Junque in the Houston Heights
We are in the living/dining room of Museum of the Weird, a 1939 bungalow on 24th Street in the Heights. On the table in front of us is an array of artfully lumpy ceramics made by children or perhaps adults with an eight-year-old's level of manual dexterity. They are all for sale. So is the giant, red, anatomically correct heart that rests in the open rafters above us, and the enormous papier-mâché wasp nest by artist Celia Eberle, complete with enormous wasp.
Everybody has crap in their house, but two Houston artists, Dolan Smith and Bill Davenport, are crap connoisseurs. Inveterate garage salers, thrift store habitués, Dumpster divers — and card-carrying MFAs — these guys have made an art out of artfully chosen junk. Now that junk, at least the stuff they're willing to part with, is available to you. Smith is selling the Museum of the Weird and getting rid of most of its contents, while Bill Davenport has just opened up Bill's (mostly handmade) Junk Store.
"I've got some good crap," acknowledges Museum of the Weird director Smith, "but the ones with blue tape on them, I'm keeping." That includes a 1950s portrait of a woman that Smith enhanced with a clown smile and bigger hair. For sale, however, is a giant cardboard replica of a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle Smith crafted. It has armholes, and it was his costume for his 40th birthday party, where, he says, "I got so drunk I fell over and I was like a giant turtle flopped on its back."
In the kitchen, an open shelf is carefully stacked with brightly colored and neatly arranged canned goods. Smith has titled it the Shelf of Delicious Advertisements, and it includes cans of things like pink salmon and artichoke hearts, all with kitschy, funky labels. According to Smith, the piece is 14 years old, and cans explode from time to time. It's yours if you are foolhardy enough to want it.
Also in the kitchen is the Fantasy Fridge, an elderly side-by-side refrigerator covered with images of nekkid women. On top of the Fantasy Fridge rests a bright-orange box of Wheaties that's been altered — underneath the phrase "Breakfast of Champions" is a photograph of a guy with five-day stubble, smoking a cigarette. A friend of Smith's who "isn't even an artist" made it 17 years ago. (It's gone now; I bought it for five bucks.) Other shelves in the kitchen hold things like freakish wig heads, a mummified rat in a jar and a medical model of a child.
Smith has been working on the house for almost 15 years. He's selling it now because he and his wife just bought a lovely (normal) home in the Heights. Smith was fortunate enough to sell his house to art car enthusiasts from Galveston who appreciate the property's singularly weird sensibility. (The entrance to the driveway is flanked by two giant horns liberated from some billboard by a friend of the artist. They're for sale as well, but the new owners said they wouldn't mind keeping them.)
The backyard feels like a compound left behind by some crackpot extinct culture possessing elaborate and wacky rituals. There is the Scar Room, for example. Smith, alias Scar Man, has been to the emergency room more times than probably anyone still alive. His ongoing art project is a collection of his own physical and psychic scars written on chunks of wood. He created the enclosed gazebo/scar room where visitors could write down their own scars on scrap wood and add them to the space. The "scars" are for sale as well.
A pet columbarium was added to the site in 2003, and inaugurated with a massive Halloween party. The Museum of the Weird parties were legendary — you always knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the police would show up before the night was over. They did, and so did the fire department. As a part of the columbarium's christening, stuffed animals were going to be attached to helium balloons to ascend to heaven. Then some guy wearing nothing but a stuffed-animal as a G-string decided they needed to be soaked in flammable liquid first and ignited as they were released. It was a spectacular sight — until some of them got stuck in the neighbor's trees and others fell down on people's cars. I think the guy in the stuffed-animal G-string wound up at county in that outfit.
