Jazz Show

I always thought it would be a cool idea to mount an art exhibit that had a soundtrack, and David McGee's show at DiverseWorks proves my point. As you approach the space's main gallery, you'll hear strains of bebop saxophone. There's a point to the exhibition's jazz soundtrack, just as there's a point to the soundtrack of a movie. The rollicking saxes, bass and drums set the show's mood and even seem to enter the artworks themselves. The most interesting exhibits are narratives of sorts; they're expository exercises that advance a point of view, a particular way of understanding a set of artworks, something more than "Isn't this a neat bunch of stuff?" McGee's "Tetélestai: Notebooks from the Black Sea" is one such exhibition.

Curated by Diane Barber, the visual arts director at DiverseWorks, the exhibition is McGee's first in Houston in five years. The artist was born in Louisiana about 40 years ago and raised there and in Arkansas. From 1981 to 1985, he attended Prairie View A&M University. Known for rather baroque canvases, pastiches of old masters like Velázquez and David as well as modernist icons such as Picasso, McGee creates works that query an art history he feels doesn't include African-American artists such as himself. He's been uncharacteristically quiet in allowing so much time to go by without news from his studio.

Tetélestai begins with a kind of prelude. In the transitional space between the small and main galleries at DiverseWorks, the art is quintessential McGee. Socialite in Spring (2003) is one of his pastiches. It depicts a lithe feminine figure reminiscent of the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough or Joshua Reynolds, standing in an idealized landscape, making cow-eyes at us over her shoulder. Literally. Our socialite possesses the head of a heifer. As if that weren't weird enough, a frog sits atop her head, poking up between her short horns and flicking its tongue at a passing fly, one of several hovering about. Hanging nearby is Money Mammy (2003), McGee's portrayal of an art collector as a calculating Renaissance merchant (there are several works here critical of the co-dependency of artists, dealers and collectors).

But the most intriguing work in the prelude is Fucked Up Hotels, a suite of paintings grouped around a beat-up old upright piano. Six in all, the paintings hark back to 17th-century still lifes, presenting tables sparsely arrayed with flowers or food (in a nice touch, a wide, shallow bowl containing a single, slowly putrefying pear sits atop the piano), along with some other elements that don't quite register right away.

Each painting is identified with a locale and a year: The Alvin Hotel '59; The Dew Drop Inn '40; The Tropic Club '58; Great Jones Street Loft '88. It was the last that provided a clue to these identifications. For it was in a Great Jones Street loft in New York in 1988 that the "graffiti" artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who has figured in McGee's work before, died of a drug overdose at age 28. Some Internet research revealed that the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young drank himself to death in the Alvin Hotel in New York. (There wasn't time for further research -- have you any idea how many hits you get when you Google "Dew Drop Inn"?)

Those "other elements" suddenly snap into focus; they are -- lovely legal euphemism -- controlled substances: a pile of whitish powder, capsules, a spoon and needle and a wine decanter and glass. The works reveal themselves to be contemporary memento mori -- dark, spare meditations on the temptations that still lay waste to promise and talent (think of Robert Downey Jr.).

At the doorway to the main gallery, we're greeted with a wall of text containing part of an early poem by American writer Conrad Aiken. The exhibition's title is borrowed from this poem (also, Section V of the same poem sits on the piano and serves as a kind of caption to the Fucked Up Hotel series). Tetélestai is Greek for "It is finished" or "It is accomplished," Jesus' last words. The poem's motif is a journey that is not so much physical as metaphysical, a journey not taken but remembered. It's written in a baroque, overwrought, self-consciously romantic style, more Edna St. Vincent Millay than T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams (Aiken's later poems are more leanly modernist), and it stands in rather stark contrast to the cool bebop saxophone leaking from the other side of the wall.

Step around the wall and more contrasts greet you. There's work in this show unlike anything McGee has done in the past. Sculpture, for example. In the middle of the gallery sits a canoe. Inside the canoe are volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, one open, apparently at random. From the middle of the canoe rises an odd tree that, it turns out, in its native Mali, would serve as both a support column and a ladder to a house. Titled Omeros II (2003) after a book-length poem by Noble Laureate Derek Walcott, this assemblage is about journeys, physical and educational, and the desire to ascend to a home.

Its companion piece, Omeros I (2003), is perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibit. Five feet high and ten feet long, oil on unstretched canvas, the single figure that fills the white field is based on da Vinci's Horse of San Marcos, a recurring motif (one of several) in this body of work. Its large black mass is scarred where the paint has been scratched and scraped away, suggesting the passage of time and the accretion of experience. As if the sheer size and the ravaged paint surface weren't enough, the horse's neck ends in a humanoid face etched with gargoylish anguish. I'm not sure how this connects to the canoe -- or to Walcott's poem, for that matter -- but it's unforgettable.

Much like Picasso or Pollock, McGee makes art -- no matter its subject matter -- that's ultimately about himself. It's about his place in the world, his experience of the world, his emotional response to the world. All of McGee's work is autobiographical. But the imagery, as in The Black Sea Paintings series (all 2003), can become so personal as to exclude the viewer. These canvases are a major departure for McGee. Gone are the baroque gestures and mannerist colors. Gone are the almost classical, formal alignments of composition. These paintings, of various dimensions, are for the most part loosely divided into quadrants that seem to have little to do with each other. Collage elements -- Scrabble tiles, fabric, childhood photos of the artist, Sunday comic strips, drawings -- appear in McGee's work for, I believe, the first time. (He has often turned to his progenitors for inspiration, and the presiding spirits for The Black Sea Paintings seem to be Robert Rauschenberg and David Salle.)

Individually, these works have little internal coherence. But walk back and forth and note the recurrence of motifs and images between the paintings -- Milo the Mule-Face Boy from Cold Mountain reappears as a simple outline repeated four times in Virgin, as does a cartoonish dinosaur/dragon from Intellects of the 1980s. They begin to riff off one another, developing conversations between themselves like the musicians in a jazz combo. These Black Sea Paintings have an improvisatory energy, one that doesn't seem quite focused yet, but which nonetheless draws you in.

As the exhibition's subtitle suggests, The Black Sea Paintings are the heart of this show. But "Tetélestai: Notebooks of the Black Sea" contains other notable works, especially the wall painting Three Abstract Paintings for the Blind (2003), which consists of three words painted on the east walls of the gallery: "Beauty," in a lovely, cursive script; "God," in a strong, broad font; and "Virtue," in austere, upright lettering. As McGee is one of Houston's most intelligent and audacious artists, I would expect him to tackle subjects no less daunting. Even if the waters are choppy, and the destination uncertain, as long as McGee keeps scattin' like this, I'll sign on for the journey.

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John Devine