The carnival barker's voice boomed out though DiverseWorks on the opening night of "State Fair," imploring attendees to step up and try their luck at Stephanie Saint Sanchez's Kitty Loco's Dead Celeb Candle Toss Across. The booth was located on the "Midway" of DiverseWorks' State Fair, a satiric exhibition inspired by our city's recent obsession with art fairs.
On October 20, Houston will host the Texas Contemporary Fair, the city's second art fair in a month. The first fair, the Houston Fine Art Fair, took place in September. Supporters see the fairs — a cross between art trade shows and temporary art malls — as finally putting Houston's strong art scene on the national and international map. But others in the art world have problems in general with art fairs as a way to present art. And in Houston, where the art scene has a funky, blue-collar edge and is renowned for its irreverent rawness, there's a good amount of smart-ass skepticism surrounding the events.
"State Fair" was curated by former DiverseWorks co-director Diane Barber. Barber, who stepped down from her position last month, was widely known for putting together fearless and fearlessly satiric, politically charged exhibitions. And this decidedly eclectic collection of projects, booths and performances is a Houston-style answer to the commercial aspects of art fairs. The results are slightly mixed but highly entertaining. The exhibition is on view during regular gallery hours, but the artists/performers were present at the event's opening on the Saturday of the Houston Fine Art Fair weekend. They will appear for a final time on Saturday, October 22, from noon to 6 p.m.
Stephanie Saint Sanchez is absolutely and wonderfully insane. That woman needs to be named Houston's cultural ambassador or something. A multi-talented artist and filmmaker, she's also the proprietress of La Chicana Laundry Pictures. Her "State Fair" booth was campy and Christmas light-bedecked, boasting a giant cat face. At the opening, Sanchez, wearing cat ears, cat makeup and a hot-pink velor jogging suit, enticed people into tossing plastic balls in an attempt to win dead celebrity candles with the sign, "Box o' balls 5 bux." Said dead celebrities include the likes of Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze and Frida Kahlo. Absurd and over-the-top, it also generated some cash.
Most of the booths are predicated upon visitors interacting with the artists. When you first walk into the fair, you're greeted with Josh Urban Davis's booth, John Stuart Mill is Dead Pawn Shop (where ideas are always/never free). Write down an idea, and he'll give you a print that reads, "This object approximately valued at 1 idea." I have been told that I'll be sued for libel if I reveal what I wrote down. Let's just say that my idea involved a rumor about Rick Perry. Davis cracked up, nodded in agreement and gave me a print. He's also got drawings and paintings on offer, and he's trading them for stuff like oil change gloves and a vintage radio. One of them was traded for the shirt off a guy's back. Be gone, evil commerce! It's nice to get something for scant mental effort.
Autumn Knight has a great booth where she administers Performance Prescriptions. It's set up like a doctor's office, complete with a waiting area. After the "patient" fills out an intake form, Knight, wearing a lab coat, meets with them and prescribes a specific performance based on their information. Knight has a masters degree in drama therapy from NYU, so she's not just fucking with people, she's actually trying to help. It's a pretty great collaborative performance idea that seeks to benefit rather than exploit the participant.
Next door, the husband-and-wife artist duo of Hillerbrand and Magsamen presented Mystic Connections, a tent with a psychic who did cell phone séances. It was full and I didn't make it in, but I heard it was pretty great. Next to that was Kate Kendall's Krazy Eyes — a craft project booth where you could purchase, commission and watch gods eyes being wrapped with yarn on site. The booth even had camp stools, yarn cacti and a fake campfire made from yarn. It's about as far from a white-walled art fair stall in a convention center as you can get.
Elsewhere, Kia Neil presents Excavations from a Collapsed Grotto. Many will remember Neil's over-the-top grotto in Lawndale's Mezzanine Gallery; here, the artist's display of glittery "rocks" and "grotto" fragments reminded me of rock stands on the side of the road in the Ozarks. It's like a souvenir stand of the artist's work.
Among other highlights were Lindsey Bailey and Wes Holloway's CelebriTEA, which involved having tea and discussing celebrity gossip in a granny-style parlor. Dion Laurent's State Air offered ecological commentary in the form of plant-filled "gas pumps," but the best part was Laurent walking around in his homemade space suit. Meanwhile, Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser offered shrimp and bycatch caught as a part of the Shrimp Boat Project, a University of Houston Mitchell Center-funded artist residency exploring the culture of the Gulf Coast and centered around a shrimp boat the duo bought and restored.
I wish to hell Sanchez and other artists in the show had been a part of the Houston Fine Art Fair and were going to participate in the upcoming Texas Contemporary Fair. If Houston is going to welcome these events, there needs to be something more Houston about them. Box 13's Cabinet of Curiosities in a POD was a great addition to the HFAF, but it was located a safe distance from the gallery booths. And the HFAF did host several performances of Houston artist Anthony Shumate's Capitalist Soup, arranged through his gallerist Barbara Davis's participation in the fair.
The piece included an array of Campbell's Soup cans deftly altered with labels like "Liberty" and "Lucre," and listing contents like "Labor." Shumate displayed them on tables in an American Flag formation and had a guy present it with a "Sham-wow"-esque pitch. But the work wasn't universally appreciated. Apparently, the Rocky "Eye of the Tiger" theme Shumate loudly played before each performance generated complaints from dealers who said it interfered with sales because people left to go see what was happening. According to Shumate, a gallery facing him complained to him directly, apparently saying, "You know I represent Warhol?" "You know I'm from New York?" Shumate said he got (very politely) shut down on the second day by fair Director Fran Kaufman, just before his fourth and final 20-minute presentation. Makes sense. One wouldn't want an actual artist interfering with people selling art...
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