Crazy World

Something about the party in the video seems off. It looks like a village celebration. At a long table under a tree in a courtyard, people sit doing party things: eating, smoking, drinking. A toothless and grim elderly man wears a pointed hat and drags on a cigarette with a single-mindedness of purpose. A middle-aged man stares sadly at the camera, the elastic band of his hat overhung by his fleshy chin. A man with hollow eyes and a trim moustache glances back and forth nervously, seemingly on the cusp of an outburst. Another guest eats with powerful focus while his neighbor blows smoke in his face. Nobody seems to have any utensils save large metal spoons; the tumblers and trays are metal as well. Suddenly you realize all the dinner guests are men -- 13 of them, to be exact -- lined up along one side of the draped table in Last Supper fashion. A plaintive song rings out, sung by a woman in a worn housedress -- her eyes closed, her teeth silver. Her voice is deep and resonant, but as she sings, her arm twitches and her body convulses. As the video loops back to the beginning, you see signs that read, "Sanitorio Nirgua."

Javier Téllez's video, Last Supper (2001), is on view at Sicardi Gallery as a part of "Thinking Local," an ArtHouston show curated by Gabriela Rangel, assistant curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts. Téllez has created numerous works with psychiatric elements. His father was a psychiatrist and the director of Barbula Psychiatric Hospital in Valencia, Venezuela, where Téllez became involved in educational programs. For Last Supper he "invited the inmates of Barbula to celebrate a meal on their own terms." The exhibition essay notes the work's philosophical links to Michel Foucault.

So I bravely opened my disintegrating copy of Foucault's Madness & Civilization (something I swore never to do again after escaping grad school in the early '90s, when every artist was actively encouraged to select a convolutedly translated French philosopher as their personal mascot). To excessively oversimplify, the book explores madness as a societal construct, specifically as it formed in France during the 17th and 18th centuries' Age of Reason. Up to that time, "madness" had been seen as simply another aspect of the human condition; reason and unreason coexisted. Foucault focuses on the period when the "mad" began to be segregated and imprisoned, in part to fill the role of societal scapegoat previously held by the disappearing leper population. It's a fascinating history, but I always had problems with the term "unreason," which seems too dainty to encompass behaviors that range from quirky to psychotic; it's hard to think in terms of social constructs when Auntie is running after the kids with a steak knife. But labeling someone as mad is still a popular tool to control and contain contrary attitudes and ideas -- from the literary example of McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to the real-world example of China numbing nettlesome citizens into submission with psychotropic drugs and electroshock therapy.

But in Téllez's work, those removed from society -- where social constructs, vagaries of brain chemistry, incurred emotional damage or curse of the gods caused them not to fit in -- exist in a pleasant outdoor space, engaging in the very human practice of sharing a meal. Téllez has made his point when you come away thinking that being mad in a sunny courtyard might be preferable to being sane in a fluorescently lit office cubicle.

Cristián Silva believes in thinking local but acting global. Hence, his work addresses issues of globalism. He has painted an enormous black airplane flying across the gallery wall, the crisp silhouette like a pictogram for an airplane-crossing sign. But something is skewed about the overhead view of the craft: One wing is noticeably smaller than the other. It isn't broken or malformed, it's simply smaller. This vessel, created to transport persons and cargo to every corner of the earth, will fly in a clubfooted fashion, if at all, one half straining to keep up with the other. For Tormented Soul (2001), a series of Incredible Hulk cartoons is plastered to another wall in an unfussy and refreshingly unarchival act. The green superhero transcends culture and language, speaking English, Dutch, French, Spanish…The Hulk belongs to everyone as we become a multinational corporate world with a panglobal popular culture.

Black-and-white, 8 1/2- by 11-inch laser prints litter another gallery wall. The images are of paper airplanes on a concrete floor -- multiple solutions to a problem, each carefully documented. There are short and squatty ones, sleek and angular ones. Some sport wadded-up sections, and one design is merely a sheet of paper with a hole torn in the middle. The work is by Gonzalo Lebrija, and the planes were designed as part of a contest he created in Guadalajara. Because the contest was held in a professional office tower, the participants were "predominately white males, wealthy lawyers, architects, engineers, stockbrokers and financial consultants." The tower, Condominio Guadalajara, is the tallest building in the city, and in an accompanying video, the tiny, frail and ineffectual planes are launched from its roof. The exhibition essay alludes to the phallic implications as the planes are "ejaculated from the structure." But also interesting is the idea of fragile individual creativity shown in stark contrast to a bland, massive, inhuman structure.

Another Lebrija photograph, 15,753 Kilometros (2002), is a shot of an eroded asphalt road overhung by green trees. An amorphous white splat looms over half the image. It's bird shit running down a windshield; the photograph is labeled after the car's odometer reading. You can feel the heat and exhaustion of traveling down a rural road encased in a metal conveyance as nature moves in on you, even the birds expressing their contempt.

"Thinking Local" is a satisfying show. Let's hope the MFAH will provide Rangel with similar free rein in its galleries.

Other ArtHouston Shows

Barbara Davis Gallery: Blowing up to large scale the trend of peel-and-stick art, Santiago Cucullu's meandering angular images use faux bois contact paper and strong solid colors to create large graphic drawings. Through August 10. 2627 Colquitt, 713-520-9200.

Gerhard Wurzer Gallery: "30 Years of Landfall Press" features an excellent selection of prints from artists such as Sol Le Witt, Vernon Fisher, Christo and Pat Steir. The quirky envelope paintings of septuagenarian Jack Boynton use the artist's mail as a conceptual point of departure. The titles express a wry wit; a gestural image painted on an envelope bearing the letterhead of a law firm is called Enlightenment. Through August 31. 1217 South Shepherd, 713-523-4300.

McClain Gallery: In "Biometrica: An Interactive Installation," Thédra Cullar-Ledford explores the brave new world of personal identification with a comically overbuilt contraption that incorporates iris and fingerprint scanners. "In the Abstract: A Painting Survey" features the work of gallery artists including the late Laurent Boccara, whose Ladder #1 is a calm, chromatically ascending series of canvases. Through August 10. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer