Not So Spectacular

This CAMH show features plenty of good work, but not much connects it together.

You know, if it wasn't 5,000 degrees outside and we weren't in the middle of drought, I might be slightly less enthusiastic about Chris Larson's video Deep North. But it is 5,000 degrees outside, we are in the middle of a drought and Deep North is set in a Southern shotgun shack, coated with ice inside and out. The abundance of frozen water and the breath-fogging cold is like climate porn for Texans. (I can only hope that by the time this comes out, the heat will have abated.)

Deep North (2008) is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston as a part of "The Spectacular of Vernacular," an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center and curated by the Walker's Darsie Alexander that purports to bring together artworks with "vernacular" sensibilities — stuff that in some way channels the regional, folksy or craftsy. There is a lot of art out there that could conceivably fall into those categories, and the curator has filled the show with some pretty disparate works.

Larson's video opens with shots of an ice-coated kitchen table set for dinner. The stove is just as frosty, and the water-filled kitchen sink is frozen solid. So is the toilet. The toilet paper roll drips icicles and ice coats a pushbutton phone. Even the bed isn't spared an arctic overlay. The sculptural qualities of all that frozen water are amazing, with thick blankets of the stuff, as well as pools, cascades and elegant icicles. Normally, it would make me think of people freezing to death on Midwestern prairies, but having just walked to the CAMH across pavement radiating the triple-digit heat back at me, all I could do was stare longingly at the video as I enjoyed the CAMH air-conditioning blasting down from the ceiling.

Cut-paper extravaganza: Dario Robleto's Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines.
Courtesy of CAMH
Cut-paper extravaganza: Dario Robleto's Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines.

Location Info


Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Museums

Region: Montrose


"The Spectacular of Vernacular"

Through September 18. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

But the video isn't just about Larson coating a mockup of Southern vernacular architecture with ice and staging and transforming its interior. In Larson's vision, the building is also the site of some sort of odd, ice-based manufacturing.

The narrow house is open at the roof, and there's a giant wooden paddlewheel in the center of it connected to some elaborate wooden mechanism that moves cylindrical chunks of ice around the room. It looks like it was built by a Nordic Rube Goldberg. The machine is operated by young, attractive and expressionless women clad in stylishly tailored wool jackets and pants. They're wearing coordinating headgear that looks like an avant-garde take on the Elmer Fudd hat.

I can see how Larson's absurd and rustic contraption works with the ice house, but what's the deal with the model-looking women? Are they trapped in some kind of arctic sweatshop? Something about the clothes and the activity makes me imagine Andrea Zittel in Minnesota (the artist who has designed her own wardrobe, food and habitats), but if she was involved, the whole thing would be much more purposeful and practical. Whatever the case, I just want to see more ice...

Basically, ignoring the stuff that doesn't make sense is the best way to see this whole show. Unless a group show is titled "Random Unrelated Shit I Stuck Together," I think most of us try to figure out connections between the works a curator has chosen. Alexander may have staked her conceptual territory broadly enough so that a Mike Kelley mobile combining squiggled wire and geometric components can be shown with a series of Walker Evans's Depression-era photographs and Marc Swanson's glam crystal-covered deer antlers, but visually the combination is a tough sell.

I found myself walking through trying to mentally categorize work. "Let's see, those paintings and that sculpture use sparkly, craftsy stuff...That work over there looks really rural and that one looks crappily homemade...Oh, and there's a video with Serbian artist Marina Abramovic's naked boobs poking out of a peasant costume...File that under 'folk influence'..." While there are some innate connections between certain works, a lot of the other connections are far more tortured — the show overall comes across as pretty much of a hodgepodge.

Vernacular architecture is one of the more obvious and successful threads of influence in the show. In addition to Larson's video, there are a number of works that reference American wood frame buildings. They're literally there, in Walker Evans's images of shanty interiors and country churches, and they're a sculptural influence in Siah Armajani's outhouse-size structure. They're memorialized in William Christenberry's Palmist Building (1979), a small model/sculpture of an old storefront building that the artist regularly photographed until it completely disappeared. You can see the artist's urge to replicate and preserve the paintless, ramshackle wooden storefront, the sort you used to find all over the rural South.

With a narrow, mean little chimney for a wood stove, the structure Christenberry is re-creating was never grand, and it's only gotten worse with age. Today such buildings are truly endangered species, through sheer decay or development. Southerners will appreciate the simulation of the rusted RC Cola sign on the front as well as the hand lettering on the "Jesus Saves" sign. And the old "Palmist" sign propped up inside one of the glassless windows would have no doubt caused consternation to the "Jesus Saves" proponents. Christenberry's work may seem quaint 30 years after its making, but it comes from a very real place.

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