"I assume you don't want me in the picture," a man said to me as I stood extra still, in position to release my camera's shutter to photograph one of the pieces at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair. He had clearly stopped himself in his tracks so as not to enter my camera's frame. I snapped the photo, put my camera down and greeted the man with my eyes. "I never said I didn't want you in the picture," I answered. Eyebrow raised, the older gentleman stared at me for a moment, then broke out suddenly into an exaggerated theatrical pose. "Okay, well take a photo of me now," he said -- his position intact. "It could be considered contemporary art, you never know," he added, knowingly. He resumed normal position, we shared a laugh and the stranger walked off.
Two seconds later, I asked myself why I had laughed. The man's little impromptu act and accompanying comment had actually successfully highlighted the common conception that, in contemporary art, anything goes. It is precisely this defining factor -- the "anything can be art" idea -- that is simultaneously contemporary art's greatest quality and biggest downfall.
It's this odd characteristic that had me expecting jars full of toenail clippings, murals made of colorful, already chewed gum, and portraits made of eraser dust as I entered the 2012 Texas Contemporary Art Fair, held at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Fortunately, I encountered no such works. Instead, I found an extremely vast collection of modern, pleasant-to-look-at, thought-provoking and emotion-instigating pieces, 99 percent of which I thoroughly enjoyed, all of which made it 100 percent more difficult to choose the crème de la crème.
Here's what I found to be the 15 best pieces of the fair, after hours upon hours of delightful, engaging browsing:
15. Untitled by Peter Opheim A quick Google search of this artist reveals that he has many more quirky and fun animal paintings, all of which seemingly depict animals crafted from modeling clay. Because life is too short to take ourselves too seriously.
14. Booth: Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Performing Arts at University of Houston While this "exhibit" was not technically one of the pieces on display at the fair, it could and should have been included. A man sat in a chair, surrounded by green foliage -- most likely an homage to The Woodlands, the home of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion -- and played off-tune notes, some long, some short. All the while, he seemed to be quite enjoying himself. The message most likely being pushed out, through the scene, as a whole? "Check out the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Performing Arts Center at University of Houston." Bravo, marketing whiz. Way to get the point across via art.
13. "Frowhawk Two Feathers" I mean really, does this lady look like she would be the kind to sport some tats? Negative. Just one of the things that make this piece interesting.
12. "Welle" by John O'Reilly There he was. Man's best friend, resting peacefully. I can't even tell you how many people ducked down, as if they wanted to pet him or whistle at him to get his attention and get on a walk. This artwork, made of resin and graphite powder, was appealing because of its realistic qualities and the instant emotional connection it formed within nanoseconds with each passer-by.
11. "The Chicken I Actually Am" by Zhivago Duncan This unique painting drew myself and others in and begged for our attention with its varied, intricate elements.
10. "The Great American Let Down" by Travis Somerville Because some pieces are just more special when you know the meaning behind them: According to a press release for this piece, this "wooden house, 'sinking' into the floor as if in water," was inspired by the artist's visit to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. "Hand-painted vintage photographs are scattered about the roof of the house, representing the stranded people of New Orleans. [It's] a potent statement about America and the mishandling of a natural catastrophe that left those in most need without help, and ultimately, homeless, in the richest nation in the world."
9. Soo Kim's large-scale photos with cutouts Ironically, Soo Kim's large scale photos of bustling cities have a 3-D quality to them, although all of the buildings have been cut out. You would think that the cutting would subtract a dimension from the photo, yet it does just the opposite.
8. Mark Khaisman's packaging tape art Let me reiterate the fact that this is packaging tape. On clear polyester film. Let's raise our glasses to this man, as he clearly has talent, vision and creativity.
7. Lauren Dicioccio's stitching Colorful stitching juxtaposed atop a newspaper's article and its accompanying photo. Oh, the patience. Oh, the beauty.
6. Jill Foley's contemporary cave This cardboard "cave" through which fair attendees could walk was made out of seemingly wet cardboard, filled with eccentric-looking objects and dolls. Does it get more contemporary art than that?
5. "Sleeping" by Michael Bise This artist succeeds at capturing the hospital scene that no one ever wants to see in real life. Not that it's the kind of piece to put a smile on your face, but it certainly is the kind that tugs at your heartstrings. And when art can tug at your heart, you can rest assured that it's a fine piece of art.
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4. "Art & Design" by Michael Craig-Martin This one, on the other hand, is one to make art and furniture design aficionados smile. With its references to artists Magritte and Warhol, and tulip chair designer Eero Saarinen, among many others, the bright display shows true enthusiasm and support for art and design.
3. Baker Overstreet's colorful, abstract paintings Simply gorgeous.
2. Contemporary Deer Meta contemporary. Über-fun.
1. Travis Somerville's drinking fountain installation The same guy who tackled social issues in America through his "Great American Let Down" piece tackles racial issues in the United States through a show-stopping installation that features drinking fountains designated for people of different ethnicities. As if the installation were not already attention-grabbing enough, the inside of each fountain is painted with stereotypical images of the group for whom the fountain is designated. No, the piece is not meant to separate people. On the contrary, it's meant to bring people together. A half-hour observation of the piece and the people who interacted with and around it told only one story: The artist did a damn good job, on levels way beyond aesthetics.