). As a result, the car is flooded with light, and its power is drained like a vampire in the sun. And where was the "distorted music emanating from the car's trunk," as the catalog states? It would've been a nice touch, but alas, no music.
Wormwood, on the other hand, is impressive. It's a huge seven-point star covered in 500 lightbulbs, and it emits real heat. Sunglasses are recommended for viewing it, especially if you get real close. Inspired by the Book of Revelation, Wormwood symbolizes the "third angel's great star of destruction."
A pitch-black corridor leads to Kissing Cousins, Kambui Olujimi's haunting installation. Upon first entrance, the blackness feels vast and scary, until the discovery of a little room with two tiny, dollhouse-size windows. A melancholy tune underscored by rumbling thunder plays while imagery of an electrical storm flashes outside the windows. The only furniture in the tiny space is a dimly lit stand-up ashtray. The anxiety upon entrance turns into a feeling of comfort, of being protected from the elements. On exit, there's a surprising revelation that the confines of the piece are actually much smaller than originally perceived.
Satch Hoyt's 8-Track Shack is another example of curatorial misrepresentation, but in this case, the piece fares better. It's a house-shaped frame walled from top to bottom with hundreds of eight-track tapes. At the CAM, it rests on the floor and viewers may step inside it, but in the exhibit catalog it's described as being suspended above the floor with microphones placed under it, so that viewers may "sing along to a compilation of songs created by black artists during the period of the eight-track's reign in the 1970s." No such suspension or microphones here, and that's probably better, since one wouldn't be able to browse the tapes. Interestingly, the outside of the shack features black artists, like Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross, the Commodores and Richard Pryor, while the inside features mostly whites: the Carpenters, Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Styx, Billy Joel...even the Muppet Moviesound track. A music loop plays snippets of songs. The suggestion might be that black artists laid the foundation for modern pop/rock/country (an accurate proposal), or it may be simple counterpoint. Regardless, it's a fun piece.
Not fun, on the other hand, is The Complex, So. Cal, Multi 4, Kianga Ford's quartet of banal, headphones-outfitted plastic pods, which viewers may crawl inside of to listen to a boring story about people who live in an apartment complex. It's a wasted opportunity and anticlimactic. If Ford's audio adhered more to the "noise" theme, it might have resonated louder.
"Loud" is a good word to describe George Lewis's Rio Negro. The multimedia/sound installation is comprised of automated contraptions that manipulate rainmakers and hanging chimes to create improvisational musical phrasings. An atmospheric sound loop plays in the background and randomly, coincidentally accompanies the automatic instruments, which are decorated and painted in a tribal motif. It's great to sit on one of the benches in the space and wait for those moments of cacophony, when the instruments and the sound design come together. On its own, it's reason enough to see the show.
Ultimately, though, "Black Light/White Noise" feels confusing on a thematic level. On a simply "contemporary light and sound" level, it's cohesive. But the racial angle feels tacked-on and unexplored. The catalog goes a long way toward clarifying intent, but must we read an essay to get the point? It feels like lazy curating.