Artificial Light

Houston can be a place of strange contrasts for us transplants. The odd urban-residential texture fostered by a lack of zoning; the mile upon mile of shopping centers, all looking the same despite their pathetic attempts to distinguish themselves from one another; the ribbons of highways that tie this sprawl together with intricate bows of overpasses and interchanges: All of this can present certain challenges to aesthetic sensibilities nurtured elsewhere. Then there are the natural elements of the Gulf Coast landscape -- the extreme flatness of the terrain; the enormous sky; the humid light that softens the horizon; the unearthly glow that accompanies the more impressive thunderstorms. And of course the sunsets, those brilliant explosions that everyone blames on pollution, as if the sun must have set with less display before the proliferation of the internal combustion engine. Houston can offer such a confounding combination of the sublime and the ridiculous that it's a miracle the place doesn't collapse under the weight of its contradictions.

But what may drive some of us to distraction can be a source of inspiration to others. Janaki Lennie, an Australian artist who landed in Houston six years ago, has been captivated by this brave new world. Her first appearance, several years ago in a group exhibit, trumpeted the impact that her new surroundings had on her: large charcoal drawings of overpasses, seen from ground level, looming over and encircling the viewer -- the Houston urbanscape filtered through Dante.

A few years later she produced a series of reinterpretations of well-known Hudson River School paintings, into which she introduced mythically huge freeways, which dominated the famous vistas, imposing a 20th-century version of American manifest destiny on a 19th-century vision of the American sublime. She then took a brief side trip to explore the alone-in-a-crowd theme with a series of predominately white paintings, in which figures seen from an elevated angle stood in loose groups on stark flat grids, like pieces on a game board, with no apparent interaction. Now her solo debut, "Stargazing," on view at McMurtrey Gallery, effectively consolidates all of Lennie's previous concerns.

All of the paintings are titled after stars, but there are no stars in these works. That's part of the point. The paintings all follow the same basic format, with slight variations: A distant, obviously urban horizon forms the lower border of the composition, with the underside of a foregrounded roadway framing the top. In between is twilight sky, nothing but sky, filling the composition with a luminous, monochromatic field.

Lennie works with a variety of colors from canvas to canvas, and gradations of color within specific paintings. In all of these works, the viewer is oriented toward the west, the urban horizons silhouetted by the dying light of day, so that the paintings darken as your eye travels upward until it arrives at the highway and discovers a weird light, from another source, shining on the concrete abutments. In a moment, you realize this light must be coming from the street lamps illuminating the roadway above your head. This light at the top echoes the light at the bottom, but unnaturally. And you realize why there are no stars -- as the skies get darker, the urban light takes over, illuminating locally while obscuring generally.

It doesn't take long for you to notice something else a bit unsettling about these paintings: Lennie positions you in her composition so that your perspective doesn't quite make sense. You're too high and too low at the same time -- in fact, you're suspended in midair. You're betwixt and between, which means you don't know where you are.

Nor can you be quite sure what your relationship is to that far-off horizon, or what you might want it to be. Don't go looking for these freeways and streetlights and microwave towers and stadium lights. You won't find that particular curve of overpass ramp. These are generic urban horizons, not specific locations, and Lennie emphasizes that lack of specificity with odd arrangements.

In Epsilon Aquarius (2001), for example, the horizon is cluttered with billboards, two of them at such an angle to each other that their messages would be so garbled together as to be incoherent. Beta Andromeda (2000) offers a soft gray twilight with greenish tones that is quite peaceful and soothing -- so, of course, it has the busiest horizon, a frenetic jumble of electrical towers, road signs and highway lamps at a density not even Houston would tolerate.

But you're drawn to these horizons despite your disquiet; you're drawn to the light as well as the space, pressed in as you are by the roadway above your head. So you take refuge in the skies that stretch above an urban wilderness, a man-made wilderness thrown up against a natural world that is impacted, but not intimidated, by human activity. You go looking for the stars with the mythical names.

In these paintings, Lennie has given us a vision of transcendent beauty set against dystopia. While she hasn't reconciled the two (who could?), she does bring them into an uneasy balance, a balance that should be familiar to Houstonians who complain about the traffic and the smog and the sprawl, but apparently wouldn't have it any other way. In one painting, however, Lennie tips the balance a bit more toward the sublime. Alpha Aquarius (2001) slightly deviates from the structure of the other paintings -- the lower border is formed by shadowy treetops rather than a horizon, while the top border is just the slightest hint of a roadway shaving the upper right corner. The sky fills in the rest, a lighter, brighter expanse of blue. Within the asymmetrical frame, the sky takes the shape of a planet as seen close by from one of its moons. It's a vision of a new world, one we can almost touch.

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John Devine