These guys are staring at you because you're fat. Just 
    kidding. Sort of.
These guys are staring at you because you're fat. Just kidding. Sort of.
Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center

Lawn Signs

Government control is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than on the roads. Think about it. You rarely freak out when you see a cop standing inside a building or walking in a park, unless you're a kleptomaniac or a psycho. But how about when you're behind the wheel and there's blue in the rearview? That's when just about everyone feels guilty of something.

We're constantly reminded of this control: Stop. Wrong way. No U-turn. No parking. It's the same with construction cones and Jersey barriers. These tell us to go around, move along, right this way. And what makes all these driving directives different from other signs in our lives, like, say, Shoplifters will be prosecuted, is that road signs do more than just remind us of the law; they make the law, redefining it by virtue of where they are. They are the law.

Yumi Janairo Roth, an artist who has lived in Oregon, Illinois, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin and Colorado, has brought a mischievous show to Lawndale Art Center, "Detoured," in which she's toyed around with roadside construction materials. Orange traffic cones have been reconfigured as piñatas, far more festive and fragile than the usual durable rubber; sawhorse-shaped barriers have been covered in small rectangular mirrors, reflecting the action rather than directing it; and orange-and-white slipcovers have been crafted for Jersey barriers, really sprucing up what's normally drab concrete.

Info

"Yumi Janairo Roth: Detoured"

Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858.

Through January 20.

These items are spread around Lawndale's large gallery randomly, adding to the subversion of things usually seen in straight lines. It's all intriguing, except these objects would probably be best served by a site-specific installation out on the street. After all, that's where such things belong. (And you can't let the artist off the hook by way of Duchamp, giving her props for showing the objects out of context, since she has modified them to such an extent that they're way beyond readymade.) Houston's own Scatterbrain Collective has done a great job of using roadside materials in subversive ways, making hammocks out of orange netting and leaving them on construction sites, but we can't expect the Lawndale folks to condone full-scale guerrilla installations. It'd be a waste of their revamped space and they'd probably lose their nonprofit status.

Roth does offer up 15 photos of the objects "in situ," placed in front of notable Houston buildings, such as Houston Community College, Reliant Center, Holman Street Baptist Church and City of Houston Code Enforcement -- love that last one, by the way -- but the artist left the sculptures there just long enough to snap a photo and move on to the next stop. Only two of the pictures offer up a narrative sense of time: The first features a perplexed cop staring at a mirrored barrier, and the second shows a bus shooting past a piñata cone, although this shot is obviously staged right outside the gallery. Still, it's nice to see the works in their "natural" environment, if only in photos.

The folks at Lawndale usually do a good job of tying together seemingly disparate exhibitions by subtle threads, and they've done it again by pairing Roth's work with that of Louisiana sculptor Aaron P. Hussey, whose "Projected Idol: a madman's obsession" fills the mezzanine gallery. Hussey's work also deals with signs as means of control, but that's not the first thing you notice upon walking into the space. There are hundreds of little ceramic dudes, each about a foot high, standing on the floor with chubby bellies and hollow eyes. One's looking right at you upon entry, his head cocked in wonderment at your strange largeness. His buddies, crafted like unadorned Masters of the Universe dolls, congregate on two sides of a wall that splits the space in half. On the left side they mill about on black and white tiles, many of them moving toward a hole painted Looney Tunes-style on the middle wall; others have chosen to be original and either ignore the hole or climb a ladder to a different painted exit.

On the right side is where things really start to get weird. Most of the little guys are clumped together, staring at a silent video projected on the wall. Say hello to the installation's deeper meaning, a commentary on the way we're pummeled with conflicting messages about obesity. As images flash on the wall, we see a naked guy sucking in his gut, an ad for a Value Meal, a get-fit article in a men's magazine and people cramming into turnstiles. The contradictory messages keep on coming, and it becomes clear that the artist cares for neither fast food nor quick fixes. At one point there's a picture of McDonald's, followed by a stop sign, followed by Subway, followed by a stop sign, followed by Slim-Fast, followed by a stop sign.

Several of the little men stand about, ignoring the video altogether. These guys can be thought of as the nonconformists, but Hussey gives them the same blank expressions as the others, letting us know that even they can't escape the tyranny of body image, the conflicting signs of conspicuous consumption. But he does give us a way out: A large fun-house mirror hangs on the wall, making thinner all those who gaze into it. Only by looking at ourselves, he seems to say, can we break free from the outside forces controlling our lives.

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