Playing Around

When I walked into Yayoi Kusama's installation at the Rice University Art Gallery recently, I saw a bunch of students lying around on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I took this to be a good sign. The gallery has been transformed into a perceptual playhouse, one whose antiseptic feel is emphasized by the hospital-blue booties visitors must wear to enter. The ceiling, walls and floor are painted bright yellow and covered with large black polka dots of the sort that might grace Minnie Mouse's frock. Four misshapen latex balloons, looking rather like gigantic eggplants, loll about the room -- a couple almost span the length of the gallery. Dots spill out the door of the gallery and onto the lobby floor. They're everywhere. Even when you close your eyes, an optic afterburn remains. The piece is aptly named Dots Obsession.

The artist, Yayoi Kusama, doesn't use the word "obsession" lightly. Kusama, who has a clinical mental condition that, among other things, causes hallucinations in which patterns appear to multiply and spread over every surface in sight, lives in a mental institution in Japan. Because of this, she never visited the Rice gallery when creating her work. Instead, she designed the site-specific installation only after receiving a description of the gallery.

That fact, along with a little history on Kusama, puts her cheery-seeming work in quite a different light. Born in 1929, she made her way to the U.S. in the late '50s, determined to work as an artist. By the late '60s, she had become such a cult figure that, according to some sources, her fame in New York rivaled that of Andy Warhol. She staged many Happenings, or performances, during which she would often paint polka dots on naked people, horses and whatever else was at hand.

By the mid '70s, though, Kusama had retreated back to Tokyo, to the mental institution where she's lived ever since. Repetition and pattern have always been an important part of Kusama's oeuvre, as well as of her illness. Critics usually interpret her work as teetering between self-obliteration (drowning in dots) or self-aggrandizement (covering everything with dots). Still, there's more to Kusama's work than dots -- there's the furniture she covered with phalluses, the intricate, relentlessly clean drawings of snakes, pumpkins and hats, and a slew of colorful prints.

The installation at Rice serves, then, as just an introduction to the work of someone whose art at its best uses mental illness to its advantage, and makes no bones about doing so. To visit Dots Obsession is to experience life according to Kusama, a feat impressive in its focus, but also one that's relentlessly narrow -- obsession, as it were, for obsession's sake.

But if Kusama's installation beckons passersby into the gallery, the very mention of video art often has me heading for the door. Thankfully, "Being and Time," the current show of video projection at the Contemporary Arts Museum, is not one of those butt-numbing video shows that has you sitting on a hard bench and staring at a monitor. Instead, it's a thrifty assembly of works by six top video artists, a show dampened only by the fact that one of its eight pieces is installed so badly as to be rendered impotent.

That piece is Bruce Nauman's Clown Torture, in which a clown is projected on walls and shown on various stacked monitors. On one screen, he screams "No" repeatedly; on another, he chants a children's logic trap ("Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence..."); and on still another, he sits on the toilet in a restroom stall. Unfortunately, the volume -- intended to be jacked up to assault level -- is so low that the viewer has to stand near the speakers, a bad vantage point from which to see the actual videos, to discern what's being said.

The artists in this show don't use video as a documentary tool -- instead, they test the form's limits and capacity for invention. The most salient dimension of video art vis-a-vis other media is time, and Bill Viola is one who experiments drastically with this element. By filming his beautiful The Greeting in super-slow motion, he reveals the infinitesimal dramas that occur in even the briefest human exchange. Filmed in supersaturated colors, The Greeting is a reenactment of a Biblical moment painted by Jacopo Pontormo in the 16th century: the pregnant Virgin Mary's visit to her long-barren cousin Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant as well. Viola's version, oriented vertically like the painting rather than horizontally as video usually is, takes its composition and costume cues from Pontormo, but Viola has contemporized the image and stripped it of any clear scriptural reference. In the video, one woman looks on as two other women -- one older, the other obviously pregnant -- embrace. As the witness realizes that she has been left out, not only from the hug but from some secret blessing the other women share, her reaction plays out clearly on her face. In this case, the blessing from which the woman is excluded is not necessarily miraculous -- it could be simply grace, popularity, shared memories or any of a number of qualities whose absence separates one person from a group.

