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Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen channel their lives into their work at Art League Houston.

In 21st century America, having kids means having a bunch of crap in your house. Stuffed animals start piling while they are still in utero; your kid still has gill slits and has already received enough bunnies, ponies, doggies, elephants and monkeys to fill a 50-gallon oil drum. Then there are all the other accoutrements of childhood: car seats, high chairs, playpens, bouncers — and as the kids grow, so does their crap pile. You can try to fight it, try to purge stuff (i.e., pass it on to newbie parents), try to keep your home from looking like a daycare. Few succeed.

Like a lot of other parents, artists Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen are experiencing the build-up of crap that accompanies having children. Unlike a lot of other parents, Hillerbrand and Magsamen are channeling their condition into their work. They're also letting their kids get in on the act. The results are on view at the Art League Houston in the video installation "eState Sale: Hillerbrand+Magsamen."

A literal wall of junk greets you as you walk into the show. A Little Tikes kiddie car, a steam iron, a stark naked learn-how-to-dress-yourself stuffed mouse, a bicycle helmet and other household detritus are stacked up and wedged between two-by-fours Hillerbrand and Magsamen used to frame out the entry to the gallery. (I went to the opening with my kids and only just stopped the three-year-old, his eyes gleaming with avarice, from extricating a Batman tricycle from the precariously arranged wall.)

Videos of the family are like portraits.
Videos of the family are like portraits.

Inside the darkened gallery, four free-standing video screens are arranged around the center of the room, with a green plastic-lidded frog sandbox in the middle, illuminated from within and glowing like an alien shrine. More junk is built up to create walls that radiate into the center of the gallery; old bikes, TVs, computer monitors, a Great Dane-size dog crate, plastic storage bins, kiddie kitchens, old keyboards, phones, witch hats, Styrofoam coolers and DVD players are just a few of the components.

Videos of each member of the Hillerbrand/Magsamen family — the parents and their two grade school-age kids — are projected larger-than-life onto the tall, narrow video screens. Each is a sort of portrait. The couple's daughter lies in a sea of stuffed animals, struggling to emerge from the brightly colored mass of girlishness that is subsuming her. Those cute little smiling faces marketed to cute little smiling girls suck her back in each time she tries to escape them.

In contrast, their son's video embodies little-boy brattiness. He stands in rubber boots, a too-small white T-shirt, cartoon underwear and safety glasses. A huge stack of white plates is on the floor next to him. He begins to smash them one by one on the tile floor, looking a little amazed that he is actually being allowed to do this. Despite the boots and safety glasses, he kind of winces once in a while as the shards occasionally fly up and hit his long, skinny arms and legs.

Little boys running around the house in cartoon underwear leaving destruction in their wake is certainly relatable — the fact that a kid can inflict a level of material damage on par with ground troops in full battle gear has stunned generations of parents. The video and the kid's bare arms and legs evoke that combination of vulnerability and power, but I still might have opted for cartoon jammies for a little more shard protection. It's not like he's cut or anything or wouldn't gleefully do worse on his own, but you do notice it. Maybe that's the point? I dunno.

Meanwhile, in her video, Magsamen is wearing a June Cleaver-esque dress and pearls, busily walling herself up in a full but relatively tidy clothes closet. She's stacking bricks in the doorway and using feathers from a pillow as mortar. She completes the wall, laying the bricks to the top of the doorjamb. We stare at the wall for a bit, until the artist knocks it down from within and escapes, symbolically escaping domestic imprisonment? The confines of motherhood? The suffocation of the household and its stuff?

Hillerbrand sports a Ward Cleaver shirt and tie in his video. He stands outside holding a sprinkler, oblivious as it sprays over his shoes. Behind him, the barbecue grill bursts into flames. He doesn't notice. He eventually walks off, and the sprinkler remains suspended in the air. The sprinkler and lawn imagery are a go-to symbol of suburban artificiality, banality and monotony. I could also comment on paternal vs. maternal levels of awareness, but I'm not gonna go there. That would be wrong — generalizing and stereotyping. It would piss off my husband.

The videos have some pretty predictable gender and family stereotypes, but those pressures, expectations and predilections exist in society and in the domestic sphere. A lot of it is nurture and acculturation, but some of this stuff is innate. I never would have believed it until I had kids. Seeing your two-year-old (who isn't allowed to have toy guns or watch violent stuff) chew his toast into the shape of a handgun and start shooting at the orange juice is kind of an eye-opener.

Like Andrea Zittel turning her experiences into her art, it's nice that the artists are creating something out of their life, and that they're including their family. And they handle it well — anytime you do something autobiographical or, God forbid, about your kids, there is always the chance to make stuff that is only interesting to you, and maybe the grandparents. That's not the case here; their work resonates beyond themselves.

It's a good show, and it certainly has extra conceptual appeal for people in the same life stage as the artists, but it could be a great show. Somehow, it feels a little pat, like it needs more of an edge. One of the artists' earlier videos, Accumulation, is shown on a monitor in the foyer. In it, the artists pile up crap in a darkened room high enough to climb up and escape through an attic door. All the while, we hear the rapid-fire patter of an auctioneer. It makes you think of people losing everything they own against their will or, conversely, intentionally escaping the burden of material possessions. In another scene in the video, the couple's daughter is shown dangling in the dark, hanging by one arm from the rectangular opening in the ceiling. (There is an unseen platform beneath her.) It's a superficially ambiguous piece — the artists aren't frantic, and the girl doesn't seem panicked — but it has ominous undertones, a sense of strangeness, a whiff of despair.

Maybe the actual junk in the show could be handled a little differently. It's too spread out and artfully arranged. It would be great piled in an enormous mound in the center of the gallery, as it is in Accumulation. Or maybe if there was enough of it to cover the walls and make the whole place totally claustrophobic. There is an opportunity for that to happen; however, the artists are asking people to bring their own crap and add it to the installation. Here's your chance to purge, and help make art! Plus, it's for a good cause. Everything will be auctioned off live on February 18 at 11 a.m., and all proceeds will go to Star of Hope. Don't outbid me on that Batman tricycle. We really need some more crap at our house.

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