"The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art"

America is a weird place, all the more so because most Americans think our country is completely normal. (All those other countries are the weird ones.) Toby Kamps knows we're strange. Senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, he organized the show "The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art." The exhibition brings together art that takes apart our country's self-constructed mythologies and Disney-fied versions of history. The works in the show sniff out the weirdness we've tried to culturally deodorize.

If questioned, many of us would agree that the idyllic Thanksgiving stories we learned about the pilgrims and Indians were a crock of shit. But who has really rejected that grade-school version of events? Yes, we know the arrival of settlers led to the genocide of America's native peoples, but that cognitive dissonance remains. It's hard to be revisionist with those childhood memories of construction paper pilgrim hats, feathered headdresses and cafeteria turkey slices. Sam Durant illustrates this conflict with his installation Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006).

Durant has installed displays and worn-looking wax figures he purchased from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum in Massachusetts on a divided, slowly rotating circular platform. One side illustrates the famed story of how Native Americans taught the settlers to grow corn by fertilizing it with herring — a tip that gave the pilgrims a bountiful fall harvest. But the tableau on the other side depicts Captain Miles Standish killing the Pequot man Pecksuot. According to a 1624 account from the colony, Pecksuot, who was quite a bit taller than the diminutive Standish, challenged the settler's strength and courage, prompting Standish to freak out and stab him. Standish then led a raiding party to kill the Pequots. When the party returned, their mission a success, a day of Thanksgiving was declared.

To accurately re-create the first Thanksgiving, my third grade class should have shot and clubbed to death the kids sporting construction paper feathers. Durant pulls off a pointed, successful critique by appropriating the hokey techniques used to promote the popular version of our country's origins.

And speaking of hokey, Cynthia Norton's work really resonated with me. But then, I grew up in a dry county in Arkansas where moonshine was delivered inside dog food sacks and square dancing was an integral part of our PE program. The artist, from Kentucky, land of Jack Daniel's, presents Fountain (Emotion) (2002), a supposedly working distillery (the hot plate was unplugged when I visited). Norton skipped the traditional lead-­soldered radiator component but convincingly assembled her still from other found objects. Copper tubing leads from a pressure cooker on a hot plate and coils down into a five-gallon plastic bucket; it all rests on an old wooden magazine stand. Norton has taken the redneck quest for booze and transformed it into an assemblage art object.

Continuing the folksiness in Dancing Squared (2004), Norton uses hidden motors and what looks like an old umbrella clothesline to turn some bouffant square dance dresses into hillbilly whirling dervishes. The sculpture starts up unexpectedly, and the red-and-white dresses with their puffy sleeves and crinolined skirts turn into an ecstatic blur of color. Unoccupied by thick-legged elderly women with tightly permed hair, the empty dresses suddenly become giddy, fanciful objects.

Kara Walker's work is not just about finding the weird in America's history; she's unearthing the horrifying. Walker is known for her appropriation of the genteel 19th-century pastime of silhouette making. But she doesn't make sentimental portraits of loved ones — her silhouettes address America's decidedly ungenteel history of slavery, using caricatured figures, both white and black. There's a warning label at the door to the room where her video 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-­America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005) is screening. Inside, Walker creates a purposefully grainy, vintage-feeling film in which she uses her silhouettes like shadow puppets to act out sordid, metaphorical scenes. In one, a burly slave and a scrawny "master" engage in sodomy, and the master impregnates the slave with a cotton boll. The slave character later gives birth to a plant that grows up to be a giant cotton tree, from which Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox lynch black figures while Little Timmy, a white boy, scampers and giggles underneath. Except for an Uncle Remus voiceover in one section, most of the dialogue is conveyed through silent film-style text panels.

Walker's use of music — she employs snippets of '30s and '40s recordings — is especially effective. Adding to the macabre irony, the lynching scene is accompanied by a joyous choral version of "Zippity Do Dah," probably from the opening or ending credits of Disney's notorious Song of the South. Walker has traditionally placed or projected her silhouettes on gallery walls. She has gotten a lot of flak from other African-American artists for her caricatures of black people — big-lip, big-butt images that differ little from vintage racist imagery. With static, soundless images, Walker's point of view is less clear and the work less effective. But by animating her images in video and adding text, narration and a soundtrack, Walker fleshes out the dark satire of her work, engulfing viewers in her disturbing visions.

The weirdness of "Old Weird" goes on and on, from Greta Pratt's portraits of Lincoln impersonators, to Dario Robleto's fabricated album covers for Godspell and the like, to David Rathman's Western outtake drawings. Kamps has curated a fascinating exhibition that mines a rich and provocative vein of influence in contemporary American art — and culture. Leaving the CAMH, you look with fresh eyes at the weirdness all around you.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer