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Lacking Perspectives

Abraham Cruzvillegas's "assemblages" are put together from found objects, the kind of things unstable older relatives might store in the basement for the day they finally might be needed -- or the day one of their younger, "artistic" relatives needs to put together a show. Descending the stairs at the Contemporary Arts Museum always feels like a trip to the basement, anyway (an exotic part of the experience for Houstonians unfamiliar with houses constructed in less damp parts of the country). Descending the steps to the "Perspectives 139: Abraham Cruzvillegas" exhibition, you'll see collections of bamboo sticks, old swords, saved leaves, carnival toys, percussion instruments, beads and string.

The show's largest work is Las Guerras Floridas. Sixty maguey leaves have been attached to a wall in five rows of 12; each leaf, which is typically used to wrap pieces of meat for barbecuing, is three feet long and a foot wide. As they decay, some dry out, and some turn black like banana skins, causing their shapes to change (although it's unclear whether they've been decomposing at the museum or were already in varying stages of freshness). The distortions of decay add a pleasant variety to the implied order of the grid, and up close, interesting patterns of vein and grain resembling dried driftwood are visible.

But the maguey leaves exemplify the basic problem of the exhibit's works. Something about the idea behind each of Cruzvillegas's assemblages seems interesting, but in most of them, there's little to hold or reward our attention. Cruzvillegas is an academic, a professor of art. His work has been called postconceptualist. It seems to be about ideas, but the ideas are comments about art that is itself about ideas about art. If that kind of self-referential circularity seems nonsensical, you may understand the problem.

In an interview with Jorge Luis Saenz of the virtual art magazine La Pala, Cruzvillegas said, "Most people are not interested in art…There is a disenchantment, a malaise, an incapacity of art on which I have reflected." The work displayed in this show seems to reflect a resignation about the impossibility of creating anything worthwhile that might gain the attention of "most people." That malaise is reflected in the slapdash appearance of many of the pieces. The materials he uses often possess little to charm or interest, and neither do many of the objects created from them. Nevertheless, he finds the inspiration, and the will, to continue creating and showing art. If the disenchantment were complete, these works would not be here. Since they are, he might as well try to draw us in.

There are a couple of methods intellectual artists use to add gravitas to their works: name-checking an unconventional, acknowledged genius (especially if the genius works in some practical field like engineering), or appropriating an unfamiliar word. Cruzvillegas explains the work Marti by referring to Buckminster Fuller and "tensegrity." The work is built from silver- and black-painted toy machetes, fastened together at the handle ends in sets of four to form crosses, and dried bamboo sticks. Some sections of the bamboo are scored so they can bend without breaking. The materials are stacked together in a tangle about three feet high. Tensegrity is a principle Fuller used to indicate that "tension and compression always and only co-exist." This has something to do with the pile of sticks maintaining some stability. But the piece still looks like a pile of sticks.

The story behind Revolucion is puzzling. This assemblage was put together from an old leather bag and some steel rods bundled in a hoop. The bag, which Cruzvillegas bargained with a Berber water trader in Morocco to obtain, is covered with old coins on one side. He engineered the hoops in order to display it. It seems the artist intended to make a comment on buying, selling, ownership and collecting. Possibly the comment is that if you really want something, then get it and have no use for it, you can always turn it into art.

Other pieces in the show include rubber hair ties hanging from a tree branch stuck in a straw hat; a long string of beads and seeds hanging in a grid on one wall; a clumsily whittled piece of wood standing in a set of colored concentric boxes; and a couple of large hanging spheres made from bands of clear plastic, with bright red-painted toy maracas glued to them. These last would have been more interesting if this weren't the season when weird holiday decorations constantly assault our eyes.

What's frustrating is that some of the works reveal that Cruzvillegas is in fact capable of creating art that draws in the viewer. Consider Progreso. A brass hinge hanging from the ceiling to the floor in a graceful curve suggests a lock of wavy hair or the shape of a seahorse. Protruding from one side of the curve are a row of golf tees and a row of what are described as "Moroccan weed and toothpick flowers." The latter look like little dried-straw flowers. On the other side of the curve are two rows of small balls of beeswax, which are used to hold the wooden objects from the other side in place. The shiny metal of the bronze, juxtaposed with the straw flowers, the wooden golf tees and the dark round balls of beeswax, adds to the beauty and grace of the long curve.

Another piece with the same potential is Mutualismo, a unicycle lying on its side supporting another curving steel rod like those we've seen in other pieces. This one has a cowbell attached at an angle so it can hold birdseed, albeit not very much (the cowbell holds so little seed that frequent refilling would be necessary). The assemblage itself is a pleasant piece of whimsy that makes one think of jugglers and clowns. Turning something as unstable and silly as a unicycle into a stable, useful (semi-useful, anyway) object like a bird feeder is pretty funny.

Constitucion is another humorous work. It consists of four large rocks stacked on top of one another, with an old rubber bucket perched precariously on top. The bucket appears to be on the verge of tipping and falling off the pile of rocks, which itself doesn't look all that stable. The artist found the bucket, which is homemade and built from old tires. There's a nice circularity here, with the artist recycling what has already been recycled once. But then, pretty much everything used to be something else.

A set of bongo drums on a stand, with a leather rattle and a pair of metal cowbells, make up Topografos. Long steel rods arc outward from the sides of the bongos, like stems of flowers coming out of a vase, with an inverted shot glass "blossom" at the end of each. One looks for a button or a crank to set the work in motion. It doesn't seem built to stand still. Visitors with musical tendencies might be frustrated by the way the rods block access to the bongo's drum heads. There's a strong temptation to give them a couple of slaps, just to hear those shot glasses rattle at the end of the rods.

Observatorio Oriente echoes the floral motif. A stuffed cloth ball rests on top of a thick orange beeswax candle. Dozens of steel rods explode from the ball. To the end of each is attached a printed color picture of an animal (tropical fish, livestock, birds, squirrels, bears). The pictures appear to be cut out of a children's book or species identification chart. Many are attached so they show the blank white side of the paper instead of the picture. On first look, the curves of these bowed rods have a graceful charm, but the tackiness of these little images reminds one of the close relationship between the terms "found object" and "piece of junk."

Although a few of the works redeem the show somewhat, it still leaves you cold. Considering Cruzvillegas's complaint that "most people are not interested in art," it would be difficult to find a reason for most people to be interested in the art in this show. There's little that's visually interesting, and what there is of intellectual interest is either incomprehensible or incoherent.


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