DoV-ine Inspiration

It's not easy to take Harvey Bott seriously. The 63-year-old with the Elmer Fudd hairdo is one of those kooky guys appreciated in the local art scene more for his DIY sensibility and volunteer work than for anything he's actually created. He rarely exhibits in his hometown. His last local splash, in fact, came in the early '80s, when he mounted a futuristic opera performed by his assembled "Robotts" at the University of St. Thomas.

Elsewhere, though, Bott has been taken seriously -- at least as gauged in monetary terms. Before the Persian Gulf War caused the European art market to crash, he says, he earned six figures a year and employed eight assistants.

With his current show, "Toyzenus," at New Gallery, he appears to be making up for lost time in revealing himself to Houston. The paintings and sculptures span 25 years of work based on something he calls the DoV (Displacement of Volume) System. That system -- the name is trademarked -- basically amounts to a single shape that Bott uses over and over again in his work. If you're really interested, you can get a bunch of handouts at the gallery that explain, or sidle up to explaining, DoV -- but basically, the shape is formed by drawing a square, and then drawing four semicircles radiating out from the center of the square like a sort of a curvy swastika, resulting in four interlocking "quadbottic" modules. (For an example, check out Bott's square 1973 canvas Lung-Shan, which looks like it was painted with a tongue.)

Bott decided to constrict his practice to the DoV System beginning in 1972. The apparently restrictive structure, he says, freed him to explore infinite permutations and treatments of the quadbottic module in sculpture and painting (he even wears a module-shaped belt buckle). Bott's not the first artist to restrict himself to a narrow concept. Ad Reinhardt painted monochromatic squares for years, and Sol LeWitt's sculptures simply permutated skeletal white cubes. But there are some significant differences. For one thing, those artists had allegedly pure conceptual reasons for creating the aesthetic experience they did, while Bott, who refers to DoV rather cynically as a "System-as-Style," admits that at least one thing that the DoV is good for is giving his work a recognizable signature.

Furthermore, signature does not really equal style -- as long as Bott uses the module shape, he can do so in whatever manner he dreams up. On one wall of the New Gallery, Bott has arranged 20 three-dimensional versions of the module, turned every which way. Each is made from a different material: Fuzzy Wuzzy is lined with rabbit fur, Heiromancy Determinant leafed with gold, and Canticle for POP bears stripes of different-colored, used chewing gum ("cost me $8,000 in dental work," Bott says). Eventually, he hopes to make precisely 1,024 of the clunky things -- perhaps, I imagine, for a commission by some giant public library.

These quadbottic modules represent -- to Bott, anyway -- either earth, air, fire and water or force, power, control and order. He considers the shape a futuristic, ecumenical fusion of archetypes and universal symbols, and his 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheet of diagrams shows how crosses, human anatomy and even the fleur-de-lis can be created using the module system. That's difficult enough to take seriously, without being asked to infer some sort of synergized symbolic meaning from Bott's wondrously ugly paintings. Each of the large canvases in the show represents a different series -- modules done in pastels, modules done in dark colors, modules stuck together to create new shapes, modules incorporated into images of mazes and so on.

But surprisingly, Bott doesn't really ask that we attribute any particular meaning to his paintings. The modules' real job, it seems, is to provide personal justification for Bott's hard-core technique. The paintings may look like adulterated geometric abstraction, gussied up with textures and deep layers, but they are smoothly glassy to the touch as a result of the artist's labor-intensive glazing process. When the module is not simply a compositional tool, it's cutesy. In Mephistophelean Mensch, the space between four adjacent modules becomes a kitschy little spaceman (or "spacemun," as Bott says, predicting that gender will be indeterminate by the 23rd century because everyone will wear space suits).

Obviously, not even Harvey Bott can take Harvey Bott seriously -- and in fact, he's at his best when he doesn't. That's why the three most recent works in the show, sculptures built out of or containing toys, are the best. All three take the quadbottic module as their basic shape, but they revel in it rather than depending on it for meaning.

Shrine: Gestalten Konnectus stands nearly four feet high and was built, over the course of two years, out of "AB5 plastic part kits and various chlorinated hydrocarbon solvent cements" -- in other words, something akin to brightly colored Tinker toys. The resulting construction looks like a miniaturized, extensive set of dense scaffolding, punctuated occasionally with the white and green snowflake-like sprockets that join the plastic parts together. Standing on end, the sculpture is like a round-topped pillar with a bite chomped out of the side. With its ordered, yet jumbled-seeming succession of green, red, purple, orange and yellow parts, it is a pointillist sculpture -- just as tiny dots of paint can lend color to a field, so thin colored rods give energized mass to what is otherwise mostly air. It's really cool, and it looks like one of those "guess how many Tinker toys were used to make this" things. I couldn't help thinking that the most likely candidate to purchase it would be the makers of AB5 plastic kit parts, but Bott has other ideas. "I named it Shrine," he deadpans, "because by the 23rd century, we're all going to worship this module."

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Shaila Dewan