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Happy 30th

As Lawndale reaches maturity, the Houston art community waxes nostalgic.

Lawndale Art Center just turned 30. The arts organization that was birthed in a sprawling, derelict, old warehouse/cable factory on Lawndale Avenue now owns a remodeled, air-conditioned deco building on Main Street that meets fire codes and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawndale is still an alternative space that focuses on Houston artists, and it still gives a lot of up-and-comers their first shows through open calls for proposals and the annual juried "Big Show," but things are a little different these days.

In a recent talk at Lawndale, founder James Surls described his role as director circa 1979. "I said yes to virtually everything that came in the door," he said. "Even if I thought it was the stupidest thing, I said, well, we could probably do that. We could take risks and take chances."

That spur-of-the-moment "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" attitude is long gone. Anyone can submit a proposal, but proposals go through the spontaneity-free, formal review-and-approval process, which weeds out the possibility of any really spectacular failures. The sense of chaos in the original mission is not totally gone, though: The open-proposal method routinely results in exhibitions in the center's four galleries that are so eclectic, it looks like the organization suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Case in point: At the moment, from top to bottom, Lawndale is showing an otherworldly plaster spider-and-neon-filled installation by Romanian-born artist Adela Andea in the third-floor Project Space; a found-object and video installation about domestic discord by husband-and-wife artists Jahjehan Bath Ives and Joe Ives in the Mezzanine Gallery; and an Adrian Piper-inspired installation by Nathaniel Donnett with pointed human-behavior surveys and the artist's drawings in the downstairs gallery. A new "gallery" is also operating now. Snack Projects, a miniature exhibition space organized by artists Michael Guidry and Robert Ruello, hangs on the wall in Lawndale's entry. Bill Davenport's "Give One, Take One" is currently on view, a project in which people are invited to take and leave objects/art in the space. When I was there, a circular saw blade wrapped in orange tape was leaning against the back wall.

This grab-bag approach is unique in the state of Texas, and possibly the U.S. Lawndale isn't known for showing any one kind of art. It does not have a mission to advance any curatorial agenda, beyond being a direct reflection of Houston's art community. Artists can propose solo shows of their own work, and budding curators can put together and propose group shows. Lawndale is open to it all.

The closest Lawndale gets to curating its own shows is asking someone to put something together for a special event, such as the current "30th Anniversary Exhibition," curated by Clint Willour of the Galveston Arts Center. For the show, Willour selected work from six artists who have exhibited at Lawndale in the last five years. Seth Alverson's paintings, which are figurative but painted with a realism as unsettling as their subject matter, steal the show.

The paintings are grouped together diabolically. One depicts the bent-over butt of a woman in running shorts, each dimple of cellulite on her pale legs exactly modeled. In the artist's nearby painting of an upholstered brown velveteen armchair, the soft fabric is rendered with a sheen that mimics the tufted flesh of the woman's legs. In between the chair and butt images is a canvas depicting a pair of hefty, less-than-pert breasts propped on a windowsill. There are also portraits, both of chubby girls, one seemingly painted from a class photo of a smiling Pentecostal student, the other depicting a big, surly-looking girl with her arms crossed, looking like she's just waiting to kick your ass in dodge ball. The Gerhard Richter-like smudged paint of her face is especially ominous.

The work doesn't come off as mean or sexist as it may sound. Alverson is presenting a fleshy, critical mass of awkwardness. The dialogue between the artworks is really strange, but it's incredibly powerful. There's other good work in the show, but these paintings are worth the trip on their own. Alverson is wrapping up grad school now at Virginia Commonwealth University. Lawndale gave him his first big solo show with "Thunderdome" in 2006.

Today Lawndale is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with accountability to boards, granting organizations and the IRS. It's solvent enough to put on 25 shows a year and run a residency program that provides studio space and stipends to artists. The grown-up Lawndale is no longer an edgy renegade with nothing to lose. But while it's a great accomplishment to come up from nothing and become a responsible, legitimate, bill-paying entity, a pillar of the arts community, that doesn't mean Houstonians don't wax nostalgic over Lawndale's lost youth.

That nostalgia was out in force for Surls's lecture. The Houston art community and Lawndale alums came in droves. The story of Lawndale's birth and early years is well known to many, but attendees seemed eager to hear it again from the man who started it all. The story of Lawndale is a creation myth that for many defines Houston's art community. Sitting in Lawndale's packed main gallery as Surls recounted Lawndale anecdotes was like crouching around a fire and listening to a tribal elder explain the origins of his people.

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