In 1980 Hurricane Allen hit Brownsville, traveled west and spawned tornadoes in San Antonio. If you search YouTube, you can find a clip of a period San Antonio newscast about the storm from KENS TV Eyewitness News. The 30-year-old video includes a report of a Bexar County trailer home being destroyed by a tornado. It has the requisite natural-disaster interview with a guy in a gimme cap. Artist Seth Mittag built a narrative around this clip, sculpting characters, and creating stop-motion animation and sets. Mittag's work is on view at Lawndale Art Center in "Prospectors," an exhibition showcasing the work of Mittag and fellow Lawndale Artist Studio Program residents David Politzer and Anne J. Regan.
Mittag got his MFA at the University of Houston in 2003, and a few years later he got a gig in New York doing stop-motion animation for the likes of Michael Eisner, Moveon.org and Nickelodeon. In the Lawndale show, he turns his talents to animating the circa-1980 KENS clip. (Seeing the original makes Mittag's swooping newscaster's hair and porn-star mustache even funnier.) The KENS backdrop Mittag used for the video, Hurricane Allen Newscast, is on display, with a big hurricane over Texas on the weather map, apparently crafted from cotton balls. Mittag's animated newscast is shown on a tiny screen he embedded in a miniature version of an old box TV. The piece rests on a big pedestal, and the screen is dusty and distorted, just like in the good old days. Mittag crafted a tiny beer bottle that rests on top of the set, along with the foil-wrapped TV rabbit-ear antennas. The artist even added a tiny cord plugged into a little fake electrical outlet on the wall behind.
That sense of detail continues through the rest of Mittag's work. We're Still Here... (2011) is a large model of a twisted mobile home lodged in a tree, its pink insulation spewing out of the walls. The trailer is broken open to reveal a tipped refrigerator and a slice of pizza adhering to the wall. A pair of little kids' jockey shorts are stuck in one of the branches. A painted landscape backdrop hangs behind the scene, and Mittag has covered the windows of Lawndale with tinfoil, a Southern go-to move to keep the light and the heat out.
The follow-up to We're Still Here... is Not too bad for now, hell it even has a satellite! (2012), a yellow school bus with a mattress inside and a barbecue smoker outside. A page with a kid's addition problem is on the ground. It appears to be the temporary home of the tornado victims. On the walls of the gallery hang photographs staged using Mittag's characters, creating other snippets of narrative. The mortgage huckster who appeared in a chicken suit in a commercial in the newscast is shown hustling the trailer owner in a series of images. I found myself wishing they were little dioramas rather than photos.
Mittag has a great sense of narrative, mining the trials and tribulations of South Texas working poor. If there is a flaw in the work, it's that it's too good. The pieces are incredibly well-crafted, which means they occasionally get a little too slick and commercial. I just keep thinking about Lauren Kelley's early video Big Gurl and the wonderfully homemade feeling of the props. I don't think that Mittag should make anything less well-crafted, but maybe they need to be a little grubbier — the abandoned bus is too clean! — or be more packed with wonky detail. Presenting the sculptural work more theatrically, as he did in an installation at Rice University's Emergency Room gallery, seems to work better as well. Of course, that's tough in a main-gallery group show. I'm nitpicking, but I think just a little bit of this could go a long way and make the material even stronger.
David Politzer's work is also on view in the show. His photographs capture views of "nature" that are decidedly unnatural. The image Comforter, Alpine (2012) looks like it was taken in a motel room. Politzer fills his lens with a rumpled and obnoxiously floral bedspread, decorated with the kind of blooms one might find in an English garden. I'm taking the Alpine of the title to mean Alpine, Texas. Its location in the arid western part of the state makes the lush florals not just incongruous but kind of sad.
Other Politzer works are more obviously surreal. A laughably fake, tan-plastic boulder rests against a wooden fence, covering the gas meter or some other eyesore in Artificial Rock, Russellville (2012). Skunk Fur, Lake Dardanelle (2012) looks like it was shot in a dated visitor center for the Arkansas state park. There's an awkwardly rendered mural of the lake in the background, with a carpet-covered platform in the foreground. On it rests a piece of wood cut out in the shape of a skunk and painted black, with a piece of actual skunk fur glued to it. The mural illustrates what's out in the park, while the skunk silhouette gives the kids a wildlife facsimile to pet. Politzer really hones in on the weirdness in contemporary society relating to the natural world.
The theme continues in his video Restless (2012), which was shot through the open flap of a pop-up tent. The world beyond the tent changes from desert to beach to mountain to forest. Human interventions crop up; chain-link fencing appears in one scene, a row of Porta-Potties in another. The whole while, the view is cropped, with the viewer trapped in the confines of the tent and its rounded opening consistently framing the varied landscapes. It's like the boy in the bubble goes camping.
This group-show format isn't helping Politzer's HDL: Hyper Democratic Landscapes (2012), a tripartite projection of landscape images fading into each other. The effect is kind of underwhelming. Three screens are hung high in the gallery, their tops curved for an ecclesiastical-window vibe. Each screen projects a different type of landscape, titled by the artist as Harsh, Rugged, Barren; Biggest, Tallest, Highest; and Sublime, Heavenly, Inspiring. They don't seem that different, and are a little hard to make out. The piece might work much better if it were given its own darkened space and projected on a larger scale.
Anne Regan is working in the conceptual-alchemy realm most Houstonians will associate with Dario Robleto. Robleto's got a particularly deft hand with that kind of work, which is hard to pull off. It's easy to overdo. Regan's work fares pretty well; her simpler pieces are the strongest. Her Mourning Sleeves (2011) are paper record sleeves printed with a black lace pattern. They come in sizes for seven-, ten- and 12-inch records and were designed "to sleeve titles in your record collection when a beloved musician passes." When you think about it, there is something kind of haunting about owning the voice of a now-dead person. It's a black armband for your albums.
Wall of Sound (Silent Painting Series) (2010-2012) is a minimalist-looking grid of wax-coated medium-density fiberboard rectangles with a Phil Spector-inspired title. The wax mottles and patinas the surface of the cheap MDF, and the piece works relatively well on a purely visual level. But as with all this work, the kicker is in the materials list. "Beeswax encaustic on fiberboard exposed at concerts to soak up energy from the performance." The panels are identified left to right, top to bottom by the performers, who include the likes of Chuck Berry, Peaches, Daniel Johnston, the Raveonettes, Leonard Cohen, Jack White, The Magnetic Fields and Iggy Pop.
Lightnin' Wand (2011) is an oak-and-mahogany conductors' baton buried in the earth at Lightnin' Hopkins's grave for seven days and nights. The patina on the baton is interesting, as is the idea that the object is somehow permeated with the musical power of Hopkins. But then I started to think about the orchestral connotations of the conductor's baton and how that related to a blues guitarist, and the magic dimmed.
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I'll meet you on that other shore (2012), Regan's series of letters addressed to dead musicians, works pretty well. She either shows a photo of the letter being mailed or displays the marked-up returned envelopes. Her attempt to communicate with the dead through the U.S. Postal Service, which is fairly mysterious in itself, met with mixed results. The letter to Patsy Cline was never returned, Johnny Cash's was.
But other works are too gimmicky. Regan collected rocks and grass from Johnny and June Carter Cash's grave, carefully arranging the material and embedding it in beeswax, for one piece; she did the same thing with cotton bolls from the Mississippi Delta. The works feel contrived and look too craftsy.
Regan's piece Billie's Fridge (2012) purports to contain "everything from Billie Holiday's grocery list at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel, San Francisco, 1946." When associated with iconic figures, even stuff as mundane as a grocery list becomes a point of connection, an insight into the real person. I like the idea of purchasing everything on her list and displaying it, but the Organic Valley eggs and the no-added-nitrate, chemical-free Applegate bacon are symbols of privileged 21st-century eating. I buy that stuff, too, but applying it to Holiday's 1946 grocery list seems odd. Is Regan trying to buy only the best for Billie, or is this a sign of a huge disconnect? Holiday had an epically tragic life. She was neglected as a child, raped and worked as a prostitute as a young teen, living her adult life in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. I don't think Holiday had the luxury of obsessing about nitrates in her bacon and antibiotics in the hens that laid her breakfast eggs.
Despite the real or perceived flaws in "Prospectors," there's no question Lawndale has chosen a strong group of artists for its Studio Program.