It's dark as we are touring the compound, but Smith has donned a miner's headlamp to light the way. We check out the columbarium, and Smith points out the jagged glass he added to the fence to keep nearby heroin addicts out. Pet ashes are sealed into concrete niches in the wall. Statuary decorates the area, just like any memorial park. There is a Venus with a duck head grafted on, and "the black angel of death," a saint holding a child with their heads switched. Smith reads out pet names to me, "Sassy" and "Mr. Winkle." In the center of the space is a big metal cylinder, possibly an old water heater. It has a propane attachment and a door on it. "Is this where you cremate pets?" I ask.
"I'm not supposed to, but," says Smith, "if the dogs kill something..." He points out the flat metal disk on top of the cylinder. "That's where you can set your coffee to keep it hot," he says. I hope he'll pass that tip on to the next owners...
The crowded, narrow room feels like a lot of other junk stores in the Heights, but once you start taking a closer look at the merchandise, you realize there is something off. Like Smith, Bill Davenport has his own collection of schoolchildren's misshapen ceramics. A particularly chunky and awkward black coffee mug catches my eye. It looks like something from a Philip Guston painting. It's perfect in its clunkiness, and I discover why — Davenport made it himself.
An aficionado of the homespun, Davenport revels in the role of earnest hobbyist. As in the case of the coffee mug, he has used his collections as inspiration for his own work. "A lot of this is sourcematerial, an idea I could steal," he says. Among other things, Davenport has amassed what is possibly the world's largest extant collection of macramé owls.
Davenport and his wife, artist Francesca Fuchs, bought a 4,000-square-foot 1930 commercial space on 11th Street, spent 16 months remodeling it and have just moved in with their two sons. There are two storefront spaces downstairs. Davenport turned one into a gallery he dubbed "Optical Project," and the other is now Bill's (mostly handmade) Junk Store.
Like Smith, Davenport decided to get rid of stuff because of a move. "I had to move all my junk over from storage, and I thought, 'Oh no, this can't go on.' I had to look at everything as I unpacked it." As a result, he started thinking that maybe he didn't need all of it. While Smith is hosting a stranger than usual garage sale, Davenport has officially opened a store; he's got a sales tax permit and he takes Visa and MasterCard.
A collection of 1970s picnic thermoses line a shelf — they have amazing period supergraphics, swirls and stripes in yellows, browns and oranges. There is a "catalog of bouffant hairstyles," a 1967 photograph of the ladies of Delta Zeta sorority. How about an "evangelical cinder block" decorated with religious imperatives?
"I have the perfect business model," says Davenport. "If someone bought all this stuff, I'd have no inventory, but on the other hand, no one wants all this stuff."
Davenport proudly displays a chunk of scrap lumber; it's a do-it-yourself electric guitar by former Houston artist Al Hermann. It even has a whammy bar. Then Davenport directs me to the "holy grail of thrift store paintings." A find he made back before thrift stores were overfished by hipsters, the painting depicts the head of Jesus crying on the horizon line of a beach scene while a guy carries a red, phallic-looking surfboard and a woman cavorts in a bikini. It looks like the Son of God has happened onto the set of Beach Blanket Bingo. Davenport doesn't really want to sell it, so he priced it at $300 dollars. "I price things depending on how much I like them," he confesses.
This is the first time Davenport has had a room solely devoted to his junk.
"This is my ideal living environment," he explains. "It's undiluted by any practical use. It's just the crap room; you can just cover every surface with crap and spend your time rearranging it. This is like 17 years of thrift store shopping, but just the stuff that I could bear to part with."
"Art galleries used to be like a store crammed full of art," Davenport remarks. "It's a European-style gallery," he laughs, gesturing around the room. "That's what I'm gonna tell people." He wryly looks at the contents of his store as a kind of "afterlife" for "art that doesn't reach some pinnacle of museum collectibility," like his Christmas ornament by well-established painter David Aylsworth.
Just in case you can't decide what or what not to get, Davenport is selling hand-painted gift cards — "Junk Bonds" — in increments of $10, $23, $25 and $50. The recipient may or may not want to redeem them...And just in case you wanted that lumpy coffee mug, it's gone. I already bought it for five bucks.
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