Idiot Savant

A skinny kid with a shock of blond hair wandered into my undergraduate painting critique at North Texas in the fall of 1989. Vernon Fisher was our professor and this guy wanted to show his new work. He propped a canvas against the wall and then put his skateboard underneath it. By way of explanation he said in a nasally voice, "I just thought my painting needed my skateboard." I can't remember what was on the canvas, but I still remember the skateboard.

That quirky, casual approach is still a part of Brad Tucker's work, as are slightly less direct skateboard allusions. In "Long Distance Lovers," his new show at Inman Gallery, Tucker's brightly painted objects dot the walls. Their animated geometric and letterlike shapes are scroll-saw-cut from scraps of plywood. Scattered across the gallery floor are quirky constructions of wood augmented by cast plastic wheels. Tucker's idiosyncratic objects have a cheery visual wit. Everything seems to have been crafted by an unusually upbeat teenager spending a rainy Saturday in his dad's workshop.

The paint on Tucker's constructions evokes a pleasant nostalgia. It could easily have come from leftover latex found in the garage of a '70s ranch house with bright orange, avocado-green and lemon-yellow interiors. The happy retro colors are lovingly rather than ironically used, but Tucker's handling of them is deft and hip.

Resting on Inman's white concrete floor, Desktop (2003) is a long pale yellow strip of wood with cast plastic skateboard wheels. You'd be tempted to ride it around the gallery if the plywood weren't so thin. On one end of the wheeled plank, Tucker has stacked a pile of cast floppy disks with a weird, badly molded, waxy quality. The disk's stored data seems ready to be transported via minimalist skateboard rather than Ethernet. Local Calls (2003) is a crudely stitched clear plastic bowling bag filled with cast Wiffle balls sitting atop an orange platform of slatted wood. Tucker's goofy replica of the kid's toy looks about as cheaply made as the original. It's a playfully odd pairing of objects, but in formal terms the lumpy bag plopped on the base feels too static. It lacks the animated, linear qualities that enliven much of Tucker's other work.

Besides skateboarding, Tucker's stint working in a sign shop is another primordial influence. While his earlier work was more overtly sign-related, vestiges of signage crop up in his sculptures. On the floor a hollow "P" shape is bent from a thin sheet of plywood. It reclines on an angled skateboardlike platform where it seems to be a victim of centrifugal force, frozen in the act of taking an imaginary curve.

"Jubilee," an installation of 20 small wall works, looks like what artists do when they have a lot of little random things they made strewn around their studios: They gather them up and show them all together. This strategy can easily backfire, but Tucker pulls it off; his skewed letters and shapes play off each other well. Forest-green and leaf-green plywood S's seem to be locked in an embrace, a chemical green L segues into a lemon yellow E, and multicolored strips of wood form an X.

Black Liquid (2003) is definitely a worthy supergraphics offspring. Tucker has cut plywood into slender arcing lines that define negative space at the top. But their animated curves are inset at the bottom with black synthetic fabric-covered plywood. The wall sculpture/painting is exuberantly dynamic. Green "W" (2002) has its own jovial presence. A lime green W with big dots for serifs bows off the wall. Here, Tucker has taken advantage of the way the thin plywood curls up with the paint application.

Halting audio tones accompany Tucker's show. They emanate from a circular black speaker on the back wall. Next to it is an avocado-green circle with a video monitor inset. A not-quite-square box is mounted on the wall to house the DVD player at the bottom. The three elements look like a comic goggle-eyed monster while its screen presents five different audio-accompanied videos.

Tucker has an interest in improvisational music and has devised various strategies to score random sounds. In one video he floats assorted letters down one of Houston's nasty bayous. As the letters/notes "a" though "g" sluggishly float by, the corresponding note is played. (Two musicians watched the video to create the score.) The bayou footage is more interesting than another, albeit hypnotic, video that features an overpass view of lanes of Houston traffic that act as a musical staff. It seems like practically every Houston artist using video has footage of highway traffic, but this one has a nice conceptual twist. In a third video sequence, Tucker's inherent sense of goofiness is at the forefront as he drops alphabet souplike notes onto a pale blue cast record spinning on a turntable. The addition of each letter adds another note to the mix. Tucker maintains a consistently playful attitude, irrespective of media.

Tucker's work has a silly but smart idiot savant quality to it. But the idiot part contains a genial, Forrest Gump optimism if Forrest Gump were, er, a skate punk? That sounds terrible, I hate Forrest Gump, but I like this stuff.

Elsewhere Around Town

At Gallery Sonja Roesch, Robbie Austin has his own odd little objects on the wall. In contrast to his earlier sculptures, in which chunks of two-by-fours were painted and attached directly to the wall, his new works are sanded down into engagingly awkward and stumpy little forms. Some protrude from the walls like malformed bovine horns. Others feel like the tree equivalent of a clubfoot. Mick Johnson is also in the three-person show with some nice paintings with gloopy, solid colors of paint poured over low-relief linear elements. The irregular areas of paint play well off the underlying physical geometry. Melanie Crader is covering canvases with the girly/drag queen materials of glitter and pearls to create sparkly glamorous surfaces, but the middle-of-the-road scale is still problematic. They need to be either far more delicate and tiny or much more expansive -- something that could fill your whole field of vision with sparkle.

At Lawndale Art Center, in the Micro Gallery, Jahjehan Bath Ives's "Unspoken" presents a moving visual and textual journal recording her brother's untimely death. Making art from this kind of highly personal, emotionally loaded story is tough to pull off, but Ives strikes the right tone and manages it beautifully. Also working in a familial vein, Heather Schweikhardt's "Familial Landscapes" crop and rephotograph worn color snapshots to make images with a haunting visual texture that feel like fragments of memory. Upstairs, wallowing thoroughly in camp, Tabatha Tucker and Matthew Barolo's "Romance Project" presents videos of the two, costumed and re-creating the covers of romance novels. The video tableaux are so much more effective than still photographs because you see the pair wavering slightly as they struggle to maintain their contorted embraces. For "Hayburner," in the main gallery, Allison Wiese has sewn dozens of red shop rags into a massive blue-collar minimalist grid hung from the side wall. It's a nice piece, but it needs something else/more going on in the room than the abundance of rectilinear hay bales. Is this barnyard minimalism?

Long Distance Lovers
Through June 14 at Inman Gallery, 214 Travis, 713-222-0844.

Through June 14 at Gallery Sonja Roesch, 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424.

Unspoken, Familial Landscapes and Romance Project
Through June 21 at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer