The riverboat is fabulous.
The riverboat is fabulous.
Courtesy of DiverseWorks

Playing Hard to Get

The less I know about Michael Jones McKean's work, the more I like it. "The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows" at DiverseWorks is the best thing Houston has seen from the former Core fellow. Water, adventure and exploration are the loose themes of his epic installation. Some aspects of the show are amazing, but others are also amazingly frustrating -- especially if you actually try to follow the schizophrenic collection of influences cited for the installation. How about Hall & Oates, Donald Crowhurst (a guy who died supposedly trying to circumnavigate the globe), free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, the Mariana Trench and conquistador Hernando De Soto? And that's just to name a few.

At the entrance to the main gallery, a gargantuan fan turns slowly and ominously. The breeze is ridiculously light for the imposing scale of the object. According to DiverseWorks director Diane Barber, the fan was originally designed by a special effects guy for the film Twister. It's an instant storm. McKean has it rotating at only one tenth of its possible speed -- to turn it on full blast would, in Barber's words, "blow the front off the building."

Next to the fan is another massive circular form, a ship's wheel made from papier-mache, probably over Styrofoam. It leans against the wall, useless, with nothing to steer and seemingly too heavy to move. But the potential for movement clings to it. There is a commonality -- visual and conceptual -- to these two objects.


"Michael Jones McKean: The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows"

A riverboat, or part of one, at least, dominates the main gallery, and it's a pretty fabulous undertaking. A massive, melancholy hulk, its deck appears to sag with age, and the ornate wooden railings seem encrusted with layers of paint. You expect to hear it creak as it bobs in water. (It's all made from foam board and plaster joint compound. Once the province of the building trades, these materials have been appropriated by scenic designers and artists to create lightweight, large-scale constructions.)

The entire thing rests on a giant wheeled platform. McKean has a thing for platforms. Platforms, platforms and more platforms underlie -- literally and figuratively -- almost all of his sculpture. McKean's work is packed with disjunctive elements, but the platforms provide a constant; they act as a stage for display.

So far in "The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows," the elements have made a loose kind of sense. Time for McKean to start throwing wrenches in the works.

Next to the riverboat are stepped platforms covered with gray industrial carpeting that feel like something from a trade show. Resting on the lower platform is some carefully selected and arranged "debris" -- clothes, white plaster masks of men's faces (one of them kind of looks like Mark Twain) and part of a dog leash. The disparate collection of things and their studied placement tell us that each is meaningful.

On the taller platform are some oddly appealing, lumpy gold objects -- a saxophone, a crudely modeled conquistador's helmet and something that might be Captain Ahab's harpoon -- strewn across its surface, along with a giant '80s vintage boom box driven by a tiny iPod. Naturally (?!?), Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" is playing.

On the platform underneath the prow of the riverboat, there's a stack of white boxes and some rectangles of fluorescent-tinted Plexiglas lit by a Dan Flavin-esque fluorescent light. It looks like a storage hold for minimalist art. I am not intellectually limber enough to attempt the mental contortions necessary to tie in these things with what has come before. Nearby, a narrow but hefty tank is made from thick slabs of Plexiglas and filled with water colored by sheets of ultramarine blue Plexiglas. It has a lush, aquatic elegance and is a more defensible, similar-but-different thing.

Around the corner from the riverboat is a big plywood room with a tiny window. Peer through it into the dark interior, and it's really wonderful -- light glows through the windowpanes of a white wooden structure, a wheelhouse from a riverboat. Water rains down. You can smell the damp, and the white house rocks back and forth like it's riding storm waves. But the warm glow of the windows seems to offer a cozy, if lonely, refuge. Outside, all of the tanks, pipes, switches and panels necessary to create what amounts to a tempest in a box are visible. Revealing the mechanics required to produce such convincing artifice is a nice touch by McKean.

Circling the installation, you see a plywood box built to hold exactly 14 weighty metal binders. Each binder is labeled and contains plastic sleeves with "research" -- both pragmatic and enigmatic -- relating to the installation and some arty, space-filling Xeroxes. Are we supposed to read through all of this? And is there some big payoff for doing so?

There's also a giant mutant stereo that's kind of cool, but by the time I got to it I neither cared nor wanted to ponder what relation, if any, it had to the installation.

The following is from a 2005 artist's statement by Michael Jones McKean about a previous exhibition, and it's probably about the best explanation you are going to get of his work.

"The work is like this central location that collects and absorbs things. These things are always moving. Things like: Scandinavian furniture design, King Tut, high modernist ideals, household alchemy, narrative strategies, signifiers of progress and civilization, a campfire, homespun utopianism, customization, set design, giant pumpkin growing techniques, an epic riverboat adventure, and grandiose but failed expeditions."

Look, I think we could argue that all of our brains are roiling cauldrons of disparate things. I think you can successfully make art out of that concept, but that is not how McKean's work comes across. There are artists who make weird disjunctive shit that works, but usually there is some sort of inner logic -- to the materials, to the way things are put together. "The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows" has moments of greatness and conceptual threads that begin to weave together, but it's all the more disappointing when they are abruptly torn apart.

McKean seems hell-bent on trying to make things convoluted, to over-think and complicate his work. And the problem is that he seems to really want us to "get" it. There is art that can be just experienced and absorbed without having to be decoded. But that's obviously not the intent of an artist who includes a reference section with his show.

A Houston curator who admits that he's no fan of installation art talked to McKean about this show and wound up loving it -- after asking the artist a lot of very specific questions. My problem is that you shouldn't have to have a one-on-one with an artist to get his work. And it's really sort of arrogant on the part of the artist to assume viewers will take the inordinate amount of time necessary to figure out his thought processes and understand the work. McKean either needs to rein in his tangents or equip his installation with an Acoustic Guide and a secret decoder ring.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >