There's something selfishly exciting about checking out an installation at Lawndale and being the only patron in the building. That's probably not what the organization wants to hear — I mean, the place should be buzzing. But with the current batch of artists showing there, it was a thrill to explore the building's three stories and the rooms and stairwells feeling like an invisible spy or an investigator of strange phenomena. I heard the disembodied voices of the staff, footsteps, doors opening and closing, work being done, but by some strange coincidence, not a face was seen; not one fleeting glimpse of a person. It made for an unsettling, and ultimately fun, experience — perfect really for the work on display, since there's something in all these works that addresses an invasive entity taking over or intruding upon the everyday world.
Monica Vidal's "Blow Up Heart" show occupies the main first-floor space. Her sculpture Tumor Hive dominates the room, and was inspired by a photograph of a large tumor she had removed two years ago, and this thing must've been one crazy-nasty growth, since Vidal says the piece's colors and textures were also influenced by the tumor. The tent-like Tumor Hive stands 12 feet tall and is 22 feet long. Its frame is made up of plywood and fiberglass rod covered in quilt-like fabric that ranges from peach and fleshy colors to pinks and fuchsia. Its two "openings" are impenetrable. Vidal also displays a series of paintings and drawings depicting figures (including herself) wearing garments inspired by an Aztec ritual in which worshippers donned flayed human skins. In the images, the scaly forms envelop heads and even entire bodies. In one, Vidal's head is exposed, and she looks kind of like Björk on the Homogenic album cover. Vidal also includes a life-size reproduction of the costume, made (thankfully) from flesh-colored felt.
Vidal's contribution is perhaps the most creepy and Cronenbergian example of organic "corruption," a strange mixture of nature and synthetic material, on display, but the theme continues as you get on the elevator to the mezzanine. As you hit the second floor, and the doors open, it's like you've entered a portal to a '60s Star Trek episode.
Stepping out of the elevator and into Kia Neill's "Grotto" installation, a dark, tight cave with hanging stalactites and blinking crystals overgrown with Spanish moss, was one of the most otherworldly things I've experienced in Houston in a while. It was genuinely disorienting, weird and hilarious. Neill's aim is "to place emphasis on gaudy or absurd embellishment" to "render an enhanced synthetic ideal." Mission accomplished. Rather than imagine a totally original and "realistic" extraterrestrial environment, Neill instead mines our collective ideals of kitschy-sci-fi fantasy worlds to trigger an emotional response rooted in mass culture, a shared experience symbolically linked to what Neill calls the "invented artifact." It sounds heady, and it is (like the best examples of the sci-fi genre), but it's not convoluted. The best ideas are also simple ones, and Neill hits a home run here with run-of-the-mill materials like papier-mâché, chicken wire, burlap, foam, paint, glitter and some blinking lights. She manages to transport us out of Lawndale's architectural realm in a really cool way. Kids will love it, but it's sophisticated enough to engage everyone.
If you can pull yourself away from Grotto, head up the stairwell to the third floor and be careful not to miss Jasmyne Graybill's "Negotiation" on the way up. I did, so more on that later.
At first I wasn't sure if the third floor Project Space was open, since the lights were off, but the doors were open so I peeked in. A motion detector engaged the lights, and again, the creepy vibe came back. Shawn Smith's installation "Vicious Venue" re-creates a mid-century-era police station office (probably homicide) overtaken by vultures. But in this case, the vultures appear to have materialized from some wacky future in which nature has merged with pixilated light. The life-size vultures, looking like 3-D versions of computerized 2-D images, scavenge the office for food, but instead of rotting flesh, they feast on outdated technology like rotary phones, obsolete typewriters and spools of 8mm film. Made from balsa wood, ink and acrylic paint, the vultures look like they were created by degrading images found online, which were then re-created sculpturally. Amazingly, they still manage to embody that dirty, deathlike aura, even in a pixilated state. One bird watches over the proceedings perched on a mounted deer head, obviously uninterested in what would once, in its devolved vulture state, represent a feast. Smith turns the tables on some of the other environments on display — his represents the digital world devouring history. Smith also raises the stakes in a really interesting way by placing his narrative within the context of outdated methods of homicide investigation. And I was delighted to find a rolled-up copy of Shakespeare's The Tempest in one of the office drawers — perhaps the vultures' next prey will be archaic literature. Now that's vicious.
Heading back down, it's easier to encounter Graybill's Unknown Specimens, polymer clay re-creations of organic matter growing in Petri dishes on a window ledge, but here rendered not in drab moldy tones but in brilliant color. And her work Gestation, made from latex and flock, mimics a fungal growth that has infested one of the stairwell handrails — the synthetic feasting on the synthetic. Full circle.
But perhaps the best (and bittersweet) part of this weird journey, though, is the trip back through Neill's Grotto and to the elevator, pushing the button to the first floor, turning around and watching the curtain close on this otherworldly realm.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.