Sometimes you go to an art show expecting one thing, and you get another. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's "Landscape Confection" is supposedly about works that take a decorative approach to the landscape. Organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts and curated by Helen Molesworth, the exhibition does lean toward paintings and sculptures in bright, bold colors and sugary pastels -- the colors of "confections" -- and there is a lot of landscape-referencing work. But the selection of works is uneven, and many don't jibe with Molesworth's organizing premise. Instead there's a different unifying factor, an interesting subcurrent running through the show. What stands out more than any shared affection for landscape and decoration is a fascination with especially tactile surfaces and materials, among them greasy plasticine clay, viscous-looking silicone and glossy beads.
Janaina Tschäpe smeared thick chunks of plasticine clay on the walls of the gallery. This oily clay, which never dries out, is used by kids and for claymation. Tschäpe uses it to create a vividly colored relief that's cheery but slightly unsettling. The image roils with organic, seaweed-like shapes in aquatic blues and greens. There are also yellow cellular-looking structures, flesh-pink pustule-like forms and viscerally red smears.
The materials are engaging -- you really, really want to touch this stuff -- and Tschäpe's design is vibrant and surreal, but she could do more to break free from the imagined picture plane that seems to constrict her work. The whole wall is there for the taking, yet the clay confines itself to a vaguely rectangular area. Having the work grow over the wall could be really interesting. (I don't envy the person who has to scrape this stuff off; if you've ever worked with plasticine clay, you know that it barely washes off your hands.)
Tschäpe's staged photographs are also included in the show, and they depict even more viscerally tactile work. In them, figures wear Tschäpe's sculptural constructions -- sheer white stretchy fabric stuffed with inflated forms. A figure sits on the grassy bank of a stream encased in a giant sleeve of the fabric; clusters of bulbous pink balloons grow up her back. The fabric, filled with giant white spheres, extends over her head and into the water, floating on the surface. It's simultaneously tranquil, beautiful and creepy. Tschäpe's two bodies of work are connected by both their organic forms and the artist's penchant for working with squishy stuff.
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Using colored silicone and a pastry bag, Neil Rock creates more work that tempts you to touch it. The silicone is the same kind of rubbery stuff used for tub caulk. Huge swirls, dollops and squirts of it are accumulated over armatures to create blobby, wall-mounted forms that look like sea life from another galaxy. Rock has even thrown in some fake foliage here and there for good measure.
It's appealingly strange work in pretty pastel colors, but there are some basic formal issues that could be improved upon. Rock covers all of his works with extruded sections of silicone that are around the same size. This approach tends to make them look similar, despite the different armatures. His initial ideas are incredibly original, but the work starts to feel formulaic even in the three examples on view. Varying the scale of the silicone marks would work much better. It's such a cool idea and such an interesting use of material -- which is why it's frustrating he doesn't do more with it.
Decidedly less squishy but tactile nonetheless is work by two artists working on the bead front. In one of the most successful pieces in the show, Ranjani Shettar uses a spiderweb-like network of thread strung with tiny beads the artist has hand-rolled from beeswax. (I'll wager Shettar is one of those people who compulsively play with candle wax.) The net of threads is anchored vertically between the floor and ceiling in a spiral. It's an incredibly delicate work; the beads hang in the air like bodies in a spiral galaxy. Not only do you want to touch it, you want to wind your way into the center of the spiral -- something the guards aren't going to let you do. This work was undoubtedly a nightmare to create, but it conveys an ethereal beauty.
For his own labor-intensive art, Kori Newkirk uses plastic beads and synthetic microbraids of hair to create shimmering "beaded curtains." Hung close together from a strip of aluminum, the multicolored beads are strung to create images of frosty pine trees in a snowy white field or a tree partially covering the facade of a modernist building. The works hang like paintings, but you want to pass through them the way you would a beaded curtain.
The pine-tree image is especially successful, but conceptually this work is a little weird. We get the African-American connection between hair and beads, but what beaded strands of hair specifically have to do with the landscape images Newkirk selects isn't clear. The hair seems like a holdover from some earlier project. There doesn't seem to be much reason to use anybody's hair instead of filament or thread in these beaded landscape works.
It seems the curator, Molesworth, has an unacknowledged thing for work that is squishy, touchable and pettable. There's plenty of thick, gloppy paint among many of the paintings she included. (Quite a few of them are abstract, which is another reason landscape associations seem a fairly arbitrary designation.) Works with tactile qualities might have been a more interesting curatorial thread for her to follow, but however problematic the show, Molesworth has brought us some interesting, international work from artists with similar obsessions.
One last thing. It's to her credit that the curator has given us a global selection of artists -- Tschäpe is German and Brazilian; Rock is Australian; Shettar is Indian; and Newkirk is American -- without self-consciously calling attention to their diversity. It's refreshing to see someone draw from a broad pool of artists without that being the sole point.
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