It's not easy to take Harvey Bott seriously. The 63-year-old with the Elmer Fudd hairdo is one of those kooky guys appreciated in the local art scene more for his DIY sensibility and volunteer work than for anything he's actually created. He rarely exhibits in his hometown. His last local splash, in fact, came in the early '80s, when he mounted a futuristic opera performed by his assembled "Robotts" at the University of St. Thomas.
Elsewhere, though, Bott has been taken seriously -- at least as gauged in monetary terms. Before the Persian Gulf War caused the European art market to crash, he says, he earned six figures a year and employed eight assistants.
With his current show, "Toyzenus," at New Gallery, he appears to be making up for lost time in revealing himself to Houston. The paintings and sculptures span 25 years of work based on something he calls the DoV (Displacement of Volume) System. That system -- the name is trademarked -- basically amounts to a single shape that Bott uses over and over again in his work. If you're really interested, you can get a bunch of handouts at the gallery that explain, or sidle up to explaining, DoV -- but basically, the shape is formed by drawing a square, and then drawing four semicircles radiating out from the center of the square like a sort of a curvy swastika, resulting in four interlocking "quadbottic" modules. (For an example, check out Bott's square 1973 canvas Lung-Shan, which looks like it was painted with a tongue.)
Bott decided to constrict his practice to the DoV System beginning in 1972. The apparently restrictive structure, he says, freed him to explore infinite permutations and treatments of the quadbottic module in sculpture and painting (he even wears a module-shaped belt buckle). Bott's not the first artist to restrict himself to a narrow concept. Ad Reinhardt painted monochromatic squares for years, and Sol LeWitt's sculptures simply permutated skeletal white cubes. But there are some significant differences. For one thing, those artists had allegedly pure conceptual reasons for creating the aesthetic experience they did, while Bott, who refers to DoV rather cynically as a "System-as-Style," admits that at least one thing that the DoV is good for is giving his work a recognizable signature.
Furthermore, signature does not really equal style -- as long as Bott uses the module shape, he can do so in whatever manner he dreams up. On one wall of the New Gallery, Bott has arranged 20 three-dimensional versions of the module, turned every which way. Each is made from a different material: Fuzzy Wuzzy is lined with rabbit fur, Heiromancy Determinant leafed with gold, and Canticle for POP bears stripes of different-colored, used chewing gum ("cost me $8,000 in dental work," Bott says). Eventually, he hopes to make precisely 1,024 of the clunky things -- perhaps, I imagine, for a commission by some giant public library.
These quadbottic modules represent -- to Bott, anyway -- either earth, air, fire and water or force, power, control and order. He considers the shape a futuristic, ecumenical fusion of archetypes and universal symbols, and his 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheet of diagrams shows how crosses, human anatomy and even the fleur-de-lis can be created using the module system. That's difficult enough to take seriously, without being asked to infer some sort of synergized symbolic meaning from Bott's wondrously ugly paintings. Each of the large canvases in the show represents a different series -- modules done in pastels, modules done in dark colors, modules stuck together to create new shapes, modules incorporated into images of mazes and so on.
But surprisingly, Bott doesn't really ask that we attribute any particular meaning to his paintings. The modules' real job, it seems, is to provide personal justification for Bott's hard-core technique. The paintings may look like adulterated geometric abstraction, gussied up with textures and deep layers, but they are smoothly glassy to the touch as a result of the artist's labor-intensive glazing process. When the module is not simply a compositional tool, it's cutesy. In Mephistophelean Mensch, the space between four adjacent modules becomes a kitschy little spaceman (or "spacemun," as Bott says, predicting that gender will be indeterminate by the 23rd century because everyone will wear space suits).
Obviously, not even Harvey Bott can take Harvey Bott seriously -- and in fact, he's at his best when he doesn't. That's why the three most recent works in the show, sculptures built out of or containing toys, are the best. All three take the quadbottic module as their basic shape, but they revel in it rather than depending on it for meaning.
