Half a Century Late

Benjamin Patterson gets his due as Houston goes avant-garde.

Methods and Processes, Patterson's first book of poetry, contains poem/instructions like the following: "discover an interesting sound / capture it / preserve it / perform it." It also includes Lick Piece: "cover shapely female with whipped cream / lick / ... / topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional."

Photos documenting a 1964 New York performance of Lick Piece are on view; Patterson and two other guys squirt whipped cream all over a woman seated naked in a chair, apparently in a gallery. The references to ejaculate are obvious, and the "licked" aftermath has "porn scene" written all over it. The work is super-sexist, but it's par for the course for the period. Remember, this was the same time period when Yves Klein was dragging naked women through paint and across canvases, using them as brushes. The civil rights climate in the U.S. at the time, and the fact that anti-miscegenation laws were on the books until 1967, gave an additional subversive element to the performance, which featured a white female.

Patterson's assemblage sculptures, however, aren't consistently successful. Often filled with bright consumer objects, they are visually engaging but often feel overwrought and clunky. Hung high in the gallery, his double bass with wings and a bunch of other stuff stuck on it is a disappointing example. But Sit Down is a simpler and more successful sculpture. It's a chair with an arced wire that dangles a white teddy bear with a red heart in front of the person seated. There is apparently a recorder inside. A label on the bear instructs you to "Sit down, speak to me loudly, leave." God knows what things people have shouted at that innocuous stuffed animal.

Lick Piece: nuts and cherries optional.
Photo by Peter Moore © Estate of Peter Moore/VAGA, New York
Lick Piece: nuts and cherries optional.

Location Info


Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Museums

Region: Montrose


"Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us"

Through January 23.

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250.

There is an overwhelming amount of work to see in the show, but you shouldn't miss the installation Blame It on Pittsburgh; or, Why I Became an Artist (1997). It's a kind of biography/autobiography of Patterson. Text is written or reproduced on clear sheets of Plexiglas along with images. But subverting the traditional museum display of informational text that requires the viewer to shuffle along, reading in chronological order, the sheets are hung from the ceiling, creating a kind of a maze. 

To top it off, Patterson turned off the lights. Viewers have to grab a flashlight and enter the total darkness, bumping into things and reading spotlighted snippets. With everything from newspaper clippings to personal recollections, it's like you are rummaging through the artist's brain. And as the show demonstrates, Patterson's brain is a pretty amazing place to be. Cassel and the CAMH have done the artist — and Houston — a real service with this show.

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