The Art of Raising Hell

"It's really funny," says 34-year-old Rick Lowe, hunching over fried catfish at Luddington's in the Third Ward, the neighborhood where he now works and lives. "I never thought I would be one of the Old Guard of Houston." Lowe has caught himself halfway into a tirade about Young People Today, except his complaint is that kids respect their elders too much, are too polite and don't readily assume the radical stance that Lowe did in his twenties. Lowe has mellowed out over the decade. His dreadlocks, which he had before dreadlocks were cool, have wilted from bolt-upright to shoulder length. And his current and largest experiment, Project Row Houses, combines the issues he has dealt with as an artist and activist into something that, he says almost ruefully, "might be almost about to become an institution."
In the winter of '85, Lowe, the son of a sharecropper, moved from Mississippi to Houston, which had a reputation as fertile ground for young artists. He soon hooked up with a posse of merry pranksters who built out a warehouse on Commerce Street, where space could be had for less than ten cents a square foot. Commerce Street Artists Warehouse was carrying on the punk, party, do-it-yourself attitude prevalent at the Lawndale Annex, a giant East End warehouse where the University of Houston stuck its art department in the '80s. There, sculptor James Surls had admonished his students not to wait for museums and galleries to come calling.

When the nightlife at CSAW got to be too much, Lowe and Nestor Topchy, whom Art News had dubbed the "official enfant terrible" of Houston, moved to the West End compound which would eventually become TemplO. Lowe squatted in an old barn; Topchy (who had holed up in a plastic yurt on CSAW's loading dock) took over a metal shack.

Lowe experienced early success: His installation about a 1982 Klan lynching was included in the first Texas Triennial at the Contemporary Arts Museum in '88. But what should have been a high turned out to be a letdown. Lowe, who had once set up his art on the steps of City Hall during a peace rally, watched in dismay as viewers passed by the work, seemingly unaffected. African-Americans, who in Lowe's view would have been more affected by the piece, made up only a tiny fraction of the audience. When the exhibit was over, Lowe found himself less interested in making art than building a relationship with Houston's black community. "It was no wonder they didn't support me," Lowe says. "They didn't know me."

He enrolled in Texas Southern University, volunteered at the SHAPE Community Center, joined the Ida Delaney Justice Committee and the Free Clarence Bradley activists. When a police officer was no-billed for the fatal shooting of Byron Gillum, Lowe built an installation in which the Committee held its press conference, and photos of his giant plywood cop and painted cross backdrop made the front page of both daily papers. Lowe had committed to a path he would pursue for some time: bringing together art and activism.

That summer he helped organize the Union of Independent Artists after the city rejected a sculpture proposal by the Art Guys that had been selected for a juried exhibit along Buffalo Bayou. Though at the time a Houston Press critic wondered in print whether artists could agree on anything long enough to unify, Lowe says the organization ultimately boasted more than 300 members.

He also points to tangible results: More artists were included on the task force that was mapping out the city's art policy; the city lent its stamp of approval to the Buffalo Bayou Art Park; and Carolyn Wenglar, the owner of Warren's Inn downtown, credits UIA's "Not in Our Backyard" outdoor exhibit (complete with a cow-patty-lobbing catapult by Dean Ruck) with helping shut down a medical-waste incinerator near her property.

With the National Endowment for the Arts under fire, UIA's rallies for free speech attracted hundreds of people. Even Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, addressed the crowd, dramatically warning that "the barbarians are at the gate." Artist Jim Pirtle wore an American flag as a diaper, and artist Jackie Harris turned up at one rally in a nude bodysuit.

By the time the Republican convention hit town in 1992, UIA had morphed into GAG, a group whose slogan was "Don't gag the arts." A group of artists with fake press credentials papered the Astrodome with stickers of Bush's face captioned "I'm rich and you're not." UIA's activities put Lowe at the center of a raging debate over agitprop art that culminated in a 1992 cover story in the Houston Chronicle's Zest section, "Making Points or Making Art?" The question then, Lowe points out, was how artists deal with content and context. "The question now," he says of political work, "is whether it is art."  