Separation is also a theme in Gary Hill's Tall Ships. In this work, the viewer enters a long, dark hallway along which blurry points of light glimmer; as you proceed, the blurry points become human beings, who appear to walk up to you as you pass by. By the time they reach you, these black and white figures are nearly life-size, and they simply stare searchingly at you for a few seconds, then turn and retreat to their original place, sometimes throwing a hopeful backward glance. Though technologically advanced, this piece is simple and elegiac, fraught with the ambiguity of any human encounter. At the end of the hall, a small girl ventures to meet the visitor, arms raised in a gesture that at first seems like a shrug, but then becomes a questioning request that one has the urge to respond to. But there is nothing to do but eventually retreat.

Retreat is an option many might select when confronting Mark Flood's aggressive, intentionally bad paintings at Brasil. In many ways, Flood is a marginal yet crucial figure for the art world, one who expresses its preoccupations, obsessions and anxieties. His paintings -- or lack thereof, since one piece in the current show consists of teen magazine pinups and other images tacked to a bare stretcher and titled Painting I intended to make -- are combinations of bitter honesty, selective laziness, sublimated desire and perversely festive glitter. Many appear to be abstract paintings washed over with solid white or black paint. One, on which Flood has left a narrow strip of abstract marks, is a flow chart for an art career in which jaunty arrows mimic the partly revealed gestural abstraction. One potential path is "make art, no gallery, store art, don't get paid." SUCCESS, written in large, celebratory letters, is also part of the chart, but it is isolated on the far side of the gulf of abstraction, and one can reach it only by way of a "scuzzy gallery." The ultimate question, it seems, is why make art at all, if these are the available options?

Flood asks that question not only with respect to the art world's celebrity machine, but also in the face of impending world calamity. One of his larger paintings has a simple off-white ground with the following scrawled across it: "PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN RAC/1. Massive Die-offs, 2. Acknowledge ongoing eco-deaths, 3. Proliferating group suicides* (*without despair), 4. Proliferating mob violence..." The litany ends with "7. Rebirth in the Arts," a prediction that may be entirely sincere, or it may be cynical sarcasm -- after all, Flood himself makes art, even if he questions his activity. "I'm not a cynic; I'm just not an idiot," Flood has said -- and only against such a shockingly astute view of the world could paintings fail in their resolve to be paintings with such brutal honesty.

A fourth current show that's worth a look is DiverseWorks's "Romper Room," an import from Thread Waxing Space in New York City. "Romper Room" purports to feature the work of artists who "look at the zone in which art and play collide." Unfortunately, that translates into a show of artists who deal with play literally rather than conceptually -- which means that they photograph toys, reconstruct toys, mutilate toys and make their own toys. Much of the art in this show looks destined to be photographed for the cover of an indie rock album, if not for the fact that even indie rockers are probably over Barbie by now.

Still, there are a few bright moments, among them Pam Lins's disemboweled Nerf Football Flower (didn't you always want to rip a Nerf ball apart?); Takashi Murakami's paintings of a mouthless, wide-eyed Japanimation gal who's first pictured suited up in a bulletproof superhero suit, then shown naked to the world; and D'Nell Larson's BUMP. One of the few pieces in the show that actually encourages play, BUMP consists of twin bicycle-powered swans that glide like miniature parade floats when you climb inside one and pedal.

"The zone in which art and play collide" sounds like a fun place, a place where the serious becomes fun and the fun has an edge to it. It sounds like a kinetic place, too, an exploratorium for the senses. Yet none of the exhibits that make up "Romper Room" accomplishes the creation of that place as well as does Yayoi Kusama's Dots Obsession. After you've been staring at the yellow ceiling for a while, you can look out the glass front wall of the gallery and see dots everywhere, even on the lawn, suggesting that the zone where art and play collide can be projected onto any zone -- once, that is, it's burned into our minds.

"Dots Obsession" will be on view through November 2 at the Rice University Art Gallery, 6100 Main Street (Sewall Hall), 527-6069. "Being and Time" will be on view through October 5 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 284-8250. Works by Mark Flood will be on view through October 9 at Brasil, 2606 Dunlavy, 528-1993. "Romper Room" will be on view through October 25 at DiverseWorks, 117 E. Freeway, 223-8346.

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Shaila Dewan