Not So Spectacular

Cut-paper extravaganza: Dario Robleto's Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines.
Courtesy of CAMH

You know, if it wasn't 5,000 degrees outside and we weren't in the middle of drought, I might be slightly less enthusiastic about Chris Larson's video Deep North. But it is 5,000 degrees outside, we are in the middle of a drought and Deep North is set in a Southern shotgun shack, coated with ice inside and out. The abundance of frozen water and the breath-fogging cold is like climate porn for Texans. (I can only hope that by the time this comes out, the heat will have abated.)

Deep North (2008) is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston as a part of "The Spectacular of Vernacular," an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center and curated by the Walker's Darsie Alexander that purports to bring together artworks with "vernacular" sensibilities — stuff that in some way channels the regional, folksy or craftsy. There is a lot of art out there that could conceivably fall into those categories, and the curator has filled the show with some pretty disparate works.

Larson's video opens with shots of an ice-coated kitchen table set for dinner. The stove is just as frosty, and the water-filled kitchen sink is frozen solid. So is the toilet. The toilet paper roll drips icicles and ice coats a pushbutton phone. Even the bed isn't spared an arctic overlay. The sculptural qualities of all that frozen water are amazing, with thick blankets of the stuff, as well as pools, cascades and elegant icicles. Normally, it would make me think of people freezing to death on Midwestern prairies, but having just walked to the CAMH across pavement radiating the triple-digit heat back at me, all I could do was stare longingly at the video as I enjoyed the CAMH air-conditioning blasting down from the ceiling.


"The Spectacular of Vernacular"

Through September 18. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

But the video isn't just about Larson coating a mockup of Southern vernacular architecture with ice and staging and transforming its interior. In Larson's vision, the building is also the site of some sort of odd, ice-based manufacturing.

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The narrow house is open at the roof, and there's a giant wooden paddlewheel in the center of it connected to some elaborate wooden mechanism that moves cylindrical chunks of ice around the room. It looks like it was built by a Nordic Rube Goldberg. The machine is operated by young, attractive and expressionless women clad in stylishly tailored wool jackets and pants. They're wearing coordinating headgear that looks like an avant-garde take on the Elmer Fudd hat.

I can see how Larson's absurd and rustic contraption works with the ice house, but what's the deal with the model-looking women? Are they trapped in some kind of arctic sweatshop? Something about the clothes and the activity makes me imagine Andrea Zittel in Minnesota (the artist who has designed her own wardrobe, food and habitats), but if she was involved, the whole thing would be much more purposeful and practical. Whatever the case, I just want to see more ice...

Basically, ignoring the stuff that doesn't make sense is the best way to see this whole show. Unless a group show is titled "Random Unrelated Shit I Stuck Together," I think most of us try to figure out connections between the works a curator has chosen. Alexander may have staked her conceptual territory broadly enough so that a Mike Kelley mobile combining squiggled wire and geometric components can be shown with a series of Walker Evans's Depression-era photographs and Marc Swanson's glam crystal-covered deer antlers, but visually the combination is a tough sell.

I found myself walking through trying to mentally categorize work. "Let's see, those paintings and that sculpture use sparkly, craftsy stuff...That work over there looks really rural and that one looks crappily homemade...Oh, and there's a video with Serbian artist Marina Abramovic's naked boobs poking out of a peasant costume...File that under 'folk influence'..." While there are some innate connections between certain works, a lot of the other connections are far more tortured — the show overall comes across as pretty much of a hodgepodge.

Vernacular architecture is one of the more obvious and successful threads of influence in the show. In addition to Larson's video, there are a number of works that reference American wood frame buildings. They're literally there, in Walker Evans's images of shanty interiors and country churches, and they're a sculptural influence in Siah Armajani's outhouse-size structure. They're memorialized in William Christenberry's Palmist Building (1979), a small model/sculpture of an old storefront building that the artist regularly photographed until it completely disappeared. You can see the artist's urge to replicate and preserve the paintless, ramshackle wooden storefront, the sort you used to find all over the rural South.

With a narrow, mean little chimney for a wood stove, the structure Christenberry is re-creating was never grand, and it's only gotten worse with age. Today such buildings are truly endangered species, through sheer decay or development. Southerners will appreciate the simulation of the rusted RC Cola sign on the front as well as the hand lettering on the "Jesus Saves" sign. And the old "Palmist" sign propped up inside one of the glassless windows would have no doubt caused consternation to the "Jesus Saves" proponents. Christenberry's work may seem quaint 30 years after its making, but it comes from a very real place.

Dario Robleto's contribution is a real standout in the show, although Houstonians are so familiar with his work that they may take it for granted. Robleto's art puts the "O" in OCD — his Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines (2009) is a cut-paper extravaganza that painstakingly channels 19th-century craft and sentiment through hundreds of paper flowers, arrangements of tiny shells and text in vintage lettering.

The handmade impulse has resurfaced with a vengeance in 21st-century popular culture through the likes of Etsy and the scrapbooking legions, as people ironically fetishize Grandma's crocheted bleach bottle dolls or adorn family photos with mass-produced craftsy accents that tout "Family Vacation!" or "School Days!" in cutesy fonts. But Robleto's work bypasses current hipsterism and consumerism and burrows into the core of the basic human impulse to make things with your hands, to invest time and labor, and to create things that somehow embody love, longing and loss.

Aaron Spangler's beautifully carved wood panels have some pretty obvious vernacular influences. Painted black and rubbed with a sheen of graphite powder, the striking sculptures remind me of Black Forest carvings. But the folkloric style of his three works is infused with surreal imagery and narratives — in the midst of trees, hills and foliage, a shed grows over a giant prone figure surrounded by cardboard boxes, a woman rises from a bed with a gun, and an angel appears.

Kerry James Marshall's great 2003 painting Gulf Stream is a less blatantly vernacular inclusion in the show. It's a riff on Winslow Homer's 1899 The Gulf Stream, in which a shirtless black man lies on the deck of a mast-less sailboat as open-mouthed sharks swim in the roiling sea that surrounds him. In Marshall's version, maxi-dress-clad women with Angela Davis-worthy Afros strike fashion model poses in the sailboat. A painted border of glittery rope and net surrounds the painting. Marshal has transformed the bleak original into a stylish Sunday outing perfect for a fashion spread and camped it up with glitter.

This show has a lot of interesting pieces, but it's not one of those tightly organized exhibitions that highlight and enhance the work they present. While any one selection may make sense in the context of the show, when you put them all together, they don't relate to each other well. Go see it for the art rather than the curatorial conceit.

Maybe I'm being too hard on "The Spectacular of Vernacular" because it suffers so much in comparison to the CAMH's award-winning show from a couple years ago, "The Old Weird America." Curated by Toby Kamps, that show had some of the same artists and references, but the exhibition and the focus were much stronger. I think the vernacular in art is rich territory, offering plenty of curatorial fodder for any number of shows, but it's not a catchall.

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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

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