"Core Artists-in-Residence Exhibition," "Working It Out: Studio Program Residents," "Artadia at DiverseWorks...Reprised: The Artadia Awardees"
Artists are always on the lookout for studio space, exposure and cash -- not necessarily in that order. Programs that offer one or all of the above are helping to fuel Houston's dynamic contemporary art scene. Three current exhibitions, the "Core Artists-in-Residence Exhibition" at the Glassell School of Art, "Working It Out: Studio Program Residents" at Lawndale Art Center and "Artadia at DiverseWorks...Reprised" at DiverseWorks, showcase works by lucky artists whose work has paid off.
The Core Program has been around since 1983, and it's becoming increasingly selective each year. I talked to Mary Leclre, associate director of the program, a couple days before this year's April 1 application deadline. She was swamped with calls from people asking things like "What should I write on my 'Statement of Intent'?" (FYI -- If you can't figure that one out, it's not a good sign.) According to Leclre, out of around 300 applications, only four or five artists are selected. There has also been a steady, incremental increase of international artists applying to the program. Core Fellows receive 450 square feet of studio space, $9,000 a year and studio visits from a stream of visiting artists and critics.
Philip Maysles's work is one of the standouts in the current artists-in-residence exhibition. The centerpiece is a video that was, I'm assuming, secretly shot in front of the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With when it was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Done for the cover of Look magazine, the painting depicts a six-year-old black girl being walked to her first day at an all-white school by federal marshals. A tomato is splatted behind her, and the word "nigger" can be seen scrawled across the wall. In the video, groups of children and adults move in front of the painting as they tour the museum. You listen to a docent talk to a group of schoolchildren about this pivotal moment in the history of integration. And then you realize that the class is entirely black.
Sasha Dela presents a meditation on consumerism, with steel shelves packed with boxes of a bunch of different crap, everything from a microwave to adult diapers. The removable rear seat from an SUV is pointedly leaned up against the side of the shelves. But the whole thing is a one-liner -- Dela needs a bigger accumulation of stuff to make a real impact.
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Jeff Williams has created these really funny and abject works that look like they were retrieved from the back of someone's garage. He has coated window blinds, a microwave, an air vent grate and a box fan with a thick layer of flocking and dust. Shown in the clean white gallery, they're simultaneously grubby and elegant.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Durham's sculpture, God-Shaped Vacuum (2006), consists of a bunch of PVC pipes arranged (sort of) in the shape of figures from one of the Abu Ghraib photos. They are part of a fountain, and above the sculpture is a video that flickers an image from Abu Ghraib. Supposedly, the pump comes on for the fountain and makes a screeching noise, but I never heard it. In a conversation in the exhibition catalog, Durham reveals some fairly elaborate ideas behind the piece. The closed system of PVC pipes is somehow addressing whether it is "possible to penetrate a system that seems completely resistant to the idea of reform...," i.e., the military. The object isn't especially intriguing, and the logic behind the sculpture seems as tortured as the poor bastard in the Abu Ghraib photo. It feels like Durham is trying way too hard.
With its vast numbers of applicants, the Core Program rarely selects Houston artists, something that has caused a certain amount of local resentment. But Lawndale Art Center is all about Houston. The Lawndale Studio Residency Program began January 1, 2007 with three six-month residencies picked from around 70 applicants. The nascent program isn't as big as Core and its support for artists isn't as extensive, but the Lawndale residencies aren't a bad deal. The current artists each got a 250-square-foot studio, a $1,000 materials allowance and a $500-a-month stipend. Lawndale plans on extending the next round of studio residencies to nine months and possibly upping the materials allowance. The next application period is slated for sometime in May, and there is no application fee.
