All Grown Up
Lawndale Art Center's newly remodeled space is pretty fabulous. But if you remember the old Lawndale or even the old, old Lawndale over near the University of Houston, you might be a little saddened by the clean, hip new space. The old Lawndale's endearing, funky makeshiftness has gone the way of the old asbestos floor tile. But nobody will miss the old bathrooms -- the new ones are so nice they make you want to drink even more beer at the openings. And all nostalgia aside, the new Lawndale is a great grown-up place for exhibiting art.
J Hill is showing some provocative new work in the rear gallery. Lately, he's been playing with ideas of home and domesticity. (In a piece at Project Row Houses, he slipcovered a row house in clear plastic.) His Lawndale show, called "I Could Build Rome in a Day," is a sort of loose autobiography. The first piece you see is the text of the show's title engraved in brass on a black plaque, a witty work that sets a scrappy, can-do tone. On one wall of the gallery is a stereo playing an audio track incorporating ambient sounds recorded from Hill's daily life; tinkling music from his daughter's music box intermingles with scraps of Nirvana and not-quite-audible conversation.
A photograph of part of the wood framing of a house is hung on an opposite wall, and mounted in the ceiling next to it is a "hypersonic sound projector"; when you stand under it, you hear the sounds of voices and a running shower. The use of audio is interesting, and it feeds into the domestic and autobiographical themes, but it doesn't completely click with the other works. The show needs some sort of unifying element that would cinch everything together into an installation.
The real gem is the video projection on the back wall. Hill sings his life story to the tune of "Camptown Races" while wearing clown makeup and a rainbow wig (yes, you read that correctly) in a close-up head shot. Hill's abbreviated account of his life goes from his being a kid who was "short and plump" and nicknamed Stump to an artist, husband and father. It's clever and touching and ballsy. "For me high school really sucked / Doo-dah! doo-dah! So off to college for better luck / Oh, de doo-dah day!" In this engaging and horribly off-key work, Hill frankly presents this overview of his life with a self-effacing air. He's just another person trying to do the best he can with his life. The work is all the more powerful for it.
Story is also a part of the Mick Johnson show -- called "( - - )" -- in the main gallery. Johnson uses text transcribed from a video he shot of a guy recounting an anecdote. The guy's story is about how he pretended to choke his girlfriend, who in turn burned him with a heat gun. In the text, the girlfriend was using the heat gun to strip paint off a shelf, and that is, apparently, why Johnson has presented the text on a series of shelves running around the room. It's an interesting way to tell a story, with words and phrases set at different heights. Taken out of the context of the video, the text seems especially sordid and creepy. You don't get the sense that this guy was goofing around and pissed off his girlfriend -- he just sounds like kind of a psycho.
High on the walls above the shelves, Johnson has stenciled huge colored shapes on the wall. They look like commas, periods or half-periods. The bold colors and shapes on the walls aren't a bad idea formally, but they seem like a completely separate deal from what's happening with the shelves below. It's convoluted -- Johnson's got too many different things going on. In previous works, he has overlaid text until it was unintelligible or translated it into dots and dashes with punctuation. He seems interested in stories and in using text as a conceptual point of departure for generating forms, but they aren't working together here.
Upstairs in the divided Mezzanine Gallery is Julia Ousley's "Homemaid." Ousley has excised organically shaped sections of Sheetrock and neatly and concentrically stacked them so they look like a 3-D topographical map. Painted white, they grow out of and into Sheetrock walls, accumulate on the floor and fill up a corner. The walls are set in a "T" shape -- walk behind, and you see the unpainted reverse of the forms as well as a large concave amoeboid form that looks like the topography of a small pond. The rear view isn't quite as interesting or as necessary, but it's not bad. The nicely undulating forms of the painted section work best.
It's a tight installation, but don't read Ousley's artist's statement. Calling the concave forms "womb-like" is really stretching it, as is trying to make the piece a comment upon modern women "torn between home and family and full participation in the world at large." Ousley went to college in the late '70s and early '80s -- tellingly, there's also a po-mo reference in her statement -- and apparently still feels compelled to put a feminist spin on her work. That's fine if it's actually a part of the work, but here it seems irrelevant, except in the artist's own mind.
In the other half of the gallery is Ellen Frances Tuchman's "Chapel Chromatica." The less said here, the better. The work is craftsy and decorative, which both can be really good things, but not in this case. Tuchman is trying to make panels of Mylar with tiny decorative patterns made of rhinestones and beads feel, well, arty. Full-on craftsy would have been much better.
Lawndale may have a glossy new space, but it's still offering artists -- young, old, Houstonian, Texan and otherwise -- a place to experiment. Sometimes stuff works out, sometimes it doesn't. And, well, there's always cold beer at the openings.
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