Something about the current batch of exhibits at Lawndale Art Center gets me down. Maybe it's the junk-looking outdoor sculpture, appropriately titled Detritus, which greeted me on arrival. Maybe it's the confusing, convoluted artistic statement for the main gallery show "SOUTHERN/PACIFIC." Maybe it's the enigmatically dull exhibit by Jeremy DePrez and Francis Giampietro. Perhaps it's Mark Ponder's ironic, birthday-party-of-death installation or Joel Hernandez's photographic search for displaced cultural identity. Each exhibit deals, in some way, with something deteriorating or being discarded. "Detritus" is actually a good catchall theme for everything on display.
For "SOUTHERN/PACIFIC," curatorial restraint seems to have flown out the window. It's a bizarre proposal that probably looks good on a grant application, but in execution resembles any generic group show. The idea was inspired by the eponymous train line, and curator Paul Middendorf says the traveling show will change at each of its subsequent two stops: Marfa, Texas and Portland, Oregon. Middendorf writes, "... each artist was chosen not only specifically for this project but for each venue as well. Although you might see a few pieces repeat at the other two cities, every new opening will feature a whole new exhibition that not only speaks for the environment around it, but yearns to create a new one." Middendorf claims that these artists will be working with each other and the exhibition surroundings, creating "new works and new conversations." But how? Unless viewers travel to Marfa, and then to Portland, to witness these changes, Middendorf's romantic concept doesn't land. And let's be realistic, how many viewers will actually make the trip? Is it even that compelling a concept to begin with? Can a meaningful environmental dialogue even happen in a white-walled gallery? Middendorf seems to be reaching.
There's some interesting stuff here, though. Ann Marie Nafziger's two Wilderness paintings suggest contrasting states of bewilderment. Sean Healy's Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is a line of little picket-fence sections cut from discarded and spent credit cards and gift cards. Chasm II by Jeff Jahn looks like a giant pair of green eyelashes. And Camp Bosworth's golden gilded SECURITY CAMERA 1 spies on the gallery from above. It's the most ornate CCTV camera you've ever seen.
There was a pair of headphones through which we were supposed to hear sounds of West Texas trains composed by Alyce Santoro, but the audio loop had either gone silent, or it wasn't working. And Jillian Conrad's Pallet is the kind of eye-roll-inducing contemporary art we love to hate. It's two wooden pallets leaned against the wall—one's nude; one's painted white. Have fun imagining the conversation behind that one. And get ready for more as you head to the second floor.
"The Power of Negative Feedback" is a dual show by Jeremy DePrez and Francis Giampietro, created as part of a Japanese artist-in-residence program the two participated in earlier this year. DePrez and Giampietro documented their journey in a supplemental book of photos presented alongside the exhibit. The photo book is quite interesting, capturing the two artists consuming Japanese food, beer and cultural curiosities. The exhibit is much more challenging. DePrez's paintings are minimal and non-seductive, and Giampietro's mixed-media works can be infuriatingly obtuse at first glance. Seen through a March, 2011 Japanese lens, though, a story of catastrophe begins to emerge. DePrez's lack of detail represents lives stripped of possessions and relationships. Giampietro's weird conglomerations seem like random pieces of debris haphazardly thrown together by an earthquake. Taken out of that context, unfortunately, some of this stuff looks like what a couple of stoned dudes would make in shop class.
The detritus gets literal on the third floor inside Mark Ponder's aftermath scene of an absurd birthday party/victory celebration. A fox carcass hangs from the ceiling, apparently the dead enemy and subject of the celebration by a pack of non-predators, who despite their disapproval of meat, seem to enjoy pizza and birthday cake. The floor is strewn with balloons and confetti; streamers hang throughout the space, and stacks of brightly colored wrapped presents stand in columns. There's a sign sticking out of the floor: "No Manure No Magic." And the walls are decorated with collaged scenes of animal violence. Ponder explains the piece, titled A Time to Celebrate, as an exploration of "celebration as a means to cope with death." But this goes way beyond projecting "happy thoughts," as Ponder writes, to counter the impact of loss. The installation actually celebrates death and loss in an exceedingly heavy-handed way. It's obviously meant to be ironic. But if DePrez and Giampietro's offerings feel detached and cold, Ponder's feel bludgeoningly loud and probably excessive.
Joel Hernandez's portraits of Mexican Americans are the clear winners in what may be the most depressing show I've seen at Lawndale in recent memory. Hernandez's imagery displays the most genuine humor in the building, recasting Mexican culture with those living in the margins, and outfitting them in the recurring (perhaps stereotypical) motifs of Mexican heritage. A little boy plays a toy squeezebox like he's being primed for a Tejano career like so many wannabe pop idols. There's a mantelpiece shrine with an outrageously staged baby Jesus balancing on a mannequin hand and a dog leg (or maybe it was a hoof?). A young woman, cradling a plastic baby, poses next to a table lamp. A bald, possibly naked man kisses a baby Jesus icon lying in a tray of candy. The images question ideas of religion, sexuality, and familial roles with gentle humor and theatricality. It's a direct, well-formed and executed concept in a building filled with (mostly) debris.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events