Shrine: Gestalten Konnectus stands nearly four feet high and was built, over the course of two years, out of "AB5 plastic part kits and various chlorinated hydrocarbon solvent cements" -- in other words, something akin to brightly colored Tinker toys. The resulting construction looks like a miniaturized, extensive set of dense scaffolding, punctuated occasionally with the white and green snowflake-like sprockets that join the plastic parts together. Standing on end, the sculpture is like a round-topped pillar with a bite chomped out of the side. With its ordered, yet jumbled-seeming succession of green, red, purple, orange and yellow parts, it is a pointillist sculpture -- just as tiny dots of paint can lend color to a field, so thin colored rods give energized mass to what is otherwise mostly air. It's really cool, and it looks like one of those "guess how many Tinker toys were used to make this" things. I couldn't help thinking that the most likely candidate to purchase it would be the makers of AB5 plastic kit parts, but Bott has other ideas. "I named it Shrine," he deadpans, "because by the 23rd century, we're all going to worship this module."
Platform: Offshore Erectus is another module built from metal erector set-type toys and mounted on swinging hinges, like a Ferris wheel gondola, above a short tower. The sculpture's clear association with the oil industry makes the module seem more than ever like a corporate logo -- but then again, by the 23rd century we may in fact bow down to corporations. Ironically, in these two sculptures, the module itself is more seriously interesting, both for the intricate devotion that's been given to its construction and because the scoop of negative space provides formal tension in these highly calculated architectural versions.
In Plush Ark, by far the weirdest piece in the show, a giant version of the module is set on its side. Made from wire and galvanized mesh, the module is made up of miniature square cages and filled with Beanie Babies, those little stuffed toys that almost instantly became collector's items. Bott, who obviously spends a lot of time at the toy store, has collected 412 Babies he says are now worth $41,000 (the sculpture costs $76,000). In one cage, tie-dyed teddy bears lounge around as if they've just smoked a joint. In others, stuffed frogs and pelicans, turtles and porpoises hang out in little toyland tableaux. A hot pink flamingo sits atop the whole affair, rather like a pet-shop escapee. This DoV dollhouse has little relationship to the sad, metaphor-laden work of other artists who use stuffed animals, such as Mike Kelly.
Instead, like the whole DoV System, it's almost too silly to interpret. Are cute stuffed animals the meaningful "content" Bott claims to have generated from the "abstract context" of the DoV System? Or does Bott put so much stock in the power of the module that he believes it will carry the world's Beanie species through a 40-day flood? When it comes to DoV, it's hard to tell exactly where the goof ends and the system begins.
Like Bott's "Toyzenus," Lawndale's current show is ambitious yet jokey. Kelly Klaasmeyer painted the entire main gallery revolution red for her ambitious solo show "Tales and Artifacts from the 'Evil Empire.' " Klaasmeyer's exhibit is a vast show-and-tell about her 13 months in St. Petersburg, Russia -- a travelogue with a wealth of visual aids. Depending quite a bit on wall labels and other forms of text, the travelogue details the surrealities of life in new Russia and the artist's "own special knack for fiasco," with accounts of ludicrous accommodations, faulty plumbing, encounters with the "ladies auxiliary" of the Russian mafia and a convoluted attempt to correct a visa problem caused by "the evil Andrei." The cast of characters includes stoic roommates, helpful Russians and a crabby, resignedly helpful ex-pat friend named David, who, Klaasmeyer notes, "has been in Russia too long."
What the show lacks in focus it makes up in variety -- check out an odd sculpture here, an array of Russian consumer goods (including shots of vodka in plastic cups with peel-off lids) there, a Foosball-style game in which one tries to successfully "Shop the Universam!" in the middle of the room and a monitor playing tapes of Russian infomercials off to one side. A giant red baroque-style curtain cordons off a video-viewing room in one corner, and across Lawndale's giant storefront windows are strung 360 pakets, plastic Russian shopping bags screen-printed with bizarre images pirated from American popular culture. The show is for the most part entertaining and, for those who don't read the newspaper, instructive.
