Trash Men

Although Moody Gallery is filled with recent works by veteran Texas artists David McManaway and Jim Love, the exhibition will most likely send you time-tripping back to the '60s and the earliest flurries of contemporary art in the state.

There was a brief period when Jermayne MacAgy and her ex-husband Douglas overlapped as directors of new Texas museums -- she at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum and he at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art. The two are generally credited with introducing contemporary art to the Texas public, and their operations were a focus for what is now the older generation of Texas artists -- McManaway, Love, Roy Fridge and Roger Winter, among others -- who worked on and sometimes were included in various MacAgy exhibitions. The MacAgys sparked a critical dialogue among Texas artists about ideas and issues important to contemporary art. They introduced artists to one another, acting as catalysts to develop a community of shared interests and aspirations.

McManaway, in Dallas, and Love, in Houston, were among the first Texas artists to stay in the state and ply their trade here. They looked to each other for support and they exchanged ideas and opinions. And while their art didnÕt overtly express it, they felt a relationship, a kinship, to the state in which it was accomplished.

As in other regions throughout the country where serious art-making was taking hold, in the Texas of the 1960s contemporary art had its beginnings in found-object assemblage and Surrealist-inspired junk sculpture. The creative forces in Dallas were brought to public attention by Douglas MacAgy's 1971 culminating exhibition "one i at a time," which explored a common sensibility -- a sensibility that MacAgy believed could have been cultivated nowhere else but Texas. By the time the Museum of Modern Art's landmark "Assemblage" exhibition came to Dallas in the early '60s, some Texas artists were already working with similar ideas. They were intrigued by Pop Art (Dallas was the first city to give that style a large-scale museum show), influenced by Magritte -- whose first American museum exhibition was in Dallas -- and captivated by Claes Oldenburg, who set up his famous Store at the DMCA and stayed for three weeks to improvise and stage Injun, the first Happening anywhere on museum commission.

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In Houston, Jerry MacAgy hired Love as museum technician at the CAM, a job that allowed Love to view great works of art first-hand in such shows as "The Sphere of Mondrian" and "Totems Not Taboo: An Exhibition of Primitive Art." But during those years -- the 1960s -- the CAM was generally considered less a museum and more an "artists' place": a location to meet, talk and work with friends in the presence of art. In his catalog essay for "one i at a time," Douglas MacAgy observed that the artists talked more about pranks and parties than they did about art.

Love and McManaway, according to Douglas MacAgy, got along like cousins. Both showed a fairly sanguine humor and an eye for the discarded. During this formative period, each artist learned to trust his intuition. Putting the right thing next to some piece of junk gave distinction and significance to both the whole and its components. Douglas MacAgy wrote: "An oil canister, disposable after use, is supposedly junkyard bound. Instead, on the street, it is crushed by a passing truck. By chance, McManaway finds its remains worth picking up. One day, when fiddling with a pale wax mold that he has teased into looking like the face of a bartender with a walrus mustache, he sees the squashed can and its legend "Pioneer." The two go well together and also make a joke. The joke's on me: it's my portrait."

At the same time, Love developed an "animal style" out of pipe -- humorously bewildered characters who are not quite sure about the world, creatures that emerge from plumbing joints and fixtures with an element of surprise. "Ridiculous pathos in the commonplace is a frequent quality in Love's way of looking at things," explained Douglas MacAgy. "The way is affectionate, shy, a little sad and strangely lonely."

Because of the ties between the components and the society that has produced them, what you see in found-object art is inevitably tied to what you know, what you think and what you remember. Underlying McManaway's antique trinkets or Love's steel and iron industrial parts is an emphasis on eccentric beauty and odd detritus.

But ever since those heady MacAgy days, Love's and McManaway's works have carried a sense of polarity: poetic reductions vie with pithy titles and social outrage; an aesthetic sensitivity to organic form and texture contrasts with urban debris and pop kitsch. McManaway and Love are scavengers of life. By picking up objects that have been loved, used and abused rather than kept pristine, the artists continue to develop their eclectic lexicons of forms at once jaunty, enigmatic, erotic and sinister.

Examining the nearly 50 pieces by McManaway and Love currently on view at Moody Gallery, one sees many of the same intuitive processes, images and thematic concerns that MacAgy described years ago. There's a cornucopia of cross-references -- the homages and portraits, the shared imagery of flowers, umbrellas and snakes. The pairing establishes a visual and moral paradox. The beauty of time-worn materials contrasts with queasy textures, gothic imagery and the disintegration of form. Moreover, an interpretive unease is created by the artists' exposure of hypocrisy on one hand and, on the other, by their humorous delight in eroticism and in the seamy side of contemporary American culture. At the core is the notion of assemblage as an art of reference -- an inherently theatrical one at that -- and as an art of psychological association that reminds us, uncomfortably, of our own foibles and anxieties, decay and mortality.

As the Moody exhibition capably shows, Love and McManaway are at their best when specific thematic interests are successfully blended with their keen and dexterous use of material. The humor that is central to their work is most effective when finely balanced between pessimism and wit. In McManaway's case, the relationship involves a kind of aesthetic double take in which the amusing preciousness of funky antique baubles defers to wily yet puzzlingly elusive personal messages. Although most of the individual items -- the small curio-like tableaux such as Alligator Lady, Alligator/ Alligator, Portrait/Solo and Mother Eve -- maintain a terse and legible tone, they also reveal the artist's uncanny ability to recognize the potential of bric-a-brac to evoke character. These small amulets encased in cotton wadding suggest quasi-pagan fetishes.

More ambitious is the large Jomo board, in which fastidiously selected objects are presented like specimens arranged in an obliquely magical narrative. McManaway has been slowly producing jomos for more than three decades; the name comes from a film he saw as a boy in which a black man sells magic charms called jomos. Organized into niches as if they were altarpieces, McManaway's jomos contain severed doll-heads and doll-arms, skulls, bones, old sticks, baby shoes, pull toys, snakes, wooden blocks, old puppets and stuffed bears with "kewpie doll" feathers. At the center of this particular jomo is a wooden head with slits for eyes and mouth. A curving wooden vine snakes its way through the various niches, enters above the ear and protrudes like a rattle out of the forehead.

Like much of McManaway's work, most of Jim Love's small welded steel and iron "put togethers" present themes that have appeared in the artist's oeuvre since at least the MacAgy days. There are metal cogs rising like flowers out of pots, periscopes formed by fitting an "elbow" to a straight joint of pipe, and elegant little handles attached to some pieces in case of a quick and unexpected departure. The best sculptures here are never didactic, but invite us to laugh along with Love in his treatment of life's frightening jungle. People Will Say We're in Love consists of a house with nails driven through it like stakes and a handle attached to the roof, ready to be pushed down like the handle on a dynamite detonator. Volunteer is a spindly, brittle figure with a rusty rebar for a torso, its upstretched "arm" a crimped and ravaged piece of pipe. Comealong, a coil with a bulbous tip that curves up from a cylindrical bar, reminds us that eroticism and

alpable sexuality are also part of the comic spirit.
Sometimes the obsessive intensity that characterizes Love's and McManaway's works approaches cleverness. Even though the artists have spent their careers building distinct vocabularies of forms and images, the decade that served as their foundation was totally different from the present time of daily dangers, grotesqueries and horrors. Accordingly, the two artists' adherence to such timeless issues as preservation and preciousness, concealment and defense, often slips into a cute, idiosyncratic rehash of earlier, more compelling statements.

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