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It Is What It Is. Or Is It?

This CAMH show features plenty of good work, but it's not all worth the effort.

"It is what it is. Or is it?" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is CAMH curator Dean Daderko's first show. It has Marcel Duchamp as its standard bearer and focuses on the readymade as both object and idea. There is no text to spell out what to take away or how to interpret the work. There are no wall labels. The lack of interrupting text brings the works together as interrelating parts of a whole, and viewers respond to them as they are, as the title says.

None of that is a bad idea, but the problem is, it's the kind of show where you do need a secret decoder ring half the time. Most of what's on view isn't particularly visually engaging, and grabbing one of the works-list handouts with titles and materials is necessary to "get" much of it. This show poses the question: How much work is the viewer required to do? And what is the incentive?

Take William Cordova's untitled (hexagons) (2001-2011), a series of 10 seemingly random images and objects, most of them hung at the eye level of a dachshund. Each of them has bits of text and image that you can't really see unless you kneel on the floor. Does it matter if you can't see this stuff? Or are you supposed to genuflect before Cordova's art? Seriously?

Patrick Killoran wants you to look for the "ice" in the ice.
Patrick Killoran, Courtesy the artist
Patrick Killoran wants you to look for the "ice" in the ice.
Abraham Cruzvillega's piece is made from a skateboard, a two-by-four and a potato.
Paul Hester
Abraham Cruzvillega's piece is made from a skateboard, a two-by-four and a potato.

The piece starts off with a tiny shelf low on the wall displaying a scrap of napkin with "poverty, hijacking, cannibalism, amnesia" written on it. After that there's a blue piece of paper in a plastic binder sleeve thumbtacked along the floor, with cut-out black-and-white buildings on either side. It's followed by two black feathers dangling from strings wrapped around a nail. Next is a black-framed collage of Xeroxes of an ad for an exhibition and sale benefiting the legal defense fund of the Panther 21, with white paint over the glass obscuring different areas. (In 1969, 21 Panther members were rounded up by the New York police; 13 were tried and acquitted.) The list of participating artists like Donald Judd and Faith Ringgold has been copied by hand.

Taking this in required sitting down and scooting along the CAMH's dusty floor from left to right while squinting at Cordova's offerings. I had the distinct impression that the artist and the curator were jacking with me.

Googling an address printed on a bit of paper in another framed collage reveals 35 Sylvan Street as the former headquarters of the New Haven, Connecticut Panther Party. Faintly penciled initials in yet another framed work lead to the 1960s Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords Party. I could easily fill the rest of this review and then some with Googled decoding and conjecture — there is still the paint-stained Joan Walsh Anglund book on a high, hard-to-see shelf. (Sit down, stand up, sit down.) There is the fuzzy Polaroid image of what looks like Tupac stuck in a reused plastic envelope and taped to the wall. (Tupac's mom, Afeni Shakur, was one of the Panther 21 arrested and acquitted.) It goes on and on. Maybe if you work hard enough, it all comes together in some rewarding way. Whatever the case, there is something manipulative about the work.

For an artist with such apparent social concerns, this piece seems pretty elitist. Unless you somehow already knew all this stuff, which means you can be smug and self-congratulatory, getting the fragmentary and usually obscure references requires Internet connectivity. And it seems arrogant to assume people will even care enough to play along. The work is not especially visually intriguing, and the presumption is irritating. If I wasn't doing a review, there is no way in hell I would put this much effort into it. And if it's the case that the artist doesn't care about the viewer, why even show the work to others?

Rachel Hecker's visually and conceptually satisfying work is at the other end of the spectrum. Curator Daderko included three paintings from a series in which the artist finds images of guys in the media who look like Jesus and paints them. Let me clarify: She finds guys who look like the Hollywood/storybook/cheap-religious-print version of Jesus. This in itself is fascinating — the idea that we can find resemblances to an imagined appearance, one that is far more Aryan nation than Semitic. The most "Jesus-y" is Jesus #2 (David Gilmour/Pink Floyd) (2011). It reminds you how many Jesus-y-looking idolized rock stars there are, bringing up chicken-and-egg aspects of celebrity worship.

Other paintings aren't nearly as strong. I couldn't care less about Ellen Altfest's Plants (2004), an exacting painting of a cactus. Altfest may show with some big-name international galleries, but her painting and its style are the kind of competently banal work you could find in an overpriced, mediocre Santa Fe gallery. Her other painting in the show focuses on a portion of a leg, although she's painted more interesting parts of the male anatomy with similar detail before. But the subject matter isn't interesting enough. Altfest is unsuccessfully trying to spin run-of-the-mill realism.

Fayçal Baghriche's Envelopments (2010) is a series of flags from 28 different countries, wrapped around a row of poles projecting from the CAMH walls. It looks like a bunch of red-wrapped sticks. It turns out that red is on the outer edge of 28 different flags. You realize what a highly symbolic color it is, and this little detail somehow becomes a great commonality among cultures and countries as diverse as Bahrain, France, Chad, Morocco, China, Tunisia, Canada and East Timor.

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2 comments
Qocourage
Qocourage

Whoa, you really missed the point. Why are you reviewing contemporary art if you worry that artists are "jacking" you? Why assume an artist is being elitist (unlikely) rather than pointing out the lower status of political activists and, oh nevermind! The point is to spend some time with contemporary art and not worry if you "get it." if a work does not speak to you, move on to the next one. It's an exciting opportunity that many contemporary artists are still living; if you have a question, get in touch and ask! Don't assume the worst.

Thenonymous
Thenonymous

I'm going to have my buddy film me while I tag Patirck Killoran's work by running up and putting a chicken salad sandwich and a Coke into it.

 
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