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Meta-Colonialism

Inside the CAMH, the works of "No Zoning" lose their power.

In a recent article in Interview magazine, film director Jim Jarmusch and Interview editorial director Glenn O'Brien were discussing how museums' colonialism decontextualized cultures by placing artifacts in a type of "art detention." Jarmusch quoted a Pacific Northwest Native American who was indignant that his people's most beautiful artifacts were held in a museum in Vancouver. "The most beautiful shit's in their Warehouse," he said. "They've got it in their Warehouse."

If museums are indeed guilty of pillaging culture and draining artworks of their spiritual identities, then a type of meta-colonialism may be happening at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. It's not an artistic holocaust, of course. No artist is being exploited or intentionally misrepresented. It's simply a matter of context.

"No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston" features the work of about 20 local artists and teams of artists who have created works outside of museums and galleries, often site-specific or performance-based pieces. Many of the participants began engaging their environments in the '80s, and the show includes installation elements from past works to just-recent ones. It's an adequately interesting exhibit of local talent in a historical context, but it lacks almost any relevance to what makes these works powerful in their own skins. It's as if they've been relegated to the Warehouse of Houston Curiosities.

If you haven't spent a late night at notsuoH, Jim Pirtle's assemblage won't translate.
Courtesy of CAMH
If you haven't spent a late night at notsuoH, Jim Pirtle's assemblage won't translate.

For instance, Cleveland Turner's Flower Man House in the Third Ward is represented by a mock-up on the CAMH's front lawn. Besides the potential to point visitors toward the real thing, a crazy, colorful mish-mash of junk, toys and whatever else Turner finds or visitors bring him, the surrogate can't begin to embody the soul Turner's actual residence contains — especially because it's not a museum. It's a house.

Similarly, artist Jim Pirtle's stand-in for notsuoH, the Downtown art project/hangout he started in the '90s, misses the mark. The assemblage of display cases, paintings, old records, books and other ephemera won't re-create an actual late-night visit to Pirtle's domain at Clark's on Main. While the installation might bring back incredible memories for some, its twisted logic won't translate to the uninitiated.

Nestor Topchy's maquette and images for Organ feel a little sad. The mind behind Zocalo/TemplO, the Feagan Street artist compound that operated like a collective and hosted wild, anarchic underground performances by local artists and touring acts like New York's Bindle­stiff Family Circus, Topchy had big dreams for the place and then lost the lease. Townhomes now occupy the former lot. Organ is proposed as a kind of supersize TemplO, with artist residencies and businesses built around a central "hive" made out of shipping containers. It's the type of Cooper Union-esque art/architecture proposal that has a golden heart but will probably never actually happen due to prevailing self-consciously cynical attitudes.

Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, the guys behind Inversion at the former Art League building, cut a spherical cross-section out of a house and rebuilt it inside the CAMH, and it's hands down the most impressive work in the exhibit. It's an actual hallway with adjoining sections of rooms (there's a bathrobe to denote the bathroom) elevated on cinder blocks.

Photography by George Hixson helps establish some context for many of the works on display. Hixson documented the rich local underground scene that really flourished here in the early and mid-'90s when music, theater and visual art knew no social or working boundaries. There's the cast of characters: Pirtle (guzzling picante sauce), Topchy, Ben DeSoto (whose work is also included in the exhibit) and photos of art cars and performances — which brings us to The Art Guys.

In conjunction with "No Zoning," Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth got married to a live oak sapling the morning of Saturday, June 13, at the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden.

Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt thought the concept was lame from the beginning — the idea was "planted" in 2004—and he inspired Galbreth to respond to the piece's skewering on his blog. Britt thought it was irresponsible of the Guys to disconnect the work from current events, and that it somehow reinforced negative attitudes toward gays. Galbreth responded that Britt had overconceptualized something as simple as a "behavior."

I was out of town and unable to attend the wedding. Knowing the proposal, though, I understood the can of worms it was likely to open concerning the issue of gay marriage — opponents' "slippery slope" concerns that if homosexuals are allowed to marry, then people will inevitably want to marry animals, objects, etc. I assumed the performance was meant to be ironic; that The Art Guys were riffing on those absurd fears and possibly saying, "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" One writer posted on Britt's blog that the performance might represent The Art Guys' commitment to the Houston art community (symbolized by the live oak tree). James Surls interpreted it as a kind of spiritual embrace of nature. Or perhaps it was a comment on the marriage ceremony itself as an absurd bit of behavior.

Having recently ended my own marriage, that interpretation particularly resonated with me. What does the public act of commitment really mean when divorce rates seem higher than ever? How does it reflect my own experience? How does an event that may ultimately mean nothing maintain historical relevance? Does it become a tainted memory; a piece of emotional garbage? Would Topchy or Pirtle harbor similar feelings about their own contributions to the exhibit and ponder whether they represented personal success or failure?

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