The Good, the Bad and the Humidity
Humidity. It's one of the defining aspects of life in Houston. It's always there to greet you on your return to the Bayou City. Walk out of baggage claim and leave the airport's air-conditioned biosphere -- it feels like a flight attendant wielding giant tongs has draped an extra-large hot moist towel over you. I like to think of it as Houston giving a big warm "Welcome home!" hug, but others may disagree.
Humidity is just one of the themes of "Layered Evidence: Uncovering Houston," an exhibition at Lawndale Art Center that explores our multifaceted and undeniably odd city. Organized by Caroline Goeser, Susana Monteverde and Sara Wilson McKay, the exhibition grew out of an open call for artists making work about Houston. The trio made studio visits and eventually selected 11 artists. Because much of the work was made specifically for the show, no one really knew what exactly was showing up until days before the exhibition opened. Beyond climate, work in the show addresses the personal histories of Houston's inhabitants as well as the city's political history. The show is somewhat uneven, but there are enough strong pieces and ideas to make it worthwhile.
Back to humidity -- Kelly Pike had the audacity to create a humidity chamber in Houston. Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle. Pike has built a giant plastic cube between the four pillars of Lawndale's main gallery and placed humidifiers inside on clear Plexiglas pedestals. To enter It's Not the Heat (2003) (whose materials are listed as "plastic and steam"), you leave your shoes outside on a strip of carpet. You walk through a tent-flap-like door -- just to make sure no moisture escapes. Inside, four humidifiers work nonstop in an artificial re-creation of our swampy and damp city.
At the opening, people stood in the plastic box chatting while their bare feet stuck to the plastic floor. Kids danced and slid on the plastic floor -- a giant moist Slip 'n Slide. Several days after the show's opening it smelled like a locker room. Who knows how that environment will develop. It may turn into process art, a giant petri dish growing new, better, stronger, faster molds. I can't wait to see what happens
In addition to its climatic infamy, Houston has always been known as a "business über alles" kind of town, ever since it was founded by the Allen brothers in a swampland real estate scam. And it was business sense rather than a sense of justice that fueled the 1960 decision of local businesses to integrate their lunch counters. This event is the subject of Bill Thomas's work blackout (2003). Protests by African-American Houstonians, many of them Texas Southern University students, threatened the pocketbooks of the city's capitalist luminaries -- so stores such as Foley's, Weingarten's and Walgreens sat down for a nice businesslike solution.
They would desegregate their lunch counters but they just wouldn't tell anybody until after everything was already said and done. They figured that way they could avoid white backlash as they ended black protests. The city's newspapers were complicit. While news of the desegregation ran in The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston papers didn't mention a word of it until a full week later.
Thomas is a native Houstonian, and his mother managed the "whites only" basement luncheonette and the "colored only" Gulf Room of the Foley's lunch counter. He also has his own history with Foley's. Thomas's FotoFest 2000 installation about race relations in the window of the downtown store was censored by Foley's CEO. But before that happened he was given access to Foley's archives. We see the results in the Lawndale installation.
Black-and-white photographs are blown up large and hung on opposite walls. They present two vintage views of the segregated Foley's cafeterias. One image shows tables crowded with white people. The other shows black patrons clustered at tables at a far wall. We see the class and employment constraints of the time. The white customers are in dresses, hats and business suits. With the exception of one man in a suit, the black diners are all in porter and waitress uniforms.
A row of bar stools on a linoleum- covered platform stretches between the two photos like a bridge between the two groups. Thomas has littered the floor with giant copies of The Houston Post's front page, for the seven consecutive days the story wasn't reported. The placement works okay, but you wonder if there isn't another solution; maybe the pages need to be a little crumpled. Also on the floor is an enlarged memo detailing the lifting of restrictions with "DO NOT RELEASE BEFORE 12:30 AM, THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 1960" typed boldly across the top. Copies of out-of-town papers that reported the event a full week earlier hang in the windows of Lawndale. Thomas presents us with a little-known part of Houston's history.
