Visual Arts

Buildering: Misbehaving the City

"Buildering" is a word you probably have never heard before, and the same is true of the French word "parkour", but both these describe overt acts of artistic expression with elements of rebellion against the establishment - a "flash mob" may be a contemporary example. Both have an unsanctioned, "in-your-face" attitude. More importantly, both are great fun.

This is a traveling exhibition, and the Blaffer Museum has done us a service by scheduling it. There are striking sculptures, exciting videos, and photographs of some of the coups that mischievous practitioners have pulled off in the past.

One such striking sculpture is El Barrio, consisting of a number of individual cardboard structures, like boxes, with openings for windows and doors, piled together as an exhibiting gallery sees fit. The Blafffer Art Museum has chosen to heap them together, creating an imposing edifice that necessarily brings together the vista of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, or, moving dramatically up the economic scale, of Habitat 67, the model community and housing complex created by Moshe Safdie for Montreal's Expo 1967.

El Barrio was created by "Los Carpinteros", the name used by Cuban artists and collaborators Marco Antonio Castillo Valdes and Dagoberto Rodriguez Sanchez. It simultaneously references upscale cliff-side residences, urban slums, disposable housing, and art itself, no mean feat.

Brasil by Hector Zamora simply shows an ordinary bicycle, but instead of a pedaler, the seat and indeed the entire bicycle are loaded with what seems to be terra-cotta bricks with see-through openings. The effect is of massive overload, suggesting industry and development occurring at the expense of the individual, and yet in itself providing an amusing and original sculpture that entertains through its unexpected uniqueness. As an added fillip, the rear tire in this gallery is flat, though not in the picture shown, as indeed it would be.

I especially enjoyed two videos by Sebastian Stumpf, in which he demonstrates possibly life-threatening activities. Underground Garage is a video of storefronts and garages, with an occasional pedestrian passer-by, or a truck, or a motorcycle with a sidecar, until a garage door starts to come down. At the last possible moment, with split-second timing, Stumpf sprints and throws himself underneath the closing garage door. The effect is exciting. The tedium of waiting for another such "event" is enlivened by keen anticipation.

Stumpf tops himself with Bridges, a video of him leaping off urban bridges into a river. This is indeed dangerous, and a viewer might shiver with sympathy as he hits the water; I did. It could be disastrous, and I found it difficult to watch, though fascinating.

Actions at Home by David Bestué and Marc Vives, who collaborated from 2002-2012 as Bestué-Vives, is a video in which unusual, break-the-mold actions are acted out at home. It covers a number of more pedestrian activities, such as stealing a plant or breaking a vase, but be sure to keep your eyes peeled for turning a kitchen sink into a fountain, resulting in a far more elaborate cascading of water from plate to plate than I would ever have thought possible. The video is 33 minutes long, but the "Fountain" is worth waiting for. It is brilliant, despite its lunacy, or, perhaps, because of it.

There are twists on functionality, with a microwave used as a reading lamp, and a photo of one famous coup, Swing, when Kamilia Szejnocha added a swing to a major statue.

Buildering: Misbehaving the City was originally organized by Steven Matijcio for the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, and the Blaffer provides an excellent brochure by Matijcio that illuminates some of the history of rebellious artists who resisted the stolidity of urban life.

This was my first time at the museum, and I found it difficult to locate, as the UH information Booth had no record of its existence. When I gave them the building number, 120, I was informed there was no such building (there is), though there was a building 119. Had I used the name "Fine Arts Building", I might have fared better. For your convenience, the Blaffer is right next to the UH Theaters at 133 Wortham. I'm glad I persevered.

Buildering: Misbehaving the City continues through December 6, Blaffer Art Museum, The University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., 713-743-2255,

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Jim Tommaney