Making art can be pretty lonely -- just you, your raw materials and your amorphous ideas. That isolation may be one reason artists collaborate with one another. Collaborating means you get to access other people's opinions, ideas and skill sets; it can allow several artists to accomplish things and explore ideas one artist alone can't. Houston is home to several generations of collaborators. Manual (Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill) are conceptual artists and pioneers in digital photography, a medium that doesn't betray whose hand did what. The Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) play off each other to create witty and absurd performances, installations and objects. Jon Fisher and Jeff Shore, two younger, lesser-known collaborators on the scene, combine Shore's sculptural work with Fisher's abilities as a composer to create interactive objects and environments.
The word "collaborator" is interesting; it kind of sounds like you're consorting with the enemy. But message to the Bush regime: Houston's collaborators are upstanding, loyal, all-American artists. Really. The Art Guys have even printed up cards with pictures of American flags and the phrase "America's Favorite Artists," just to make sure they don't wind up at Gitmo. Meanwhile, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston -- another fine, upstanding, all-American institution -- brings us an exhibition of eight works by emerging collaborators, "Perspectives 144: Amalgama," curated by Paola Morsiani and Paula Newton.
Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert Pruitt all make work as individual artists, but they also work collaboratively as Otabenga Jones & Associates. The group took the name from a turn-of-the-century African man named Ota Benga, a pygmy brought to America by a Presbyterian minister. First he was displayed in the Bronx Zoo's monkey house. Then he was forced to "integrate" into American society. He killed himself. Adding the all-purpose American surname of Jones to Ota Benga's first name makes a powerful comment in itself.
The group's past projects have explored African-American political and popular culture. For the CAMH show, the artists bought an old sedan, painted it to look like a cop car and then flipped it. In the show, it rests on its roof, and audio from the Watts riots -- news reports and police radios -- plays from speakers inside the car. Titled We Did It for Love, the piece plays into a kind of political nostalgia, not necessarily for burning down your own neighborhood, but for a time when people cared enough about injustice to get angry, before we were all numbed by the heady speedball of consumerism and apathy.
"Amalgama" started off with Bernard Brunon and his crew, THAT'S PAINTING Productions, repainting the downstairs gallery after the previous show (that unfortunate spray-paint installation by Katharina Grosse). Brunon is a French-born conceptual artist/entrepreneur (oh, my God, a French collaborator -- call in the marines) who has a commercial painting business that is also his art practice. He has painted arts venues as diverse as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the hallway of painter Edward Hopper's boyhood home in Nyack, New York (for which he returned the walls to the hue found in one of Hopper's paintings of the space). Brunon pushes the definition of painting by creating work/painting walls in art venues and people's living rooms. In addition to collaborating with his work crew, he also collaborated with fellow exhibiting artist Laura Lark. Titled Rhodamine Red 11/04, the work is a big Barbie-pink rectangle on the wall that became the background for Lark's life story. She wrote it by hand and then reproduced the text in vinyl letters.
Adding another layer of collaboration, Lark wrote her life story in conjunction with the Web site of Portland artist Harrell Fletcher (www.learningtoloveyoumore.com). Fletcher's Web site lists art assignments that people can complete and present on his site, like assignment No. 14, "Write your life story in less than a day." Lark also completed assignment No. 22, which is more specific: "Re-create a scene from Laura Lark's life story." Lark took up the challenge herself and recruited a cast of fellow local art-scene characters and their children. Artist Hilary Wilder plays Lark's mom; Dolan Smith of the Museum of the WeirD plays a maniacally cheery milkman; and a friend of Lark's who requested screen credit as "Local Hag" plays Lark's grandmother. There's a great impromptu energy to the video. Lark takes some really painful things -- large and small childhood traumas and adult ordeals -- and makes them darkly comic. Turning bad stuff into a story you can laugh about is a time-honored coping mechanism, but Lark also makes it art. She's best known for creating well-crafted, obsessive and hip-looking large-scale drawings of fashion magazine images. But this funny, poignant text, along with the engagingly low-production values of the video, make this her most powerful work to date.
Paul Druecke's collaboration is with his subjects. He sets up a camera and asks them to photograph themselves upon waking. The results are an intimate series of bleary-eyed, bed-headed faces. There's something fascinating and leveling about the photographs of these people -- they're like puppies, so vulnerable and innocent during these moments of transition between sleep and waking. Druecke constructed a project in which his subjects exhibit their most basic, unconflicted humanity.
There's something about collaborating that is generous and giving, and not in some hokey, preachy way. Reaching out and involving others breathes life into art, connecting it to the world at large. In the current political climate of barred doors and alienation, these collaborators and their inclusive vision are a breath of fresh air.
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