See it live and in person: Andres Serrano's Piss Christ -- Jesse Helms's favorite photograph -- is on view in Houston. I was always disappointed there wasn't a follow-up Piss Jesse, but I guess it would take a couple hundred college keg parties' worth of urine to submerge that porcine demagogue. Serrano's 1987 image is commentary on the very sort of Jerry Falwell fundamentalism that quickly co-opted the photograph as a right-wing rallying point. It's a lushly murky image: The crucifix has an otherworldly aura -- until you realize what gives it that glow.
New Gallery is presenting "20th Anniversary Celebration: Stefan Stux Gallery" with a selection of the New York gallery's artists, Serrano among them. Packed with diverse work, the exhibition doesn't hang especially well; many pieces seem overpowered or out of context. Think of it more as a trunk show: You pick through the inventory looking for the thing that interests you. And there is much of interest. After all, this show reflects the eclectic tastes of the gallery's founder, Stefan Stux.
In typical Stux fashion, his gallery displayed no nouveau sincerity after September 11. In fact, it opened 2002 with a show by Mark Kostabi, who, if you remember, was a caricature of an '80s artist. Cultivating a media persona that is Donald Trump meets Andy Warhol, he opened Kostabi World, where he paid artists and "idea people" an hourly rate to conceive and create "his" work. But Kostabi's art lies in his over-the-top self-promotion and his art factory concept far more than in his paintings. In Houston, Stux is showing a huge lily rendered in Kostabi's trademark soft-edge grisaille. At the top of one petal is an American flag in full color, the red of the stripe dripping into blood. It's a heavy-handed, mawkish painting with sheer obnoxiousness as its only redeeming quality. But the sentiment seems somehow less objectionable coming from an unabashed marketer than all those tributes from businesses cloaking their revenue-boosting efforts in faux patriotism by donating a minuscule portion of sales to New York firefighters.
"20th Anniversary Celebration: Stefan Stux Gallery"
New Gallery, 2639 Colquitt
Through February 12; 713-520-7053
Stux also caused a minor stir when his gallery showed the work of Japanese photographer Manabu Yamanaka. He created a series of nude portraits of 100-year-old women, their papery flesh hanging from their gaunt bodies like Fortuny pleats. For many, Yamanaka was the only man other than their husbands to see them naked. Centenarianophiles will have to find one of these images tucked way in a back room; photographs from another Yamanaka series are on view. This time the subjects are homeless people in Tokyo. In a country where salary men, unemployed for years, still don a suit and leave the house every day to maintain the illusion of employment for their neighbors, homelessness is a shame in the extreme. As with the 100-year- old women, Yamanaka worked for years to gain the trust of these subjects. Arakan #1 (1985-89) presents a self-possessed man clad in a torn, grimy shirt, his shoulders draped with a grubby blanket. Filth has matted his long hair into unintentional dreadlocks. He tilts his head to the side as he looks knowingly at the viewer. In this large-scale black-and-white image you confront the ultimate outsider. Yamanaka's images are compelling, but one wonders if he has the right to transfer his subjects' trust to the viewing public.
In Margie Geerlink's series of digitally altered photos, "Crafting Humanity," she shows people being constructed from low-tech handiwork -- stitching, knitting, crocheting -- rather than high-tech lab work. A large glossy color print shows an elderly woman in a draping white blouse with an askew Gibson-girl sweep of white hair. Looking down, she sews a pale, shell-pink human ear in the middle of an embroidery hoop. She's calmly working in her living room, crafting new life, or maybe a replacement part.
Xenobia Bailey employs handicraft to create vibrant, obsessive works. Somewhere between an afghan and op-art, Holy Fire, Holy Smoke, Holy Motion, Holy Child (2000) is a long rectangle of multicolored, crocheted geometric forms. The monumental piece looks like the output of a knitting circle on psychedelic drugs.
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Tom Fruin's Flag Hylan Houses (Four Visits) (2001) is a "quilt" constructed from drug bags Fruin finds at housing projects. The tiny Ziploc bags are stitched together with a machine zigzag, creating a patchwork of pink, blue and green, with dollar sign and devil patterns. It's a grungy plastic banner of addiction, commerce and despair -- each tiny envelope an untold story.
The Stux exchange with New Gallery came about through Yigal Ozeri, who is represented by both. His painting The White Dress uses warm, aged tones to create an elaborate hoop skirt. The head of the sitter is rubbed out, to remove her from memory or to allow for a new and improved version. Ozeri has a fascination with restoration and the ghost images of earlier forms that come to light when a painting is X-rayed.
Crammed with swags, swirls, ruffles and curlicues, Amy Yoes's paintings draw on the frippery of fashion. Crisply executed in bright, clear pop colors, the pigment is applied so thinly over the linen that the slub of the fabric is clearly visible. The disembodied decorative elements give the paintings fresh wit.
Jesse Helms is leaving office this year, but Serrano's Piss Christ is still around. Objects have a longer shelf life than people. They also tell us a little bit about those who create them, those who hate them and those who collect them.