Lowe had succeeded in finding some common ground for artists and progressives, but he was discouraged by artists' unwillingness to tackle a broad range of issues. Environmental activism (UIA members took turns wearing a tree costume outside Maxxam's Houston office) was one thing, but war protests and civil rights were too much for some UIA members, he says. "[People] don't understand the interrelatedness between attacks on the art world ... and attacks on minorities, women -- acts of aggression."

About that time, African-American political guru Arthur Shaw told Lowe something that rang true for him: "Houston does not need a black James Surls." In other words, Lowe was wasting his talent as a leader and organizer. Backing away from the predominantly white art world, Lowe renewed his focus on the low-income African-American community.

In conjunction with a retrospective of black painter Jacob Lawrence, he and Joe Havel curated "Fresh Voices/New Visions," a show of "emerging" black artists, for the Museum of Fine Arts. Several artists in that show -- notably Annette Lawrence, David McGee and Michael Ray Charles -- have since met with substantial success. The exhibit was more conventional than might have been expected, given Lowe's disillusionment with museums.

Nevertheless, Lowe earned the ire of MFAH staffers after he gave Public News a particularly frank interview about trends in arts grants that had led to the AT&T-funded show. "They want to get out there and bring in as many black people in the next two months as possible," he told the paper. "Who cares if they see anything the rest of the year, you know."

"By that time," Lowe says now, "I'm realizing that there are different ways politics can be approached.... The revolution was not going to happen in my lifetime."

But Lowe still wanted to counteract what Lowe referred to in the Public News interview as "outgrab," efforts to bring blacks to the museum district instead of taking art to black neighborhoods. In discussions with the Magnificent Seven, an informal group of black male artists that included Lowe, the idea for Project Row Houses was born.

Many artists have taken full advantage of Houston's depressed real estate market, but none besides Lowe have conceived of art as a means to redevelop neighborhoods. The two blocks of deserted, trash-filled Third Ward row houses he found -- and eventually purchased with a $140,000 donation -- now house a shop for locally made crafts, homes for young mothers, rotating art installations and even, at one time, a charter school.

Not that it was easy to gain the trust of the neighborhood he and then-executive director Deborah Grotfeldt were trying to help: In the early days the project was plagued by vandals and the distrust of its neighbors, who thought a wealthy developer had purchased the property. But ultimately it attracted the attention of national art mags and The New York Times, and is considered a model project by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lowe is still frustrated by Young People Today, noting that when people try to donate properties to Project Row Houses, he's at a loss to find young artists willing to fix them up and use them the way he and his friends did at Commerce Street. "And not only that," he says, "no one called us and offered us Commerce Street. We searched it out."

Lowe's right when he says that young artists who take things into their own hands pump vital new blood into the art world. But he's wrong when he says no one takes initiative. Beginning with Arena Productions in 1992, which mounted shows on the refrigerators at Sears and in the back of a U-Haul truck that traveled around the city, there has been a string of ephemeral, creative curating -- from Art of the Century to Revolution Summer to the recent ShantyFest, which took place in a Montrose bungalow about to be demolished. And a new group of University of Houston grads has started to clear out warehouses for brief exhibits of their own. But those projects don't, perhaps, take on the political, real-world territory through which Lowe is trying to charter a course for art.

For him, the old question -- making points or making art -- is still the same, and Project Row Houses is essentially an experiment to find out how artists can engage a community. Lowe has yet to find an answer that satisfies him. "I question it myself, all the time," he says. "What does what I'm doing have to do with art? Sometimes I think it's right in the heart of where art should be going. And sometimes I'm like, well, fuck, maybe it's not art, and who cares?"  

E-mail Shaila Dewan at

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