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Open House at the Chinati Foundation

An art world mecca -- and a small town

When I told a family friend that my wife and I would be spending the first weekend of October in Marfa, Texas, she squinted her eyes, smiled sarcastically and asked, "Marfa? Why would you want to go there?" About three seconds into my pointless explanation, I realized my mistake in even mentioning it at all. Her eyes had glazed over in an indifferent stare, still shocked that anyone would drive ten hours from Houston to hang out in a one-stoplight, far West Texas town.

But you're reading the art section of the Houston Press, so I'll assume you're already aware of the place's significance as an art world mecca.

Regardless of what the armchair Nostradamuses prophesied, Marfa has happily not become the next Aspen or Santa Fe, nor has it, as the most cynical and elitist of critics have argued, been scarred, corrupted or cheapened by the presence of artists and tourists. Marfa is still a small town. In fact, it's almost futile to search for a local business open on a Sunday.

Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation, built on the former Fort D.A. Russell site, is as audacious and fascinating as ever — even more so, since my first visit to Chinati's annual Open House Weekend in 2000. This was my third time viewing the collection, and this occasion yielded an even deeper understanding of Judd's advocating for permanent installation. His 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, housed in two former artillery sheds, evoked a feeling more complex than the singular "wow" of previous viewings. Now, I don't pretend to be a scholar of Judd or profess that I totally comprehend the impetus behind the work, nor do I realize the thought process behind dedicating six former barracks buildings to house the repetitive, yet mesmerizing, light sculptures of Dan Flavin, but I can confess to elevated feelings of tension and confusion, which I found utterly exhilarating.

Open House was in full swing. They say the event now attracts enough visitors to almost double Marfa's population. Chinati estimated this year's attendance at close to 1,800, according to the Big Bend Sentinel. The majority of folks come from major Texas cities — I overheard gripes that there were "way too many people from Austin" — but a good number flock from the coasts and Europe.

One boon to the event's growth has been its increasingly popular pick for Saturday night's free live music performance. In 2000, a DJ — who Chinati pegged a "sound artist" — provided what was probably the town's first rave. Then in 2005, Chinati announced it had booked Yo La Tengo. Attendance spiked. The decidedly arty Dandy Warhols performed in 2006. And this year provided possibly the most perfect fit for a celebration of high-concept art, Sonic Youth. The show was phenomenal — the band played material mostly pulled from its acclaimed recent album Rather Ripped and the landmark 1988 double album Daydream Nation to a packed, overflowing crowd. Strangely, the concert carried a kind of emblematic status that, depending on how you looked at it, either raised its significance or made you feel like a gawker. Whether you were a Sonic Youth fan or not, "you were there."

The Chinati Foundation might have peaked with this one; there are rumors that Open House is officially closed for the foreseeable future. A Chinati spokesperson said, "There's a lot of discussion about the future of Open House and whether it's maintaining its purpose."

That purpose, of course, would be to celebrate art. And despite Sonic Youth's overwhelming shadow, great visual art was in abundance — particularly "Camp Marfa," at the old Fort Russell Building #98. Wayne Gilbert of Houston's G Gallery, with the help of Lester Marks, Jeffrey Wheeler and Michael Meazell, organized the group show, consisting of 65 Texas artists. It was great to see so many Houston artists exhibiting in Marfa and enjoying that unique exposure. There were familiar sights like Bexar's No Thanks, a projection of the artist's face, distorted by the addition of actual nails in the wall, and a distilled version of Teresa O'Connor's haunting installation (g)host. Houston photographer Katy Anderson's Texas-themed photo Somewhere I Call Home depicts children in a Kid Nation version of the Lone Star State. In an abandoned school classroom, a little girl wearing a tiara sits on her easy-chair throne, clutching a boom box, flanked by Texas and U.S. flags, while a shirtless boy armed with a Red Ryder BB-gun stands at attention. It's apocalyptic, eerie and effective.

Speaking of apocalyptic, Austin's Ramzy Telley and Bill Hailey collaborated on the scorching installation Apocalypstick, which combined Hailey's disturbing mixed media images with Telley's visceral film of rodeo bull riders, Death in Vegas. Also disturbing was Yousef Balat's Rabbit Trap, an unsettling image of a deranged Easter Bunny with an unsuspecting child perched on its knee.

The sprawling exhibit, which showed for four days, October 4-7, captured a feeling similar to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's recent "Nexus Texas" exhibition, but unlike that show, where Texas seemed buried in the details, out in the wide-open expanse of the Marfa plateau, "Texas" was a palpable character. The building's old ballroom, where soldiers once cavorted with local women, had been renovated and was offering cold beer. Artists and visitors relaxed on the complex's central lawn, enjoying the cool weather and the occasional, spectacular thunderstorm, and Judd's vision of tension and juxtaposition between art and landscape wasn't an academic postulate, it was a gut feeling. It just made sense. And in the best way, it was confusing as hell.

 
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