The front pages of the newspapers effectively conjure up a sense of the times. So do the contemporaneous articles about the integration in which waiters and black patrons are described as being nervous -- a time when sitting at a lunch counter is a defiant political act.
Other works in the show hone in on the stories of individuals. Carrie Markello presents the residents of her Montrose neighborhood in Inside the Loop: Stories from a Houston Neighborhood (Barry and Laura, Bill and Jesse, Eric and Carol, Mark and Laura, Muriel, Vernon and Kay) (2003). Markello has set a dining table for six. Viewers sit in chairs and listen to headphones at each place setting. (Locating the play button on the CD player mounted under the table takes a bit of trial and error.) Each place setting represents the story of a different neighbor, all narrated by Markello.
There is Muriel, an obsessive- compulsive hermit who refused to throw anything away. She lived on layers of newspaper and mail. She said it was because she heard about a murder linked to the murderer finding an address in the trash. Another couple on the street moved into Montrose long before the area's recent "gentrification" of synthetic stucco town homes. Then it had the reputation of being the exclusive domain of hippies and homosexuals. The couple raised their sons in Montrose, on the wrong side of the tracks for Little League. The kids were teased about their neighborhood. The parents wondered if they should have moved south of 59, but for them, the highway marked a kind of sociopolitical dividing line that they refused to cross.
At the opening, people sat together at the dining table like a family, albeit a family wearing headphones. There are some glitches in the work: The paintings under the clear glass plates are unnecessary, and some of the narratives are decidedly more interesting than others. But Markello has presented an intriguing oral history of her tiny section of Marshall Street and its evolution. It also serves as a reminder of the millions of other untold stories Houston has to offer.
Anonymous, found ephemera are the subject of Linda Hayward's work Bookmarks: Second to None Resale Shop, Westheimer Road, Houston (2003). In her statement in the exhibition catalog, Hayward says, "I love to read, and spend (too much) time browsing the dusty bookshelves of Houston' thrift stores in search of good deals." In those books she has found an odd assortment of bookmarks. She entombs the objects in clear resin books and displays them in groups of three along the wall.
There is a postcard from Casablanca, a five-by-seven black-and-white photo of a plump, melancholy young woman clad in '70s-era crocheted vest and checked polyester pants. You wonder: Who is she? How did her picture end up in a used bookstore? Was it missed? In a collection of bookmarks from the Methodist Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop, a neatly written note signed with a smiley face discusses a drug trade, and a clipped-out Heloise column describes how to keep sweaters from stretching after you wash them. (FYI: Thread a broom handle through the arms.)
Photographers Soody Sharifi and Michael Kahlil Taylor tell Houston stories through photographs. Sharifi's color photographs record young Islamic women in American society. In Bubble Gum (2003), girls lounge in a bedroom, their heads covered with scarves. In a closet door mirror we see a young girl blowing a big pink bubble. Two other girls lounge on the bed; one admires herself in a hand mirror, another is about to have her nails painted bright red. Above the bed is an exotic, Persian-looking image of two elaborately garbed figures. Underneath it is a hokey Mary Engelbreit-style poster that declares, "Home Is Where the Heart Is." Cultures blend in the crucible of a teenage girl's bedroom.
Taylor uses digital photography to blend existing images. He manages to do it with a fair amount of restraint and selectivity in his Grand Memories Series (2003). (Houston seems to be overrun with kitchen-sink digital photographs that toss everything in, just because they can.) Taylor's could be pared down slightly more, but he has some choice juxtapositions, as when the images of a woman as an adult and as a toddler overlap, sharing an eye. Throughout the series of four photographs, the panes of a window remain a constant. We have the sense of generations looking forward and backward in time. We don't know who the people are, but Taylor combines them in a way that makes us want to know.
A small catalog accompanies the show, with essays by the artists. One of them, Marlo Saucedo, even presents a history of air-conditioning.
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