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"The Big Show, 2007"

The curator of "The Big Show" does the job right

Some years, Lawndale Art Center's annual "Big Show" has made me feel like the end is nigh for Houston's art scene. Lawndale always selects smart, accomplished arts professionals as jurors, but sometimes, inexplicably, a juror manages to assemble a veritable cavalcade of crap. Not so this year. Juror Rita Gonzalez, assistant curator of special exhibitions for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has managed to keep the crap quotient pretty low for "The Big Show 2007." Most of the unsuccessful work is only bad in an innocuous way, and she has managed to pull out some fairly interesting work from Houston's diverse art scene.

"The Big Show" is a rare thing, an exhibition juried from actual work rather than slides or digital images. For most juried exhibitions, artists send slides or digital images to the sponsoring organization, which then ships everything to a juror. Just like people, art can look better or worse in a photograph than it does in person. (I see you Internet daters nodding vigorously in agreement.) Because "The Big Show" is restricted to artists within a hundred miles of Houston, jurying from actual works is feasible.

Artists chuck their art in the back of minivans, rope it to the roofs of sedans and tie it down (or not) in the beds of trucks and head to Lawndale. Up until 2003, "The Big Show" was free to enter; now the entry fee is up to $30, but that's not slowing the artist stampede. This year, 458 of them showed up with 1,145 works of art — it's got to be the biggest turnout ever. I'm surprised Gonzalez didn't turn tail and run. Instead, she dug in and picked 115 works from 86 artists.

Normally, I wouldn't have high hopes for a painting whose elements include candy-colored paint, glitter and floral fabric — i.e., materials that seem destined for a preteen craft project. But Jeanne Cassanova's Somehow Inside Opalescent (2007) somehow makes them all work together in a really gorgeous way. Cassanova layers multiple line drawings — among them purplish images of elderly women with bikes and head scarves, a giant turquoise-colored koi and a forest-green pagoda — with pools of pink and clear resin. Any artist who has ever tried this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to making a painting knows how hard it is to pull off. The more elements you have in a work, the greater the likelihood the whole thing will spiral out of control or become a muddy mess. Cassanova has made a work with a mass of images, a hodgepodge of materials and no real focal point — and it's really freakin' great.

Operating at the other end of the spectrum, Ebony Porter makes drawings with a minimalist bent. She uses tiny little dots of black acrylic paint to create geometric shapes on pristine white squares of paper. It's an approach that sidesteps the spectacular disasters that plague the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink artists; a really boring image is the worst thing that can happen, but it can happen easily.

Porter's drawings are quite successful. The Quiet Mind (2006) is a solid circle filled with dots, while The Empty Mind (2007) is a pointed oval. The repetition of the tiny dots gives the works a meditative quality. Porter attempts to paint the dots in neat, curving rows, but the whole thing is a little off, which is exactly what makes the drawings appealing. We see Porter's freehand struggle for precision, and the slight wonkiness of pattern that results from it creates a hint of optical vibration. It's work that is simple and subtle but engaging.

Moving from the subtle to the crackpot, Emily Umnus-Patrick has created a self-portrait bust, Me Me Emily (2007). Artfully sewn from felt and stuffed, the sculpture kind of looks like a giant Muppet, but it's way cooler and quirkier. The felt Emily has wonky eyes with markered pupils and eyelashes, a mouth open as if she's about to speak. She even has tiny little white knitted and crocheted teeth and red horn-rimmed glasses. Her head grows out of the neck of a loud acrylic argyle sweater. The sculpture is silly and endearing.

Bexar's No Thanks? (2007) is pretty funny too — I'm assuming it's a self-portrait of the artist. A slide of a man's face is projected large-scale on the wall, over giant nails sticking out from it. The nails seemingly tack up a raised eyebrow, yank down a lower eyelid and curl an upper lip more than Elvis ever could.

There is a goodly amount of lame figurative work in the show, but one of the notable exceptions is L A Holloman's Incentive (2007), exquisitely rendered in oil on paper. Holloman skillfully combines two disparate images to wonderfully absurd effect. Across the bottom of the painting, a ragtag band of guerrillas gleefully hold automatic weapons aloft, while above them, giant, stylish, brightly colored espadrilles — seemingly straight out of a spring shoe ad — rain down from the sky. ¡Viva las Espadrilles!

Part of the popularity of "The Big Show" is due to the fact that it gives out cash prizes. Along with the entry fee, prize amounts were raised this year, up $250 each. Gonzalez awarded first place and $1,250 to April Hernandez, whose Oriental Rug (2007) is a floor work made from a big sheet of handmade Philippine gampi paper collaged with patterns of repeating images — woodcut prints of bunches of bananas and other fruit, along with tiny etchings of hundreds of little faces of Asian girls that look like they were drawn from a high school annual. The whole piece just doesn't gel visually, and conceptually it's a one-liner.

The second-place prize of $1,000 went to Aesha Lee for her vertical triptych I Am (parts 1-3) (2007). The three black-and-white paintings each show a different expression on the lower half of a woman's face. There's nothing wrong with how they're executed, but the whole thing just looks like an ambitious freshman painting project. Meanwhile, the third-place prize of $750 went to Matthew Sullivan. His Rug (2007) is a small gouache-and-pencil drawing of patterns of multicolored triangles surrounded by an elaborate homemade wood frame. He also has an ink drawing of a barn. Together, they have this kind of faux-folksy feeling. I don't know how old the prizewinners are, but the work all seems pretty young, like Gonzalez was trying to be encouraging to a bunch of students.

But whatever you think of her choices, good or ill, Gonzalez definitely gets Houston and gets Lawndale. In her letter for the exhibition brochure, she wrote that Lawndale Art Center and "The Big Show" allow for "a real life admixture of the polished, the amateur, the academicized, the autodidact, the ‘internationally exhibited' and the recluse." I'd say that about sums it up.

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