"No Skeleton Armies, Please"

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Can you give me about 30 minutes to pick up?" Brian Rod asks when I call to schedule an appointment to see the show "No Skeleton Armies, Please" at the Joanna Gallery in the neighborhood of the Menil. Rod lives in the gallery, or rather, the Joanna Gallery lives in his house — the living room, dining room, hallway, backyard and one-car garage have all been pressed into service as exhibition space.

Rod, who just graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in philosophy, and his friend and fellow artist Cody Ledvina, a student in the MFA program at the University of Houston, were interested in curating shows and collaborating on their own artwork. They decided to open the Joanna Gallery to give themselves a chance to do both.

I was excited to hear about some artists opening up a DIY gallery. That kind of thing used to happen pretty frequently in Houston, but has become rarer and rarer of late. As recently as the 1990s, when rents in Montrose, the Heights and downtown were still cheap, galleries opened up in bungalows and artists put on shows and staged events in old houses and warehouses. But the real estate boom since 2000 has priced artists out of their traditional Houston stomping grounds and replaced most of the spaces they were drawn to with loft apartments and fake stucco town homes.


"No Skeleton Armies, Please"

The Joanna Gallery, 4014 Graustark, 713-478-8874 or 713-825-1976.

Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 21, and Saturday, July 28, or by appointment.

When I arrive at the low, white bungalow on Graustark Street, Rod welcomes me into the living room/main gallery, whose wood floor is spotless. (Rod has done a great job of clearing out whatever dirty laundry and empty beer cans might have been inhabiting the space.) I check out the show — it's an all-guy exhibit of young artists. There's some good work, albeit with the requisite cartoons and violence, plus some skulls thrown in for good measure.

One of the funniest works in the show is propped up against the wall directly opposite the front door, a collaboration by Rod and Ledvina. It's a large, framed, 1960s-era poster of some guy wearing a mod shirt. We don't know who he is because his face is covered by a smeary, ghostly white skull. The skull turns out to be etching fluid painted over the frame's glass and, according to Rod, the guy underneath the etching fluid is David Hemmings, the star of Blow-Up.

Clinic, a painting by Michael Bise, hangs on an adjoining wall. Bise is best known for his elaborate, semiautobiographical and cartoonish pencil drawings. The figures in Bise's painting are rendered in a similar style, but here they depict soldiers clad in Roman garb, with missing limbs and arrows in their asses. The space of the painting is fairly flat, and the figures are arranged in rows across its surface and shown in profile. It reminds me of a certain art history classic, the Standard of Ur, a wooden box inlaid with shell and stone from 2600 BC. (Slides of it make it into about every art history survey class; it's especially memorable because the little figures in it seem to be depicted in a modern cartoon-like style.) Bise's quirky painting looks like it was inspired by the images of Sumerian soldiers from the more than 4,000-year-old artifact. No doubt that was guy art as well.

Referencing artifacts from WWI, clusters of Francis Giampietro's Zeppelins hang in a corner of the living room, er, gallery. The objects are silly and engaging, clumsily made out of wire armatures wrapped with what looks like Saran Wrap. They are tinted in pastel colors, and the plastic is burned out in places. The biggest one is about the size of a watermelon; I'd love to see a couple of them ridiculously huge.

In another corner, Eric Pearce's No Plans for the next 100 Years is a vibrant silk screen of multicolored concentric circles with a skull in the middle. Opposite it is a series of drawings painted in watercolor by Treon Rick, apparently the alias of the guy whose alias is YAR! They have a goofy narrative that involves the head of John the Baptist and a dead guy wearing a Hegel T-shirt. They aren't bad, but there is a lot of that kind of work out there.

In the hallway, a video by Nick Meriwether is screened on a G4 Powerbook with a detached screen. (Rod says it was a common defect of the laptop, so he decided to mount the keyboard and screen into a wood frame, almost a piece unto itself.) Meriwether's video is short and mildly uncomfortable. It shows a guy's slightly grubby finger trying to clean some unseen speck off of a woman's lower lip. I see what he's going for, but it's not quite uncomfortable enough to be engaging.

The house's back lawn is bordered by a gorgeous stone wall. It's part of the Menil's Byzantine Chapel, which Rod and Ledvina have thoughtfully included as #9 on their works list. In the yard, they built two structures that feel like clubhouses for twentysomethings. Rod's is neatly executed, a Dance Floor with pavers, while Ledvina's Innocence always lures those bastards in is more ramshackle, its materials described as "Wood, Hate, Wiener."

Rod shows me the Joanna Gallery "project space," a stifling one-car garage that contains the hot water heater, washer and dryer, cat box and a haphazard collaborative installation involving most of the artists in the show. Michael Bise did some drawings on the walls, somebody else wrote "Boner" on another wall and another person added some helium-filled condoms, now sadly flaccid. A seven-minute video shows "the making of" Ledvina's backyard sculpture, which, from what I saw, involved Ledvina standing in the grass making halfhearted attempts with a posthole digger. (This boy has never worked construction.) On a 96-degree July day in an un-air-conditioned garage, it was too hot to see the whole seven minutes, so I can't report what else happens. Rod tells me that at some point in the construction process, Ledvina became convinced he'd severed some fiber optic cable, but fortunately it was just a root and Montrose phone service was unaffected.

Rod is hanging out this summer before he applies to graduate school. It's a lot harder for artists to just hang out in Houston these days, and I ask him if he got a good deal on the rent for the house. He explains it's owned by the Menil, so the rent is about 300 bucks less a month than it would be elsewhere. (The Menil subsidizes the Houston art scene in myriad ways.) While "No Skeleton Armies, Please" isn't the most spectacular "hey, let's put on a show" event I've ever seen in Houston, it's refreshing to see it is still possible to pull this kind of thing together in a city in which artists are increasingly priced out of the market.

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