The art in "Working It Out" definitely has a Houston vibe; it's loose and funky, with a sense of humor. Dawolu Jabari Anderson, who was in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, has some wonderfully satiric work on view. He's got a series of comic book-spoof paintings entitled "The Black Panthers and Friends," in which the Mod Squad-esque Panthers battle spacemen and what looks like Chairman Mao. He's also got a "Black History Month" series with a painting that shows two women who look like they're from an old Gap ad. Text above them reads "Fun Facts with Blacks!" Anderson is spoofing the cheesy commercial tokenism that spawns those patronizing public service announcements every February, when television networks suddenly rediscover African-American history. The primary drawback to the work is that Anderson is using wrinkled and aged paper for the paintings. It's a distracting holdover from earlier work, in which he simulated early 20th-century comic book covers. The aesthetic feels out of place with the more recent themes of the series.
Stephanie Saint Sanchez has made good use of those four big pillars in the middle of Lawndale's main gallery. She wrapped black plastic around them and created a screening room for her oddball collection of videos. There's a nostalgic kid's-clubhouse feeling to the installation. She's cut out and pasted wonky letters on the outside, telling viewers, "Come on in, the show's about to start." The series of videos is interspersed with a lot of great vintage promos touting snacks or introducing a show. The videos themselves are uneven, but there is so much goofy exuberance, you kind of don't care. The funniest ones are a fake commercial for the "Mexican Suitcase" -- a black plastic garbage bag -- and "Un Plato Ms," a supposed trip down memory lane to dinner at grandma's house that ends with a Night of the Living Dead-type scene in which grandmothers chant "abuelas unidas" as they chase after the family car with leftovers.
Donna Huanca presents a funky, ambitious installation with giant marionettes and a wall mural; there's a craftsy yet Mad Max feeling to the project. The marionettes, made of scraps of cast-off clothing, are apparently some sort of band. Behind them is a revolutionary with a bandolier. Along a side wall is a giant warscape, including tanks and a mosque, also made from old clothes as well as liberal amounts of multicolored carpet padding. Huanca has pieced together some previously separate works for the installation. The multiple ideas feel a little muddled -- they need to be cleaned out or jumbled up more, but Huanca's inventive use of materials carries the day.
Artadia Awards don't provide studio space, but they give out the most cash and provide the most national exposure. From 150 to 200 applicants, Artadia selects 15 awardees; ten of them get $1,500 each, and five get $15,000. Unlike a lot of cash awards to artists, the Artadia Awards are unrestricted lump sums; artists don't have to report to the organization how they spend the money. They can use it to buy beer or health insurance or fix their truck. On top of that, Artadia works with past and present awardees to provide a "national network of support." One past Artadia awardee believes the honor was crucial in getting her into the Whitney Biennial. (Chrissie Isles, a previous Artadia juror, was a cocurator of the 2006 Biennial.)
Work from the 15 awardees for 2006 is on view at DiverseWorks in "Artadia at DiverseWorks...Reprised." Former Core fellow Rotem Balva has a beautifully absurd video of a woman trying to park between two closely spaced cars. Shot from overhead, it shows her circling a roundabout and making attempts to back in between two cars. She repeatedly rams her vehicle into them, finally wedging the car in and exiting the car through the windshield.
Among the five $15,000 prizewinners, there are some wonderfully crackpot objects. Look up as you head into DiverseWorks. You'll notice a giant water tower in the shape of the "Hey Kool-Aid!" pitcher guy. Inside the main gallery is a Kool-Aid-filled water fountain and a poster advertising Zach Moser's "Kool-Aid Network," a goofball scheme to integrate Kool-Aid into the water supply.
Rachel Hecker presents massive -- and oh-so-realistic -- sculptures of charcoal briquettes. Dangling above them is a giant tree-shaped car air freshener. She continues to monumentalize the mundane, with a massive painting of a pink message pad -- "somebody" is scrawled on it as the caller.
Jamal Cyrus, a 2006 Whitney Biennial participant, contributed a velvet-lined instrument case containing a "pipe bomb" made out of trumpet valves and faux plastique. It's witty but edgy, an accessory for a jazz suicide bomber.
Being an artist doesn't come with a salary, office and benefits, and, depending on the kind of work, overhead can be pretty high. That's why programs like these are crucial.
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