Curated by Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, Twelfth Round of Artist Installations gives free rein to seven artists who take these iconic shotgun houses and transform them with works that run the gamut from political and social statements to pure visual indulgence, hitting all points in between. The focus of these installations is sculpture, a nice lead-in to the 18th International Sculptural Conference set for May 31 to June 4 in Houston.
Heros is a collaborative installation by Philadelphia artist and social activist Homer Jackson and his frequent partner, performance artist Lloyd Lawrence; the third collaborator is potentially anyone who walks in the door. The artists have provided all the tools you'll need: a pen and a bowl of white (peppermint?) LifeSavers with paper tags attached. Nearby on a table are the instructions: "Please write the name of someone you want to be safe on a lifesaver tag, then place it on the wall." The walls are painted black and are covered with a grid of tiny nails.
Tags with names such as "The Johnson Bros.," "The Dixon's and Smith's," "Sweet Patrick" and "Me" dangle from these thin pieces of metal. Patterns and groupings emerge from the white tags against the black background; some areas have a lone tag, while others have a cluster of them. It's almost like a diagram of how people function in the world. The lifesaver idea is a corny pun, but the overall effect of these objects -- graphic symbols of people's concern for each other -- is poignant. Additional text on the table says, "In an increasingly dangerous world, if a wish could save a life, would you make a wish?"
Houstonian Mark Nelson also wants people to be safe; his Glass Free Grounds contains more than 1,300 pounds of broken glass collected from public parks. Spurred into action in 1994 when his five-year-old son almost fell on a smashed beer bottle at a city park, Nelson began obsessively picking up broken glass. Four years later he enlisted other people into his campaign by giving bucket-painting and glass-collecting workshops in parks. Some of those children's buckets, brightly painted containers used to collect the evil shards, are hung upside down from the ceiling. One end of the house has a large basin filled with broken glass.
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The glass is conceptually and materially powerful because of its sheer multicolored quantity; it simultaneously illustrates community thoughtlessness and community concern, the latter winning out, since it takes only one person to chunk a bottle but a whole group to collect the tiny shattered pieces. More glass is contained in an awkwardly constructed cube made from rectangles of glass and one-by-fours. Neither the cube nor the basin ultimately serves the glass well; it needs a better display solution, something less obtrusive. The amassed glass is beautiful and speaks for itself.
The installations of native Houstonian-turned-New Yorker Melvin Edwards (born in 1937) and Houstonian Lauren Kelley (born in 1975) provide a glimpse into how different generations and genders approach sculpture imbued with African-American social commentary. Edwards's installation, Homage to the Spirit, displays sculpture welded together from found objects with a weighty, monochromatic modernist feel. The blocky assemblages of metal tools and spare parts are part of Edwards's Lynch Fragment series, which the artist began during the civil rights movement and continues today. Constructed from pieces of rebar, ball-peen and claw hammer heads, chain links, lawn mower blades, elbow pipe joints and railroad spikes, the sculptures have a somber aura of manual labor, oppression and sacrifice. The head-size constructions are reminiscent of African masks, and Edwards's titles for the more than 100 pieces frequently reflect African and African-American struggle.
In Ringers to the Bone, Kelley explores the concepts of wealth and materialism. The space is painted a light and cool minty green; suspended from the ceiling with monofilament, a series of "rings" constructed from cast bones seem to float mysteriously in the air. The yellowish surfaces of the bones are embedded with sparkly rhinestones. Heavy femurs hang horizontally in one circle, while across the room, slender, suspended fingerlike bones are woven into another ring. A circle of "teeth" made from clay is speckled with gold leaf. Together, the rings float in the space, melding the tongue-in-cheek decorative whimsy of the rhinestones with the edgy undertones of the bones.
For Kelley the rings symbolize the glittering wealth accumulated on the backs of people who never benefit from their own work. There are also allusions to the material aesthetic espoused by rap and entertainment stars as well as to working oneself to the bone in pursuit of such an exaggerated ideal. A rhinestone pavé jockstrap hanging in the corner wittily illustrates the extreme of wealth accumulation through athleticism.
Bora Kim, Dean Ruck and Nestor Topchy actively transform your experience of the spaces. For Untitled 2000, Korea native Kim has walled off part of the gallery and inserted fish-eye peepholes at various points. The disorienting peepholes distort the scale of the objects behind the lenses: They could be huge; they could be tiny. The viewer peers into strange little worlds filled with pseudo-sea-life sculpted from fake fur and Lycra. The peepholes focus on little vignettes from a larger scene. One opens directly onto a goofy sculpted flower. Another reveals a room of cool, minimal white tile contrasted with the riotous color of bizarrely stuffed and sewn shapes. A tree trunk grows out of the tile, while florist's moss lines another cube, the natural and the artificial vibrating off each other. The total effect of the space is pop and surreally campy.
Walk into Houstonian Ruck's aptly titled Tree House, and your first thought is "How the hell did he manage that?" The encaustic-coated trunk of a tree starts upright near the front windows and then makes a neat, impossible right angle, filling the space. The striking organic lines of the tree create a three-dimensional drawing against the spare white interior of the house. The tree is transformed by the brownish wax coating, which makes it more objectlike (and hides the numerous joints required to reassemble the tree inside the house). Ducking in and around the branches visually and physically alters the viewer's experience of the space.
Houstonian Topchy's Oh-Ho, Ah-Ha is a strange, melancholic dreamworld. His house still includes all of the original dividing walls, complete with their patina of age. An aura of the previous inhabitants suffuses the installation as you see how the tiny shotgun house was once divided. Topchy has tapped into this feeling and, in a back room, has painted the ghostly figure of a man. A glass eyeball is embedded into the wall and peers out from his forehead. It looks like the old tenants have disappeared into the very walls. In the front room, wavy funhouse Plexiglas mirrors line a closet-size space. Four pairs of shoes stand at the entrance: White high-heeled sandals and black lace-up dress shoes bracket two pairs of tiny children's shoes. It looks like the family has stepped out of them and into another dimension -- Mom, Dad and the kids through the looking glass. The shoes wait patiently for their return.
One of the strengths of the PRH installations is that each artist's work is contained within its own house. Edwards's work is presented in a more conventional gallery sense, but some of the strongest installations are derived from the artists' interaction with or alteration to the houses. Such is the case with Kelley, Ruck, Kim and Topchy. The separate houses give the viewer a complete sense of the artists' sensibilities. It's like strolling through each one's subconscious.
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