Applying a Heavy Wash

After nonstop flood coverage featuring drenched reporters in waders (God help us if we ever see Wayne Dolcefino in anything that clingy again), local stations got around to the Theater District's woes --water-damaged costumes, lost scores, canceled performances, a 17th-century double bass turned into a flotation device. Meanwhile, the visual arts were afforded all the media coverage of a jaywalker. Gallery owner Geri Hooks and her ruined Joan Miró print didn't make the evening news, but Al and his nine dogs on a rooftop did. Al seemed like a nice guy, but in his predicament, he looked like the punch line to a redneck joke. In the hierarchy of newsworthiness, Houston as a visual arts center ranked way behind Houston as a place of tin sheds and multiple canines.

It was enough to make the locals turn to drink. Which many did. On the Saturday after The Flood, a Montrose supermarket's beer coolers had been picked clean, save for some 12-packs of Old Milwaukee, which apparently not even a natural disaster can inspire people to consume. The chip supply was decimated as well. Residents appeared to be bracing for more rain by holing up in their houses and getting good and drunk. Several weeks later, the chips and beer have been replenished, but now the shelves are cleared of mosquito repellent.

On Colquitt, there is something of an art shortage. Having taken on water between four and ten inches, its galleries are still doggedly working toward recovery. Owners are picking through a lot of wet art, deciding what can be saved and what can't. Most, save Barbara Davis, have reopened while crews make the necessary repairs, and they should be ready for a new round of openings on July 14. The Davis gallery, however, was particularly hard hit; it had recently installed a hip new wood floor of MDF (medium density fiberboard) tiles, which ended up floating on floodwaters. The combination of MDF and water results in something akin to Zwieback in milk. Read: a soggy mass.

The flood was psychologically trying for the gallery owners. After all, having your place of business ravaged is one thing, but losing irreplaceable artwork is another. Geri Hooks of Hooks-Epstein, who specializes in works on paper, felt like she had lost the children of her artists. "I had sympathy for people hurt by the flood, but when I walked in here and saw the damage, I had empathy for them." Hooks reportedly lost $250,000 in art. The owners and staff are painstakingly picking through flat files of wet works on paper and dealing with damp canvases stored in vertical racks.

At New Gallery, Thom Andriola thought that once the sodden carpet was removed, the concrete looked kind of cool. As for the works in his gallery, Arielle Masson's new paintings were unharmed, but Claire Ankenman's floor-based light-box installation was totaled. Andriola estimates he lost about $55,000 in work.

John Cleary Gallery lost an estimated $70,000 in photographs, including $15,000 worth of portraits by Hollywood photographer George Hurrell. Classic images of Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were transformed into curled pieces of paper. A $10,000 Bill Brandt print had been propped against a wall as the floodwaters entered the gallery, which was bad news not only to Cleary but also to the person who had just bought it.

Goldesberry Gallery received ten inches of water but fared better than most, because much of its inventory is ceramic or metal, stored on shelves. The gallery's files suffered the most damage. Oliver Goldesberry observed that cleaning out files is never fun, but cleaning out wet files is even worse, sorting through scraps of soggy paper to see what to pitch and what to dry.

If you're looking for bargains on damp art, you're out of luck. While few if any galleries had flood insurance, their art insurance policies cover the lost works. Damaged works will become the property of insurers, who will end up with a nice, if something less than pristine, collection of art.

Believe it or not, there is an upside to all this -- at least to some artists. Sometimes far less sentimental about their work than galleries or collectors, artists can view an insurance check as tantamount to a sale. As one chronically cynical artist remarked, "Once it's out of the studio, who gives a damn?" Asked whether he would take a shot at repairing his damaged work, he said, "I'm taking the money. I'm no fool."

Meanwhile, at the Contemporary Arts Museum, the downstairs gallery was flooded, but Dario Robleto's installation escaped serious damage. Only the objects' pedestals were affected. The downstairs gift shop, however, was succinctly characterized as "toast" with a "lot of little merchandise floating around." Upstairs, Uta Barth's fragile mounted photographs were unhurt (see "Blurring the Lines," June 14), but ridiculously high levels of humidity forced the staff to remove the work and ship it back early. The CAM will reopen on Saturday, July 14, with the "Yes Yoko Ono" exhibition.

To ensure national media coverage for the event, perhaps the CAM should place Yoko and nine hounds on its roof.

Lynne McCabe makes art out of things that go wrong. Part of "under lying truths," a group show at the Art League of Houston, McCabe's work is a video project that isn't a video. Script for a Small Party with Friends (2001) consists of a transcript of McCabe's video, a low-light photograph of the party setting, and a wall text explaining the project and how it went tragically awry.

McCabe is interested in ideas of truth and reality in the media and, increasingly, in personal interaction. While still living in Britain, she decided to host a dinner party and document it. One camera would record the conversation at the table, and another would record the body language underneath the table. McCabe wanted to juxtapose the two images to compare the truth of the verbal with the truth of the physical. She invited ten people and told them her plan; four showed up, and the other six arranged to meet her to discuss why they felt uncomfortable. The consensus was that they would rather have not known in advance, so as to spare themselves a self-conscious evening. They would have preferred to learn about the project after the fact.

The idea stuck with McCabe, and after moving to Houston and acquiring new friends, she wanted to try the project again. This time, following her friends' advice, she decided to tell everyone afterward, only then requesting their approval. She invited friends to dinner and set up a single camera.

Afterward, she told one invitee about the taping and was met with anger. The friend advised McCabe not to tell anyone else, and to do nothing with the video. Predictably, everyone found out anyway, and the whole thing turned into a low-level fiasco with misunderstandings and pissed-off people all around. Mutterings about lawsuits provided McCabe with a quick introduction to the more litigious aspects of American society. In response to the furor, the artist transcribed the video over a three-week period and presented the transcripts to each participant wrapped in tape from the video. Her copy of the transcript is displayed in a Plexiglas vitrine, unreachable and unreadable.

Although McCabe describes the video as incredibly banal -- 45 minutes of the artist and her husband setting up for dinner, and a scant 20 minutes or so of table conversation -- the encased transcript has a certain lure. Something about reality captured unawares is compelling. Reality or pseudo-reality is big business in the trash-TV world, but McCabe's project malfunction speaks to our self-consciousness and our desire for privacy rather than exhibitionism.

That the project didn't work as planned is part of the appeal. Even the rebuttals that McCabe allowed her participants are incomplete. Only two chose to respond, which is telling. McCabe could have ignored her friends and shown the video anyway, but her concern for their reactions becomes an interesting component. It also brings up issues of exploitation. Maybe the video itself would have been a great piece. Would that justify showing it in spite of the participants' objections? McCabe's work touches on a host of provocative ideas. It deals with a candor that addresses the difficulties of executing a concept that works smoothly in the abstract but is fraught with complications in reality. It is refreshing to see conceptual work that isn't slick but instead slightly awkward, apologetic and human.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer