Graphic Ideas

In 1942, Peggy Guggenheim opened a Manhattan gallery to exhibit the new "isms" that Americans were increasingly curious about: surrealism, cubism, futurism and so on. The gallery, called Art of This Century, was a popular spectacle, if not exactly a commercial success. Its unusual design -- sculptures were displayed on chairs, paintings were mounted on hinged arms and a "Kinesthetic Gallery" allowed viewers to change the display at the push of a button -- attempted to place art more squarely in the daily lives of visitors. During its short life, the gallery became a locus for the transfer of art world power from Europe to New York. Guggenheim and her advisors (Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp among them) diligently searched out new talent. As a result, artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, all later recognized as among America's most important painters, received their first substantial exposure.

Now, a new gallery in Houston has borrowed Art of This Century's name. Housed in a long-deserted defensive driving school on West Gray, AOTC boasts a storefront window, fake oak paneling, indoor/outdoor carpet, a leatherette unit couch and a television (constantly on). Just as it takes a while to get used to someone with a deadpan sense of humor, it takes a while to catch on to AOTC. Like its predecessor, it intentionally ignores accepted art gallery conventions: there are no clean white walls, no disinterested receptionist, no morgue-like quiet. Just as Guggenheim planned the circus atmosphere of her gallery as a perfect backdrop for the surrealist objects she displayed, Jeff Elrod, director of Houston's AOTC, designs his exhibitions to play on the industrial-grade quality of his space.

To name a gallery Art of This Century in 1942 was optimistic, a grand statement of confidence in the new "non-realist" painting, as it was called then. To name a gallery Art of This Century in 1996 is to pick apart that very optimism. It's obvious at first glance that the new AOTC has neither the means nor the desire to exhibit the masterworks that shaped the 20th century's view of art. However, there's a hint of sincerity in the name's promise. AOTC is offering a contrasting view of this century's art; its interest is in art saturated with irony, art obsessed with consumer culture, discarded art. Its catalogs -- photocopied affairs stapled into cheap folders decorated with wood grain contact paper and electrical tape -- are as much a calculated critique of the standard museum and commercial gallery as an inexpensive documentation of a show. Written by artist Mark Flood, the catalogs mock glossy, four-color publications designed to flatter artists and their collectors. Instead of an essay, one includes a "multiple lack of choice" quiz. Another satirizes the endless requests for help that artists receive from nonprofits by noting that "we're asking all artists to make little balls of antimatter to hang from our special 'fund' tree."

It's his ability to dictate exactly what his gallery will show, unfettered by a commercial gallery's market demands or the bureaucracy that saddles nonprofit institutions, that is AOTC's strength, Elrod says. And indeed, his current no-budget show, the gallery's second, reveals an eye for the new that's rare among Houston curators. In the art world's sagging economic climate, AOTC may be one of the few venues that can afford to gamble on a trend.

"Hines & His Circle: Tragic Fading Supergraphic" gathers the work of three young artists independently obsessed with "the dank industrial-decorating trend" (as the catalog defines it) called Supergraphics: Glasgow, Scotland native Robert Montgomery, New York artist Giovanni Garcia-Fenech and Elrod himself. The three painters take very different approaches to these ubiquitous designs, resulting in a show that is coherent without being monotonous.

Though the term Supergraphics may not be familiar to most people, the Supergraphics look definitely is. Popularized by the Yale School of Architecture in the late '60s and '70s, Supergraphics are linear designs (rainbows, arrows, curving stripes) that were used to decorate cheaply made, monotonous or massive buildings. Modeled after geometric abstraction paintings, but strictly architectural in function, these murals with their clumsy color combos aren't difficult to find in Houston. Horizontal bars of thick, industrial paint grace a side wall of Chief Auto Parts stores; four-lane stripes of orange, turquoise, purple and red zip down the stairwells of Bally's Total Fitness. Supergraphics glitzed up for the '80s. Supergraphics can be read as an attempt to humanize, a distinctly corporate effort to communicate -- the notion likely being that "the little extras mean we care." By virtue of their laughable neutrality the graphics generally fail in their mission, but at the same time their liberal use in Miniskools and "cafetoriums" impacted the Zoom-watching kids of the '70s. Small wonder, then, that young artists are now looking to Supergraphics as an early aesthetic influence.

The "Hines" of the show's title is a mysterious figure, an unknown, maybe even corporately created, artist whose easel-sized, brown-and-orange geometric paintings Elrod found in local thrift stores, along with examples of Supergraphics-style work bearing other signatures. The exhibit intersperses these found paintings with Elrod's, Montgomery's and Garcia-Fenech's larger canvases. Compared to other thrift store paintings, these are oddities -- impersonal rather than sentimental works. If one can read the discarded art of Sunday painters as a record of a society's subterranean dreams and fantasies, these miniature paeans to a strictly ordered aesthetic are frighteningly naive, invested with a belief in the ordered, utopian message of Supergraphics. Or alternatively, they attest to the power of the Supergraphics aesthetic, to a desire for a life reassured by hard lines and solid colors.

Some of Elrod's paintings -- large, flat copies of Supergraphic stripes on solid backgrounds -- speculate on the psychological state of these unknown painters. Abstract paintings are always, to some degree, a comment on the abstract paintings that have gone before; some ask the viewer to enter into the emotional life of the painter; others deny this possibility and turn to "pure" formalism. But Elrod, by reproducing architectural design as art (with titles such as "Love on the Rocks" and "Killing Me Softly"), proposes something else entirely: that the possibility of meaningful abstraction lies outside of art. Supergraphics are abstract "paintings" we have all lived with, fake horizons that have arguably had more impact on our everyday lives than any painting hanging in a museum. And they're invested with a collective social meaning not necessarily intended by their creators.

In other works, Elrod paints Supergraphics in the shapes of letters, forming words such as "win" and "job." "Win" could be a comment on the proverbial rat race, or a reference to the gymnasiums where, as many jocks will remember, Supergraphics were about winning -- streamlined, speedy and spirited. In these word pieces, Elrod teases out the secret manias of the urban landscape. He articulates the connection between the medium and the message, following in the footsteps of conceptual artists who have used words as images.

If Elrod is aloof, Montgomery is positively brimming with nostalgia for the visual tropes of the '70s. Are Supergraphics in Europe, lovingly subsidized and widely employed, more graceful than their American cousins? If so, that would explain why Montgomery's paintings are so beautiful and soothing in comparison to Elrod's. "Albino Supergraphic," a wall painting done in collaboration with Katrina Moorhead and reproduced at AOTC in photos, shows a pure white target of concentric circles on a dingy white wall. In "Specific Ocean," a large square of blue is bounded by red, orange and yellow stripes. The colors are washed out, producing an airy, about-to-disappear effect. As late Modernism sought perfection by self-refining into oblivion, so Montgomery romantically seeks the fulfillment of the Supergraphics promise through transcendence.

It was a bit of a stretch to include Garcia-Fenech's smaller canvases in "Hines & His Circle." The Mexico-born artist has done many paintings of corporate logos that are in keeping with the show's theme, but only one minor work of that type was available. His other works, purposefully amateurish renderings of airplanes and office buildings, don't fall under the abstract painting rubric of the rest of the show. They serve only to identify the kind of urban-industrial environment that preoccupies these artists, providing context for the exhibit's more sophisticated visual arguments.

Most galleries show art in a freshly painted vacuum, a world where art is precious and needs protection. AOTC, which also serves as a living/working space for Elrod, shows art that blends in with its environment, emphasizing relevance over purity. All three of the artists in the show allow stray marks, dings and other "accidents" to accumulate on their paintings, a metaphor for the way art inevitably acquires meaning after it leaves an artist's studio. They celebrate the fact that hard-edged Supergraphics weather and fade, succumbing not only to time but to appropriation. Similarly, the do-it-yourself AOTC has crept into an industrial environment and gleefully taken over. In its dilapidated condition, it may befit the 1990s (after the art market crash) as much as the first AOTC did the 1940s.

"Hines & His Circle: Tragic Fading Supergraphic" will show through March 1 at Art of This Century, 414 West Gray. 522-5247.

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Shaila Dewan