Go Ahead, Ask Him
The Houston art scene has been in the midst of some '80s nostalgia, with three recent exhibitions of work by artists who came to prominence in that decade -- Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and, now, Houston native Mel Chin. Though Chin never played the part of "art star," his exhibition, "Mel Chin: Do Not Ask Me" at The Station, is the strongest of the three.
In his work, Chin addresses political and social issues as well as science, philosophy and the environment. It's an agenda that sounds pedantic and dry, but Chin's a smart artist and his conceptual work leans toward the poetic. Take Extraction of Plenty from What Remains 1823- (1989), a sculpture in which two gargantuan white columns -- replicas of White House pillars -- crush a massive but empty cornucopia between them. It's a stark juxtaposition of power and poverty; the roughly woven "horn of plenty" is made of "Honduran mahogany, banana fibers, coffee, mud and blood," the stuff of Central America during the '80s -- the blood in particular. The first column ends in the jagged outline of President James Monroe's signature; the second, that of Ronald Reagan. The Monroe Doctrine started out supposedly as a stance against the colonizing impulses of Europe, but, culminating with Reagan, it became synonymous with the United States' brutal policies and covert activities in Central America -- Salvadoran and Honduran death squads, guns pouring into Guatemala, you name it Who the hell would've thought you could make interesting art about the Monroe Doctrine?
And, thankfully for the viewer, Chin isn't interested in making purposefully obscure references you're supposed to decode. His titles come with brief statements that set out his ideas. He tells you about the signature outlines at the top of those columns in Extraction, a detail no one would figure out. Safe (2005-2006) comes with this explanation: "No nails could keep them safe from Leopold II. A lamentation on the continuing tragedy that is the Congo." The piece presents a painting hung on the wall in an elaborate gilt frame. Leaned against and obscuring the canvas is a series of rough wooden planks thickly studded with nails in the manner of a fetish figure. You peek behind the boards and through the cracks between them trying to get a glimpse of the painting, but you only see snippets of a woman carrying a basket on her head, calmly going about her business in a landscape of lush foliage. The Belgian king's mutilating armies will no doubt find their way to this place, and the repercussions will last for generations.
When Chin hits on more recent political issues, he really pulls off the gloves. He introduces his installation Render (2003) with two quotes, the first from Bernard-Henri Lévy and the second from James Baldwin. An Asian-American artist quoting a Frenchman and an African-American -- it's the stuff of right-wing nightmares! The Lévy quote imagines the thoughts of a suicide bomber (" you ignored us while we were alive, well, here we are, dead "), while the Baldwin quote reflects upon the dangers of sentimentality ("Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel ")
On the wall next to the quotes is a smattering of debris. The work's materials are listed as a Kuffiyeh scarf, wax and pigment, but the stuff on the wall looks disturbingly visceral. Opposite the debris is the open door to a room. On the far wall is a black velvet portrait that looks like someone wearing a balaclava, with holes for the eyes and a downturned shape framing the mouth. The eyes and mouth float in a field of dense, inky velvet. It looks like the face of a sad clown -- does it have the same sincerity? Or is this Baldwin's sentimentalist, the sort of person who might publicly grieve the effects of a terrorist tragedy but ignore the injustices that planted the seeds for it?
You turn from the portrait and see that the opposite wall is also splattered with the debris. You walk up to it to inspect the faux gore, trying to discern what it might be -- is that part of a finger bone, a fragment of rib encrusted with dried blood, a waxy section of intestine? It's convincing and unsettling. The piece makes you ask yourself, How do people become so desperate, so indoctrinated or so unstable that they would choose to explode their own bodies the way someone would blow up a condemned building?
The issue of sentimentality arises in another work by Chin, one from the last Gulf War. In Support (1991), a majestic tree branch arches into the gallery. From it hangs a yellow noose made of rope woven from satiny yellow ribbons that wrap around the tree's trunk. The sentimentality of the yellow ribbon -- facsimiles of which adorn cars all over Houston -- is woven into an instrument of death. The more we sentimentalize the carnage of war, the more we romanticize the sacrifice of death, the less likely we are to analyze the real reasons behind what is happening. Chin has given us enough patriotic rope to hang ourselves.
While The Station has been something of a boy's club (it reportedly has a catchall "women's art" show coming up), thanks to private funding, its curators have the political courage to show whatever the hell they want. They've done everything from an exhibition of Palestinian art to showcasing the blood-soaked work of Hermann Nitsch. The Chin exhibition is one of The Station's strongest shows to date.
Political art can easily feel strident and didactic. Even when viewers wholeheartedly endorse the politics of the artist in question, nobody likes to be harangued. It's easy for artists to get so caught up in their message that they forget it's also supposed to be art. Chin has occasional brushes with heavy-handedness, but overall he manages to stay on message and artistically on target. His work makes you think -- and feel.
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