Monkey Men from Mars Invade the North Pole is one of many possible names for Erick Swenson's untitled tableau of weird space baboons dressed in exquisitely tailored denim and fleece snowsuits. The leader has a coordinating denim body bag/backpack for the retrieval of any possible lost member of this polar exploration party. Swenson has them poised on snow-covered rocks sporting lovely form-fitting sandals on their greenish plastic feet. The whole thing looks like some full-scale model to a Planet of the Apes flick that never got made, or maybe high-grade special effects for an over-the-top B-movie. Obsessive and bizarrely detailed, it's just so wonderfully strange that you want to cut a hole in the CAM's tin exterior under cover of darkness, back up a U-Haul and claim the space monkeys as your very own.
In addition to the baboon statues, "Out of the Ordinary: New Art from Texas" has other theft-worthy targets. Curated by Lynn M. Herbert and Paola Morsiani, the exhibition plays off its title in two ways: The works are out of the ordinary, as in unusual, and out of the ordinary, as in created from the mundane (i.e., recliners, milkweed, felt, bottle caps) As for the "from Texas" part, geography is a convenient, if not always relevant, means of grouping artists. What constitutes a Lone Star State artist? Currently paying rent in Texas? Educated in Texas? Born and raised? "Out of the Ordinary" presents recent art produced within the geographical confines of Texas by everyone from natives of the state to European transplants.
London native Francesca Fuchs inflates a banal design detail into a parody of high abstraction. Her two monumentally horizontal-striped paintings are based on product graphics from a spice jar and a sugar packet. Pure Sugar (2000) mimics the color flicker that results from off-register printing, prompting (but frustrating) our consumer product-recognition response. Fuchs skillfully manipulates these cultural and consumer associations to create a mental conflict in the viewer. The formal painted-canvas presentation makes your brain want to automatically file it as "Modernist Art Stripe Painting," but the contradictory associations of the off-register color trigger images of common and badly mass-produced packaging.
"Out of the Ordinary: New Art from Texas"
Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose
On view through October 8
Chris Sauter has his own lumpen design fixation and pulls off the near-impossible by making art with a decrepit La-Z-Boy. Recliner Mine (2000) has absurd excavated piles of tiny foam fragments and miniature mining equipment arranged on the seat cushion. The piece calls to mind the visceral sensation of digging between the cushions for some lost object only to come up with potato-chip grit on your hands. Sleeper (2000) is a dreaded sofa bed reupholstered with camouflage fabric, like something out of Soldier of Fortune's annual home decorating issue. The bed is unfolded, and the foam mattress is sculpted into a lumpy terrain of peaks and valleys covered with faded floral sheets sporting a prominent yellowish stain. The catalog reveals (nobody is going to figure this out on their own) that the mattress is a topographic map of the region in Ethiopia where the seminal hominid fossil "Lucy" was discovered. The artist has helpfully marked the spot of discovery with his own semen. No details on the application process.
You really hope the dried spermatozoa are intended ironically, mocking pretentious associations with the "stuff of life" by reducing it to an icky splotch on worn sheets. The catalog essay, based on conversations with Sauter, elaborates on grand themes implied by the artist's work. But when you use highly evocative and frequently abject domestic objects, it is relatively difficult to have viewers move from personal associations to grand and far-reaching themes like, in the case of Sleeper, "where art history connects to the history of mankind." The work has an independent appeal, but there seems to be a gap between the artist's intent and the viewer's perception.
Todd Brandt's installation was still in progress at press time. No points off for that, however, since it's an ambitious and involved piece that covers approximately 400 square feet with tiny paint-filled containers. They create an almost pointillistic effect over the large angled surface. Brandt's earlier pieces mounted the containers onto painting-size surfaces and were fairly tame and formulaic. Moving the same idea into an expansive, if labor-intensive, installation format is exponentially more successful -- and far more powerful visually.
Zoë Charlton presents a series of wonderfully fluid figurative drawings that address stereotyped perceptions of African-American identity. Uh-Oh, She's Coming (1999) pokes at Eurocentric perceptions of beauty as the chunky Three Graces from Rubens look snidely over their shoulder as an equally chunky black woman approaches. Grandpa Was a Waiter at the Last Supper (1999), is a pointed satire of the servile role to which history and society have sought to relegate African-Americans. The painting is conceptually and compositionally strong, but Charlton's drawings are much more compelling. You want to see the idea re-presented as a large-scale drawing with the linear freshness that the painting lacks.
Brian Fridge's videos look like the live feed from some NASA spacecraft that has actually managed to fulfill its mission. Brave new worlds -- crystalline star constellations and unknown planets -- seemingly swirl in black and white. It seems Fridge boldly went where no man has gone before: He videotaped the inside of his freezer. The slow-motion footage of ice crystals and frosty vapor shows us enigmatic beauty extracted from a home appliance. Who'da thunk it?
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By contrast, Brent Steen's videos are appealing while you watch them, but they fade quickly from memory. V-8 (2000), his slightly slowed-down dance to Bob Dylan's version of "Moonshiner," shows the artist's feet shuffling along in white socks as V-8 juice splatters on the floor. It's a mellow and nicely silly dance inspired by Steen's post-hangover vegetable-juice consumption. The works are straightforward and simple without dialogue, relying on the artist's deft musical choices to convey emotional timbre. In untitled (run) (2000), Steen chases in slow motion after the moving camera on a beach, set to the theme from Chariots of Fire. The moody score adds tension and humor.
Mel Ziegler presents three striking sculptures: large-scale antique display cases stuffed full of straw. Instead of displaying bric-a-brac, golden straw presses against the glass, its hayloft smell escaping from the cracks. The expanse of straw over the flat glass surfaces is highly graphic and functions almost as a drawing. Conceptually, the packing subverts the purpose of display and creates a slightly anxious sense of overcapacity.
Rebecca Holland has the subtlest work in the show and is consequently at a disadvantage. She covered a free-standing gallery wall with a dusting of fragile and ephemeral milkweed. The fuzzy white organic material scattered across the matte white of the wall creates a quiet flicker that gets slightly lost in a group show. It really needs a space of its own. Running consistently through the gallery, Beam (2000) is a single strip of wood flooring gold-leafed by the artist. It is fairly effective as it resurfaces throughout the show, creating a continuous visual thread.
While there are other Texas artists equally or even more appropriate for inclusion, this CAM exhibition presents a solid selection. With several of the younger artists, you would like to fast-forward a couple of years to see if their work is more resolved. But no one ever said this was a "best of" collection. It should be viewed as a thoughtful selection of works with "Out of the Ordinary" conceptual origins.