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Fifth-generation Texan Buster Graybill has successfully noodled for a giant catfish. He's made sculptures with ricks of wood. He drives a big truck. Last year he installed his work Deer Blind for Mondrian on the grounds of AMOA Arthouse Laguna Gloria. The Mondrian-inspired camouflage-patterned panels from the blind are currently hung on the walls of Art League Houston as a part of "Buster Graybill: Feral." But the sections of the deer blind aren't the focus of "Feral" — the artist's metal sculptures/animal feeders are.
Graybill dubbed his sculptures Tush Hog, a term for those big, nasty tusked feral hogs that plague the state — the name comes from the artist's East Texas childhood. Graybill's Tush Hogs are metal polyhedrons made from the kind of diamond plate aluminum you see on the running board of an 18-wheeler. The sculptures range in size from 12 inches to six feet and they're filled with feed corn that sifts out from holes drilled in the metal. Pushing the faceted objects over lets more corn fall out. The bighorn sheep, which like to butt their heads into stuff anyway, seem to have figured this out pretty quickly.
Visitors to the Art League may enjoy Graybill's work but, not as much as those bighorn sheep, deer, javelinas and feral hogs did. The Tush Hogs are like giant treat balls for wild animals. Video and photographic stills displayed in the Art League's main gallery record four-legged art lovers interacting with the artist's sculptures out on a ranch near San Antonio. The images were taken with motion-activated cameras and most are night-vision. The sheep were apparently from some game ranch, and in Graybill's video, Ramtastic, 2010, they take turns charging into the Tush Hogs, pushing them back and forth. One ram knocks the sculpture into two other sheep that knock into each other and almost fall down in a domino effect. It's pretty amusing.
"Buster Graybill: Feral"
Through September 20. Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530
In the night-vision photographic stills, the animals are captured at work. They look like perps caught in the act. In one of the Untitled Tush Hog Surveillance images, nearly a dozen feral hogs surround a large feeder and stare at the camera. Their bodies are barely discernible, but their eyes glow demonically from the darkness. Another photograph shows two bighorn sheep resting by the Tush Hogs as a blur of javelinas run past.
The Tush Hog sculptures are beat up from their encounters. Repeated head butts wore the black paint off in select spots on one sculpture. They are displayed in the main gallery and in the Art League's courtyard. Feed corn has spilled out from them and children have apparently been knocking around the ones in the courtyard. It's refreshing to see sculptures designed to be not only touched but also banged around — in what amount to wild-animal performance pieces.
Graybill spins his own creation myth for the Tush Hogs, with tongue-in-cheek speculation that they "evolved from a Donald Judd sculpture that escaped from the Chinati Foundation in Marfa." Living in the wild and away from "curators, collectors or conservators to comfort and care for the sculptures" Graybill asserts, they evolved "diamond-plated armor" and "more muscular stature" adaptations to survive in the wild.
Chinati spends huge amounts of money keeping that massive shrine to Judd's ego, er, artwork, pristine. It's entertaining to think about all those obsessively maintained steel boxes making a break for it. It's a smart and smartass idea. Graybill, the son of a truck driver, spent time working in art services at the Menil. He is essentially calling bullshit, not on art but on the pretentiousness and preciousness that can surround it.
Graybill works as a contemporary artist but embraces his rural working-class roots and culture. He's sharp enough to know they aren't mutually exclusive and seems secure enough to enjoy both. Graybill's feeders are the kind of amusing and inventive thing your deer-hunting buddy, the one hard at work refining his latest PVC pipe spud gun, would appreciate. They're also conceptually interesting artwork.
His Deer Blind for Mondrian would also be a big hit in the deer woods. (The site of creative innovations like the school bus/bunkhouse.) Mondrian is a clever and functional piece; the sides of the blind are fabricated with rectilinear shapes and painted with various patterns of camouflage. It's also another sly poke at the art world, the segment of it that is horrified by rural pastimes like hunting.
Graybill addressed some of these issues in an essay he wrote for Artlies (Issue 65) titled "Seeking a Common Denominator: The Rural and Contemporary Art." In it he salutes the rural creativity familiar to many Texans:
"An assortment of 'redneck readymades' can be found in rural backyards: an outboard motor clamped onto a 55-gallon drum full of water or a V8 engine dangling from a chain on a tree limb waiting for further repair. A sequence of box-shaped deer standing along a pipeline echoes the simple elegance of Judd's minimalist sculptures."
What makes a thing an artwork is choosing to call it one. Graybill writes, "Communal activities like boiling crawfish, barbequing, frying fish or making homemade sausage all share the culinary and social ingredients of Rirkrit Tiravanija's work." (In what has been referred to as a "landmark piece," Tiravanija cooked and served rice and Thai curry as his 1993 gallery exhibition "Untitled (303).") But does choosing to call something art and presenting it in a gallery make it a culturally superior endeavor?
Graybill sums things up best when he writes, "There is confluence, value, beauty, sincerity, humor and poetry to be found in the oft-overlooked places that exist between somewhere and the middle of nowhere."