In response to the demise of artist fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997, Artadia was founded in San Francisco by investment banker and art collector Christopher E. Vroom to take up the slack and provide artists with unrestricted awards and support. In 2003, Artadia added Houston to its roster of program cities, which now includes Chicago, Boston and Atlanta. An artist at any stage in his or her career may apply for awards ranging from $3,000 to $15,000, and if awarded, use the money in any way he or she sees fit.
DiverseWorks is presenting the most recent round of Houston award winners, and it's a mixed bag — only one big misstep. Ultimately, the exhibition lives up to its dollar sign-augmented title, "$timulus," and makes the case for unfettered support of artists. Restrictive grants only burden awardees with the task of finding ways to get around the restrictions while issues like studio rent, medical bills, food, etc., loom large. If more foundations adopted Artadia's mission, it might inspire more artists to apply for assistance and foster competition that raises the level of excellence.
Upon entering the exhibit, one encounters Katrina Moorhead's Sudden and Exaggerated Movement in a Wilderness, an intersection of two ladder-like structures covered in black glitter — except where it isn't covered. The piece is confusing, and not in a good way. The bulk of the sculpture radiates, like a black hole, a fuzzy antimatter presence. But Moorhead has left some of the naked wood exposed, and this choice only makes the piece look unfinished. After all, it does nothing to engage the work's title. Moorhead's work is usually quite satisfying, despite her pretentious artist statement, which I'll provide: "[Moorhead] isolates familiar relationships between nature and artifice by acts of restoration or deconstruction and explores how 'vulnerable aspects of experience' complicate perception of authenticity."
Okay, that made no sense. Not one iota of specificity within all that vagueness. I don't mean to imply that Moorhead's work lacks specificity, but this piece is a bust. And the lack of personal investment in something even so seemingly unimportant as an artist statement is troubling. The ability to take it personally marks the difference between making art and making objects.
Katy Heinlein's work has matured since a 2008 show at CTRL Gallery. She creates architectural forms using fabric and unseen structures that achieve deceptive interplays of tension and gravity. Where previous works had a heftiness that worked against the illusory qualities Heinlein strives to impart, her two pieces here are more streamlined, elegant and effective. One is a standing half circle draped in tan and burgundy fabric tethered to the wall with seafoam-green straps. Two taut straps combined with two slack ones attached to the semicircle create a precarious illusion of movement and fluidity. The other work, Ballad, works in an opposite fashion as a buttress draped in see-through fabric, achieving both rising and falling motion.
Two large-scale renditions of fictitious comic-book covers by Dawolu Jabari Anderson score for their satiric portrayals of Black Americana icons. Made this year, Em-Jay bears particular significance since the shocking death of Michael Jackson. It depicts the Gloved One, bathed in a spotlight, squaring off against a gang of "Zombie Cops from the '60s." Dressed in his "Beat It" video costume and armed with a sparkly, magical crystal he holds in his sequined glove, the "Master of Moonwalk" beckons his Motown-era enemies. A corner ad for a Pac-Man video game watch is a nice touch, as well as the cover's subtitle, "The Empire Strikes Blacks." Another cover depicts a super-heroic version of the stereotypical "Mammy" character (here, "Mam-E") battling a giant monster made of grits — "The Grits of Wrath." Anderson, instead of seeking to eradicate black stereotypes, invents a new context inside which they become more complex and layered.
Interdisciplinary artist Lynne McCabe contributes a tense video that tests both performer and viewer. For 14 hrs., McCabe sets up a narrow beam, like a tightrope, between two low platforms and attempts to walk back and forth across it while she recites a speech. But every time she falls, she must try again from the beginning. It's a compelling exercise of commitment and duration. McCabe's frequent exhales fill the gallery with a moody exasperation.
El Franco Lee II rounds out the exhibition's best work with a series of stunning paintings and drawings that blur reality and fiction. Jack Tripper is reminiscent of Daniel Clowes's comic-book graphics. It's a split-image of two male characters lost in a stereotypical urban fantasy. Both sport halos, bling, designer clothes and are accompanied by two women. The settings are a mall and a club. While the halos reference religious icons, the men's expressions suggest zombified ennui. Another painting, Used Goods, depicts Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who suffered a stroke while warming up before a game on July 30, 1980. After a failed attempt to resurrect his career, Richard wound up homeless in 1994. In the painting, Richard lies on a cardboard mat under a bridge, gray-bearded, still wearing his Astros uniform, while a Channel 13 news crew attempts an interview. There's an endearing humor in Lee's casting Richard as a forgotten hero in uniform. Nearby is another work, The Legendary J.R. Richard, in which Richard hurls a pitch from the mound, striking the opponent's bat and shattering it into pieces. These paintings are a continuation of Lee's mythic re-creations of famous incidents in Houston sports history, like Rudy T. Vs. Kermit Washington, which appeared in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's "Nexus Texas" exhibit in 2007.
"$timulus" is much less hit-or-miss than many such shows meant to spotlight up-and-coming or emerging artists, perhaps because of Artadia's nonrestrictive nature. It's good work by established artists — a stimulus package that actually delivers.
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