It's just past the midpoint of another Houston summer, and in the art world, that means it's time for someone to ride into town, survey the local talent and stir up trouble. The Big Show, Lawndale Art Center's annual juried exhibition, is the show everybody loves to hate. But this year, it's getting some competition from the Blaffer Gallery, which has mounted the quadrennial Houston Area Exhibition. The troublemaker over at Lawndale is artist Michael Ray Charles, who teaches at UT-Austin, and over at Blaffer it's Bill Arning, curator of the List Center for Visual Art at MIT.
The Big Show has changed venues this year. Lawndale's building on Main Street is under renovation, so the Art Car Museum has opened its doors to the orphan exhibition. And the space turns out to be a good fit. Michael Ray Charles's own work makes clear why his eye was drawn to the pieces he's selected for the Big Show. Known for paintings dealing with African-American history and identification, Charles uses the vernacular of signage to makes paintings that resemble old circus and advertising posters and handbills, rendering his figures in the naive manner of folk art. There's a funky folksiness to a fair amount of the work he's selected for this exhibition, which nicely plays off the funkiness of the art cars.
More than 300 artists submitted over 700 entries to the Big Show; 59 made the cut and are represented by 75 works in a variety of media. Only a few artists appear from previous Big Shows: Denise Ramos, Betsy Odom, Tina Kotrla and Patrick Renner, all crowd and juror favorites. The other 55 are new to me. And that's the point of this show: to bring fresh eyes to the local scene and show something besides a roundup of the usual suspects.
The strongest work tends to be among the paintings, especially Mojan Vadie's untitled 2004 oil and Misha Penton's 2003 acrylic work, untitled 2. And two sculptures linger in memory. Michelle Chen's For You (2004), an ordinary Styrofoam cup mounted on a white, sparkly base and filled with white sparkly balls, is endearing in its goofy attempt to exalt such humble materials. And Shidume Lozada's The Loveliest Dream I've Had (2004) is made of strands of thread and blueprints, entwined and cascading down the wall. With sentences written on the strips of blueprints suggesting the narrative hinted by the title, Lozada's piece is a lyrical take on Robert Morris's sensuous felt sculptures from the late '60s.
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Still, overall, this Big Show is less successful than last year's. Both featured a manageable amount of art, never overwhelming you, but this year, too much of the exhibition strikes me as student work -- amateurish, self-consciously quirky, half-baked if not completely uncooked, or obvious. Even Renner's circular sculpture Spore (2004) isn't as arresting as earlier work he's shown.
Over at the Blaffer exhibition, Bill Arning's selections indicate a sensibility drawn more to conceptual work. There are more familiar names here as well. Four of the 14 artists who made the cut (out of 375) are current or former Core Fellows at the Glassell School of Art, and most of the others have shown around town before. Installation and video are popular media here, but there's also traditional media, photography and drawing on display.
Actually, let's bracket "traditional." Laura Lark's BIG drawings (almost 11 by seven feet) are done with marker on Tyvek, an industrial paper with a hair-like texture. That's appropriate, because her subjects, which are taken from beauty-product ads in fashion magazines, explore notions of beauty and the role of popular culture in self-image. The fact that the works themselves are beautifully executed gives them added depth.
As for Chad Sager, his drawings might have you saying, "My kid could do that!" But -- and I'm sorry -- your kid probably isn't this smart. The simple figures apparently are drawn on ordinary, lined stationery; it takes a moment to realize that the lines and the margins themselves are part of the drawing. You might then notice that the unusual whiteness of the paper is a layer of gesso and that the paper is slightly larger than standard size. If you like magicians, you'll appreciate Sager's sleight of hand in these witty drawings.
Maya Schindler has a sculpture and a photograph on view that, taken together, arguably form an installation. The word SITUATION, carved out of an aluminum sheet, rests somewhat precariously on two metal sawhorses sitting on a black Formica rectangle that creates a negative space, suggesting a void. In the photograph, the artist stands on a jetty looking out on a limitless sea, her back to the camera, her pose quoting a famous 1818 painting by the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. That's our situation: We're perched over a void we occasionally stop to contemplate.
Friedrich appears again in another arguable installation, Hilary Wilder's Sunderland (2004), which consists of two acrylic-on-canvas paintings connected by a wall painting in latex. Wilder uses news photographs as her source material, attempting to reinvest neutral images of disaster with emotion. The larger of the two canvases recalls Friedrich's The Sea of Ice (c. 1825), with its jagged swatches of colors piled up nearly dead center, like Friedrich's ice shards (if the artist denies it, I won't believe her).
You should definitely see both the Big Show and the Houston Area Exhibition, though the latter offers more rewards. It's the more coherent and challenging of the two, and as a result, it's more engaging. Truth be told, much of the work in this year's Big Show will just leave you shrugging.
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