It Is What It Is. Or Is It?
"It is what it is. Or is it?" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is CAMH curator Dean Daderko's first show. It has Marcel Duchamp as its standard bearer and focuses on the readymade as both object and idea. There is no text to spell out what to take away or how to interpret the work. There are no wall labels. The lack of interrupting text brings the works together as interrelating parts of a whole, and viewers respond to them as they are, as the title says.
None of that is a bad idea, but the problem is, it's the kind of show where you do need a secret decoder ring half the time. Most of what's on view isn't particularly visually engaging, and grabbing one of the works-list handouts with titles and materials is necessary to "get" much of it. This show poses the question: How much work is the viewer required to do? And what is the incentive?
Take William Cordova's untitled (hexagons) (2001-2011), a series of 10 seemingly random images and objects, most of them hung at the eye level of a dachshund. Each of them has bits of text and image that you can't really see unless you kneel on the floor. Does it matter if you can't see this stuff? Or are you supposed to genuflect before Cordova's art? Seriously?
The piece starts off with a tiny shelf low on the wall displaying a scrap of napkin with "poverty, hijacking, cannibalism, amnesia" written on it. After that there's a blue piece of paper in a plastic binder sleeve thumbtacked along the floor, with cut-out black-and-white buildings on either side. It's followed by two black feathers dangling from strings wrapped around a nail. Next is a black-framed collage of Xeroxes of an ad for an exhibition and sale benefiting the legal defense fund of the Panther 21, with white paint over the glass obscuring different areas. (In 1969, 21 Panther members were rounded up by the New York police; 13 were tried and acquitted.) The list of participating artists like Donald Judd and Faith Ringgold has been copied by hand.
Taking this in required sitting down and scooting along the CAMH's dusty floor from left to right while squinting at Cordova's offerings. I had the distinct impression that the artist and the curator were jacking with me.
Googling an address printed on a bit of paper in another framed collage reveals 35 Sylvan Street as the former headquarters of the New Haven, Connecticut Panther Party. Faintly penciled initials in yet another framed work lead to the 1960s Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords Party. I could easily fill the rest of this review and then some with Googled decoding and conjecture — there is still the paint-stained Joan Walsh Anglund book on a high, hard-to-see shelf. (Sit down, stand up, sit down.) There is the fuzzy Polaroid image of what looks like Tupac stuck in a reused plastic envelope and taped to the wall. (Tupac's mom, Afeni Shakur, was one of the Panther 21 arrested and acquitted.) It goes on and on. Maybe if you work hard enough, it all comes together in some rewarding way. Whatever the case, there is something manipulative about the work.
For an artist with such apparent social concerns, this piece seems pretty elitist. Unless you somehow already knew all this stuff, which means you can be smug and self-congratulatory, getting the fragmentary and usually obscure references requires Internet connectivity. And it seems arrogant to assume people will even care enough to play along. The work is not especially visually intriguing, and the presumption is irritating. If I wasn't doing a review, there is no way in hell I would put this much effort into it. And if it's the case that the artist doesn't care about the viewer, why even show the work to others?
Rachel Hecker's visually and conceptually satisfying work is at the other end of the spectrum. Curator Daderko included three paintings from a series in which the artist finds images of guys in the media who look like Jesus and paints them. Let me clarify: She finds guys who look like the Hollywood/storybook/cheap-religious-print version of Jesus. This in itself is fascinating — the idea that we can find resemblances to an imagined appearance, one that is far more Aryan nation than Semitic. The most "Jesus-y" is Jesus #2 (David Gilmour/Pink Floyd) (2011). It reminds you how many Jesus-y-looking idolized rock stars there are, bringing up chicken-and-egg aspects of celebrity worship.
Other paintings aren't nearly as strong. I couldn't care less about Ellen Altfest's Plants (2004), an exacting painting of a cactus. Altfest may show with some big-name international galleries, but her painting and its style are the kind of competently banal work you could find in an overpriced, mediocre Santa Fe gallery. Her other painting in the show focuses on a portion of a leg, although she's painted more interesting parts of the male anatomy with similar detail before. But the subject matter isn't interesting enough. Altfest is unsuccessfully trying to spin run-of-the-mill realism.
Fayçal Baghriche's Envelopments (2010) is a series of flags from 28 different countries, wrapped around a row of poles projecting from the CAMH walls. It looks like a bunch of red-wrapped sticks. It turns out that red is on the outer edge of 28 different flags. You realize what a highly symbolic color it is, and this little detail somehow becomes a great commonality among cultures and countries as diverse as Bahrain, France, Chad, Morocco, China, Tunisia, Canada and East Timor.
There are a number of mildly amusing absurdist constructions with witty titles and, strangely, enough formal and conceptual similarities that they could all conceivably have been made by the same artist. There's Daphne Fitzpatrick's bucket of pocket change with a palm tree and rope, and Jamie Isenstein's Magritte-referencing table with a smoking pipe. Then there is Abraham Cruzvillegas's structure with a skateboard, a two-by-four and a potato.
Meanwhile, Patrick Killoran's An Inconspicuous Addition (2011), a cooler full of melting ice, is a WTF moment until you read the works list: "rough diamond, melting ice and cooler." But imagining "ice" in ice and trying to pick out the diamond from the crystalline chunks in the water doesn't make the work that much more interesting.
I groaned when I first saw Luis Jacob's Album VIII (2009). Fresh from inching along the floor to scrutinize Cordova's work, I found the idea of having to make a similar effort with his 67 sheets of images causing my head to throb. But thankfully, Jacob's work doesn't need a smartphone. The artist uses found images of a variety of things, including known and unknown artworks, architecture and performances, but he has created a deft visual narrative that smoothly moves through ideas and associations. It has been produced in book form, which is probably the best way to see it.
Claire Fontaine's Instructions for the sharing of private property (2006) is similarly generous to the viewer. It's a detailed how-to video on lock picking. You can watch it for 30 seconds or the whole 45 minutes without missing the essentials of the work.
If you watch all the subtitled Russian philosophizing of Chto Delat's continuous loop video, The Builders, you'll realize the members of this occasional collective are trying to pose themselves in a re-creation of the Socialist Realist classic The Builders of Bratsk. It's a little tedious but kind of funny, especially if you've listened to Russian artists philosophizing before.
And then there are works like Pratchaya Phinthong's Demonstrations (2009), a "documentation of an interaction," which will require extensive research into both the piece and recent Thai history to get. Politics and counterfeit currency are involved. I only saw this piece on the works list; apparently you have to ask to see the work, which is in a folder at the front desk.
Is it possible to dislike a show but like much of the work in it? I don't have a problem with Daderko's curatorial conceit, and when I start looking at the works he chose one by one, my annoyance recedes. But taken as a whole, the show feels smug, insular and manipulative. It makes a lot of demands on viewers but is miserly in what it gives back.
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