But for those who do read news accounts of the long lines, rampant sexual harassment, mail-order bride business, debilitating inflation and dizzying mafia wealth in Russia, there is little to discover but Klaasmeyer's admittedly delightful sense of humor (which is reminiscent of the comic strip "Momma"). It's not enough to go to a foreign country, buy the bizarre products one inevitably finds (indeed, one can find bizarre products enough in one's own supermarket) and put them on a shelf in a gallery, which is one of the things Klaasmeyer has done. Wow! Look! Capitalism's quirks! Not to get unnecessarily snobby about what's art and what's not, but much of Klaasmeyer's exhibit seems like documentary pretending to be art. Her representation of an unremarkable Russian kiosk is, for no real reason that I can see, made up of several tiled photographs instead of just one. The story, written directly on the gallery wall, about Klaasmeyer's doomed plumbing and heat in her apartment is entertaining enough, but the large photos of pipes and such that surround the text are less than edifying.
No matter -- I'm willing to accept documentary in an art context. Trouble is, Klaasmeyer's exhibit makes Russia, and indirectly the discarded American culture it appropriates, the butt of a running absurdist joke. The artist is an astute student of the obvious, but even the pieces that she fabricates herself -- a purposefully cruddy replica of a Russian medical implement used to diagnose an ear infection, some felt babushka boots hooked up to a perpetual dancing mechanism that plays Patsy Cline -- fail to go far beyond the obvious. Instead, many of them feature Klaasmeyer playing dress-up Russian. There's a hand-tinted Russian-style portrait of Klaasmeyer in a big fur hat, and a set of those wooden matryoshka dolls with Klaasmeyer's kerchiefed likeness glued to each one. Lacking the subtle critique of say, a Cindy Sherman photograph, these works come off as cheap and easy.
I'm not saying that Klaasmeyer is an imperialist pig -- far from it. Her humor is as much self-deprecating as it is wicked. But the artist's "tales from the 'Evil Empire' " are the tales of a hapless tourist, not someone with the insight of a de Tocqueville. The artist shows us the pakets, shopping bags that feature images of old TV stars, scantily clad biker chicks, 18-wheelers and American flags, but she doesn't attempt to explain how or why they came to exist, or how it happens that they attract shoppers of both sexes, or even why the babushkas don't just sell plain white bags. Perhaps insight along those lines is too tall an order for someone who doesn't speak Russian.
Yet language skills aren't totally necessary, as Klassmeyer's 15-minute video Sunday Afternoon at the Sleet-Mart shows. By virtue of the video's running subtitles we learn that Klaasmeyer (with camera wielded by a grumbling David) is attempting to sell off her unwanted possessions at an ad hoc outdoor market. The mostly older female shoppers -- some returning more than once -- inspect her wares, carefully examining a half-empty bottle of baby lotion or a tattered jacket before agreeing to or rejecting her ridiculously low prices, which eventually turn into giveaways. Though the subtitle narration is sometimes a tad heavy-handed, this video suddenly makes Klaasmeyer's situation successfully work as a cautionary metaphor for some larger ecocultural situation, and it does it by showing rather than telling. Here's a cold, frustrated American trying to divest herself of unwanted possessions like plastic flip-flops, magazines and various Russian purchases that turned out to be mistakes. The chances that she'll have something that her skeptical customers need or want to spend their limited cash on, though, turn out to be fairly slim.
As far as travelogues go, I'll bank on Klaasmeyer's. She's the kind of American who doesn't seem likely to act boorish in restaurants or talk loudly to people who don't speak English. She's sparkly and funny and knows that art shouldn't be a bore. But I want something more from her than just a Xerox of the "actual United States Immigration Regulations" on the wall, videotapes of Russian infomercials and a cute postcard about her latest adventures. In fact, I think Klaasmeyer takes refuge in her humor, when she could be delving deeper. As a caricature of a Russian, a character like "The evil Andrei" confirms our old ideas about Russia, rather than challenging our notions of the new.
"Toyzenus" is on display at New Gallery, 2639 Colquitt, 520-7053, through January 4. "Tales and Artifacts from the 'Evil Empire' " is on view at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, 4912 Main Street, 528-5858, through January 25.
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