Curiously Corporate

It's always been a curiosity to me that a company making a product intended to be ingested orally should describe said product as "curiously strong." It brings to mind the frightful thought of what curiosity is alleged to have done to the cat. Still, people who've been undeterred by the adverb seem to have suffered no ill effects as a consequence, so I suppose I should be reconciled to such a curious usage.

But now, instead of breath mints, they're talking about art: "The Third Annual Altoids Curiously Strong Collection." What the hell is one to make of that? Are they talking about the individual works, or the collection as a whole? Is this supposed to be an assertion, or is it wishful thinking?

The answer is E, all of the above. The "Altoids Curiously Strong Collection" is intended as a showcase for emerging visual artists. Each year the company gathers a group of artists, critics, curators and gallery owners to recommend artists who are making, to quote the press materials, "some of the most curious, strong and original artwork being created today." (A couple of notable Texas connections: This year's search committee includes Sue Graze, director of the Texas Fine Art Association in Austin, and Valerie Cassel, an associate curator at our own Contemporary Arts Museum.) Once the works have been selected and procured, they are sent on the road to give the selected artists exposure. Now the latest installment of the collection has arrived at DiverseWorks, the last stop on the 2001 U.S. tour.

Certainly, a good deal of the work on display is curious. Entering the main gallery, you're assaulted by Susan Smith-Pinelo's video Sometimes (1999), in which the décolletage of a rather well-endowed African-American woman wearing a gold "Ghetto" necklace is made to "dance" to the beat of Michael Jackson's "Workin' Day and Night" ("Got me working…"). Adjacent to the video is I Feel God (2000) by the Reverend Ethan Acres (yes, he's an ordained minister -- World Christianship Ministry). Described as Duraprint on acrylic, the imagery involves collaged black-and-white photographs of a man standing over a dead dog in front of a large nightclub-type sign announcing "James Brown The Godfather of Soul" while, dominating the composition, a winged dog rises angelically from the dearly departed animal. Next to I Feel God hangs Michelle Rollman's etched aluminum plate titled Hares in Corsets (1999), suggesting an Audubon print in drag.

And some of this work is strong. Jane Callister's Hanging (1998) is a visual treat of green and violet with a carnation-pink architectural molding, a meandering acrylic stream that evokes birthday cake frosting, and silhouettes of men and women in suggestive, um, relations. Everything about the painting speaks to guilty pleasures. Nostalgia and yearning infuse Miranda Lichtenstein's Untitled #24 (Martin Park) (2000), a large color photograph of a broken fence crossing a ravine, shot at night with the head- and taillights of the artist's car providing the only illumination. Two onetime Houstonians, Todd Brandt and Julie Mehretu, former Core Fellows at the Glassell School, are also included in the show. Mehretu is represented by one of her finely detailed architectural ink drawings overlapped by floating fields of pastel pinks and greens on Mylar; Brandt by his signature small containers filled with "rescued" latex paint and mounted on wood to create a kind of hybrid abstract painting-sculpture.

And then there are works that won't be labeled, but they linger in the mind. Clara Williams's cibachrome prints, When the 20th Century Began…(2000), show two views of the same office cubicle, the work surface of which has been taken over by a rocky landscape, complete with waterfall. This bleak workspace, with a few potted plants sitting atop the cubicle walls, has been turned into a vacant diorama, devoid of humans or animals or anything animating. Almond Zigmund's Tide Pool -- Comp 2 (Striped Horizon) (2000), a digital print on Plexiglas, gives us bands of color receding and rising into the background, and a foreground populated by odd quasi-furniture-looking thingies, with a healthy-sized potted plant at the left margin for good measure. No idea what it's about, but it sure is gorgeous.

One could go on. A number of intriguing artists are represented here, and Altoids is to be commended for its interest in the American art scene and especially its commitment to the emerging generation. Still, this is corporate collecting, and most of the work is safe. Even when it's risqué or controversial, it's safely risqué or controversial (think prime-time TV). There's a calculated feeling, a studied edginess. In the end, the collection puts me in mind of the tragically unhip trying desperately to be cool -- and I'm not talking about the artists or the space.

Speaking of cool: In the Subspace at DiverseWorks, Seattle-based Iggi Green's Dreams and Other Nightmares is a collection of dolls such as Tim Burton and the Quay Brothers might produce if they went into the plush-toy business together. Meat cleaver-wielding devils, horse-headed mutants, quintuplets from hell, a hookah smoker and a tiny Siamese cat with a silver penis are just a few of the wickedly delightful characters sprung from Green's hilariously subversive imagination.

And while you're in the neighborhood, visit Dramos Studios next door and check out Lay It Down, a beautiful show of (mostly) small works (mostly) on paper. Curated by artist Judy Moon Kwon, it features works by Elizabeth Barrera, John Calaway, Mel DeWees, Katy Heinlein, Patricia Hernandez, Terrell James, Eric Michael Jones, Darryl Lauster and Toby Topek, curiously strong artists all.

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John Devine