Visual Arts

Decline, Death and Consumerism Inform Houston's "Salon of Desert Martyrs"

In Matthew Couper’s first showing with Zoya Tommy in 2012, his work being the skulls portion of the “Guns and Skulls” group exhibit, the artist offered up recurring themes of capitalism, the death of our nation, crucifixion, snakes, skulls and the all-seeing eye.

Presented in the dark and muted tones of Spanish Colonial retablos and ex-votos, the New Zealander (who now lives in Las Vegas) is exploring more of the same in his new exhibit at Zoya Tommy Gallery, “Salon of Desert Martyrs,” only this time with a twist. In addition to nine new works (plus Risk from 2011), the show includes seven collages by his wife, JK Russ, as well as six collaborations.

When husbands and wives work together things can often go horribly awry, but their combined works are actually quite successful, most notably in the four-panel poliptych AM PM. The heroine of 1 Designer Deadhead is a topless female with an alligator skull for a head, seven skyward-turning ghosts and the familiar theme of serpent and apple. As the narrative unfolds, 2 Mid-Morning Meditation shows a belly-chained woman in the lotus position atop toppled columns. A nude female is body painted in the style of ‘60s Pop Art with a cactus for her head in 3 Afternoon Peaker; and the story is put to bed with candles, cobwebs and a bee hive in 4 Evening Engager.

For the oil on metal Sustained Grinderman, we see the return of Matthew Couper's nailed and shackled mud man in a blender, similar to the character in his Systematic Foibles from 2011. Representing both debt and death, mud man also appears in Cut the Sky, Sink the Earth, with a scarred and bloody Christ on the cross, and an American eagle clutching a decapitated head in its claw.

The toga-adorned man whom we saw in 2011’s Capitol Nation/Amerika, seated on a pile of money, returns in Burden, under the watchful Eye of Providence. Couper is a prolific painter and, with his paintings laden with symbolism, there is much to divine. Perhaps too many elements appear in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Allegorical development of Art in a Field of Painting, though the piece could never be construed as boring.

The largest solo piece by JK Russ, The Gift, is futuristic with its red-orange Martian landscape and constellation arc. Proximity reveals all the trappings of commerce and fashion, with gold jewelry and artifacts, and the creation of collaged characters with gold nugget bodies, and rings and Faberge eggs for heads.

The remainder of Russ’s collages are smaller in scale, merging flowers, spiders, leggy models, a masked man, cacti and birds in unexpected ways. The Source (Shell) is quite energetic, in a swirling vortex of dark red to orange to yellow, with the white torn edges of the paper adding interest and movement. At the center of the cave is a conch shell pouring white liquid into a flower; standing by is a swan body creature with shapely human legs.

“Salon of Desert Martyrs” continues through July 9 at Zoya Tommy Gallery, 4102 Fannin, open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 832-649-5814, Free.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney