Object Lesson

For a while now I've been mentally mapping out what I call my Color Tour of Houston, a project whose merit I hope our Convention and Visitors Bureau will come to recognize as a celebration of the diversity of the city's taste in paint. There's the bungalow around the block from me, a fading dark red with slate-blue window trim and a calico-yellow door. There's the vast exterior wall of the otherwise decrepit Central Bank building on Travis, which I pass on my way to the office; it's tiled with beige, cream, pink and gray stones like a vertical palace floor, or like human skin as done by the pixilist painter Chuck Close. Across the street from a community garden on Alabama, a block of white row houses each has a different shade trim. Originally a pale rainbow, the color order has been hopelessly scrambled by new paint jobs. And in the East End, there's a sea-green house with one of those spiky succulents that looks like a cross between a cactus and a sea anemone. The house and the plant are precisely the same color.

Given a little extra attention, Houston obliges with a surfeit of such visual epiphanies, and apparently Tommy Fitzpatrick is as big a fan of them as I am. Fitzpatrick's recent paintings, on view at Inman Gallery, depict things such as the Kwik Wash Laundry signs (you know, the ones with the blue sine waves); those arrows-on-wheels studded with colored light bulbs; the "ACE" from an Ace Hardware sign; and the eminently recognizable "la" from the Coca-Cola logo.

Although Fitzpatrick has the democratic, found-pleasure spirit of the Color Tour at heart, he doesn't limit his concerns to hue: Line, perspective and composition come into play as well. The only reasons I knew, for example, that the KwikWash sign was something other than a hard-edged abstract painting (he left off the words) were that one, I had seen Fitzpatrick's other work, and two, after a while I detected clues -- shadows, for example -- that it was a painting of a real thing.

Fitzpatrick's basic strategy is to hang the formal concerns of colorists like Donald Judd and abstract painters like Ellsworth Kelly on the stoic, Edward Hopper-esque forms provided by everyday life. In so doing, Fitzpatrick performs the basic artistic action of directing our attention to the beauty around us, although he does so coolly and with a wry sense of the American. In a 1947 essay recently reprinted in ArtIssues magazine, Mary McCarthy writes of the impossibility, amid the chop suey joints and French provincial restaurants, of taking a visitor to "a really American place," suggesting that "Schrafft's or the Automat" would have been appropriate, if it weren't for the fact that to go to such places would be to turn yourself into a tourist in your own country. Fitzpatrick's paintings take us to the modern-day equivalent of Schrafft's without gawking or mocking. You can tell instantly where you are, just as you can tell that the schoolkids on Teletubbies are British before they so much as open their mouths.

Fitzpatrick's earlier work includes paintings of carnival rides and those goofy sculptures that guard the holes on miniature golf courses, and his approach has always been seriocomic (in one painting he frames, for example, only the "Hi" part of the Hi/Lo Auto Supply sign, but that part is approached with solemnity). He's driven by the desire to make contemporary art more accessible, to give "the folk," as the Bill Clinton character in Primary Colors calls the inhabitants of the metaphoric heartland, something they can recognize and hold on to while Fitzgerald plies them with saturated color, formal repetition and geometric intricacy. His large painting in this show, Motel, is a perfect example. It's a spare architectural rendering of a row of motel rooms, the kind of place people stayed in during family road trips in a pre-La Quinta era, undistinguished but for the loud greens and oranges they sport under an oppressively Technicolor-blue sky.

In theory, this is somewhat condescending: If the folk can't understand pure abstraction, perhaps they can understand this. The paintings don't seem condescending, though. They seem unpretentious. They don't try hard to manipulate you. Which might be the only way to accomplish a job -- expanding art's audience -- that many have attempted without success. (I'm more inclined to just say that if you're not interested in art, a pox on you. Or more power to you. Whatever.) On the other hand, one could argue that Fitzpatrick's idea works backward in practice, that from Campbell's soup cans on down, "high art" and its acolytes are increasingly and perversely fascinated with mundane objects and American cool, and the general public is increasingly and perversely fascinated with lily pads, ballerinas and painters who cut off their own ears.

In the end, what's interesting about Fitzpatrick's paintings is not who likes them but how they're done. They're almost photo-realist, and that's where their tension lies. They're not abstract, but they're not totally faithful, either. One reason for the confusion is that Fitzpatrick zeros in on signage and other subjects designed specifically for visual appeal. They're simple already, and he refines them even more by exaggerating the color and ironing out the imperfections. Light, for example, one of the smaller paintings in the show, depicts a sleek lamp mounted on an art deco pedestal. In Fitzpatrick's rendering, the components of the pedestal seem to float unattached to each other, looking more like a logo than architecture. Although the painting avoids Tinseltown dazzle, it has the unreal quality of those computer-generated spots before movies that identify the Hollywood studio. Fitzpatrick explores just how much detail it takes to make us recognize what we're looking at.

In Mary McCarthy's essay, she makes a dubious yet eloquent case that America's virtue is its lack of materialism. She argues that no self-respecting materialist could tolerate the vulgarity and bad cuisine that is the United States, things she romanticizes as proof that we come from the under classes, not the upper ones. "Should we blush," she asks, "before the visitor for this deficiency?"

"It is true that America produces and consumes more cars, soap and bathtubs than any other nation," McCarthy says, "but we live among these objects rather than by them." Fitzpatrick's paintings seem to prove this. He looks at the bells and whistles of American vulgarity and makes them seem visually rich, even elegant in a desolate kind of way. Neither romanticizing nor desiring what he sees, Fitzpatrick doesn't live by objects, but by his honest aesthetic interest in them.

"Tommy Fitzpatrick: New Paintings" is on view at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, (713)529-9676, through May 15.

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