Visual Arts

Art or Not, Mel Chin's Work Is All Over Houston

As a non-professional Houston gallery-goer, I've been aware of Mel Chin sort of floating in the ether for a long time. I've even seen his work in group and solo shows, I know, though the only one I can definitely remember is his The Funk and Wag From A to Z at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012. I remember liking it a lot.

Well, Chin is no longer floating in the ether. For the next few months, he's practically taking up the whole art atmosphere of Houston with his 40-year retrospective "Mel Chin: Rematch." Chin and the show have already done the same with stops at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

It's a show so big that here in Houston, it takes four museums to hold it all. The Blaffer Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Asia Society Texas Center and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art will all have parts of it into March or April, varying by venue. And as a special treat for hometown folks, there's even an added bonus of Chin drawings at Art League Houston.

Due at least in part to this retrospective, Artnet included Chin as one of only two Houston artists on its list of "The 50 Most Exciting Artists of 2014." The other was McArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses fame. Lowe's still here. For a long time now, Chin has only come back to visit. But he still counts as a Houstonian since he was born in Houston in 1951, and made his career here until 1983, when he plunged into the bigger art sea of New York. Now he's based in North Carolina.

"Mel Chin: Rematch" is a progressive art feast for which you'll definitely benefit from having a roadmap and a program to help you find your way. Pick a nice day because you'll be driving all over town. And go with an open mind because your preconceptions about what art is will likely be soundly shaken.

Longtime Chin friend and colleague Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time in Hartford, Connecticut, has noted that over the decades, Chin has been called a "provocateur, environmentalist, activist, political subversive, community organizer, showoff, and occasionally an artist; news maker, civic problem solver and a dreamer." But whatever he's called, according to Pasternak, he "cannot be put in a box; he just won't be contained" because he "cares, he really cares. Mel cares about the earth, he cares about people, and he cares about people who are being screwed."

Did you notice "artist" almost lost somewhere in the middle of all that? And you thought this was just another artist career retrospective. I sure did before I dived into it.

Though Chin would probably bristle at any effort to put him in an art-speak box, the term "conceptual artist" has been used in his presence, as proved by YouTube videos, and he hasn't risen to deny it. What that means, at least in part, is that his ideas are as important as his eyes and hands to what he does. Maybe more important.

There's a story told that when Sienese painter Duccio finished his Maestà in 1311, all the people of Siena joined in the solemn procession taking it to its place of honor in the cathedral. Art doesn't have that kind of following anymore and artists know it, though I have to say that the way the opening day "Mel-a-thon" crowd followed Chin on a guided tour of his works in all the many venues seemed almost like a modern mini-repetition of the Duccio procession.

One of the chief occupations for artists in the modern age has been a quest for relevance. Finding it has taken up a lot of their time and energy. Chin, however, hasn't so much found as made it.

One of the ways he did that -- one of many -- was a project called Revival Field. The goal was to make a living work of art to demonstrate that plants could remove toxins from polluted earth. He came up with the idea after talking with scientists who couldn't get support through conventional scientific avenues. Why not, Chin suggested, try the unconventional, and make it art? Talk about relevant.

But is it art? I'm far from the first to ask that question. Even the head of the National Endowment for the Arts answered NO before he changed to YES when the dynamic, persuasive -- dare I say proselytizing? -- Chin asked for federal arts funding. You may be asking the question yourself as you go through the show, which Chin would probably think is a good thing. (For details on Revival Field, see the installation at the Blaffer.)

A lot of what's on view in "Rematch" is beyond me when I look at it through my art eyes. But maybe my art eyes aren't the ones I should be looking with. Maybe they should go in a box and I should try out other kinds.

There are works that I like at all the venues. The ones I like best are those that, regardless of their possible many layers of activist meaning, don't hit me over the head with it:

• A model of the artist's tongue carved in catlinite, a stone named for George Catlin, 19th-century painter of Native Americans (choice of material not coincidental) at Blaffer, half of a piece titled Shape of a Lie;

Magnolias in the Moonlight at Asia Society, which makes a nod to Joseph Cornell boxes;

• The Kurdish woven rug sky at the Station, part of Degrees of Paradise;

Bird in a Cage at CAM, a Chin work from the 1970s influenced by Marcel Duchamp of the 1920s (so at least my art appreciation has progressed that far on the way to cutting-edge);

• And any number of the exquisite drawings at Art League Houston, where the framing so beautifully coordinates with the art.

More difficult for me is another public project work, called Operation Paydirt, that grew out of Chin's learning, post-Katrina, that the soil of New Orleans was laced with toxic lead. Again, visit the Blaffer to experience, or even join, this ongoing work hoping to lobby Congress to fund the cleanup of the lead mess. With its Safehouse door like the door of a bank vault and its pallet of hundreds of thousands of "fundred dollar bills," each drawn by a different one of the "distributed authors" of the work (you, too, can be one), it's clearly not your granddad's idea of what makes art. Unless your granddad was Duchamp.

Reading art reviews from earlier times is sobering if you write art reviews, especially when the art was more or less contemporaneous with the review. The opportunities for being wrong are legion. Even as perceptive a reviewer as the early 20th-century American Henry McBride wrote glowingly about Ralph Blakelock and Winslow Homer in the same sentence. Likewise Bradley Walker Tomlin, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Blakelock and Tomlin? Now who did you say they were? I'm sure I'd have been among those who told Duchamp to take his porcelain Fountain of 1917, which looked remarkably like a urinal, and go away.

Staying power takes time to prove itself, and today's bright light may dim with time. Which isn't to say that today's bright light isn't illuminating things we need to see or will benefit from if we look.

So is Chin's work art or something else? Or does it really matter what we call it? As long as it helps us see things we might not otherwise see, goads us to think outside our usual box, motivates us to move in (positive) directions we might not take on our own? Even though he's sometimes a little too punny for my taste, and even though it seems slightly disingenuous for him to call himself the "disappearance artist," considering how forceful his personality is in his work, the work is what it is -- whatever that is, and you should take this opportunity to see it. Which is probably about as much as a prudent review should say.

"Mel Chin: Rematch" Blaffer Art Museum, The University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun, 713‑743‑2255, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250, Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore, 713-496-9901, Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900, "Paper Trail and Unauthorized Collaborations," Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713‑523‑9530,

Check each venue for exact dates and times.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.