Shelf Life

Many artists have been interested in the objects they find in everyday life; as surrealist writer Andre Breton put it, objects contain "the principle factors of the mysteries of tomorrow." Yet by now, found-object art has gone through many half-lives, transforming from rich reactor fuel into gelded isotopes with faltering neutron counts. So at Texas Gallery, Francesca Fuchs is dealing with a genre, if you can call it that, that's already in a fairly advanced state of decay.

Yet Fuchs appears game for a challenge. As the potency of found objects dwindles, she adds much of her own making. Her use of clock radios, Thermoses, teapots and flowers doesn't come across as ironic, messy or casual thrift-store art, although many of her objects were found in thrift stores of Houston's supermarket-sized, uncurated variety. Instead, these works are perfected arrangements -- the objects are placed on little shelves with painted backgrounds and trim titles that welcome you with the fresh eagerness of a health spa: Vestibule, Vacation and Timeless Ikebana.

In Tricolor, Fuchs mounted a '60s-ish beige clock radio, a newer white cube clock radio that reminds me of a Sony model called the Dream Machine, and a pure '80s, mint-green baby boom box on three unobtrusive shelves. Behind each Fuchs painted a vertical stripe of perfectly matched beige, white or green that extends down to the floor. It looks like Neapolitan ice cream, with a tangle of three electric cords trailing off to one side.

In Thermos, the best piece in the show, Fuchs matches stripes on the wall exactly to the graduated-width, burnt orange stripes of an actual Thermos, as if the Thermos itself had been unrolled along the wall. Each object transforms its "vacant lot" of gallery wall into its own space, but the space is more store display than actual home. There are no humans in this lifestyle magazine setup. Is Martha Stewart living? Or is she just styling? In one of Fuchs's pieces, a big painted teddy bear, a scary bear, appears to hold a clunky fire-sale alarm clock, offering it for consumer inspection. It's like being in an attenuated shopping mall. Everything is flimsy as cardboard.

This Welcome Bear, so strangely inelegant and cartoonish compared to the rest of the show, falls flat. Although these pieces seek to comment on taste and preference, the works that are not tasteful themselves don't work as well, perhaps for the simple reason that they rely heavily on their own banality. They appear didactic, literal or somewhat goofy. In Serenade, the exhibit's title work, a swimmy yellow elephant from some child's nursery wall giggles at a Gerber daisy in a yellow vase. The wall behind is painted a loopy purple. Goofiness, obviously, is the point -- but to what end? The piece neither pushes goofiness to an edge nor gives us much else. It doesn't become metaphoric; the elephant and the flower don't, between them, create the cultural friction that a different pair of disparate objects might.

There is something about the act of display that's essentially didactic, even if in an obsequious, pandering kind of way. This is what you can buy; this is how it will look. Fuch's color-matching -- the exact mint green of the boom box, for example -- is the decorator's obsession, and it flirts with the oppressiveness of interior spaces that are dictated rather than organic. There's something about the color-matching that closes the door too tightly, that screws the cap stuck. There's one thing you can say when you see a lady with the same shade of purple lipstick, hose and purse: she matches. Matching is bourgeois (witness twin sets). That lowest common denominator of taste is definitely part of what Fuchs's work addresses: her characterless blue teapot in Vacation spits out painted clouds the color of salmon loaf or Hawaiian sunsets. But again, the work wants both to look good and to be about looking good, and when good equals inoffensive, it's hard to accomplish both tasks at once.

Fuchs tries to say something about the relationship of three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional space, as she has done in quite a bit of her previous work. One of the first things she showed in Houston, in her term as a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, was The Grass is Always Greener, a large photograph of a lush and spongy British landscape mounted above a rug of Astroturf. Since Fuchs had just come here from Britain, the piece was full of personal as well as general meaning: the disjoint between the "real" in the not-real picture and the "fake," but actually present, Astroturf.

In this exhibit, the relationship between 3-D and 2-D is not as rich, but it's more vicious. Traditionally, painting tries to give the illusion of being real. But here, the opposite occurs: painting wants to cannibalize, or at least camouflage, the three-dimensional objects. The objects end up pretending to be painting. They still have reference points in the real world: kitchen, bedroom, entryway, former owners, former uses. But as artist Haim Steinbach, who also works with found objects, puts it, their indistinctness is "an aspect of contemporary reality." They aren't completely formal, but they are dignified by the formal treatment they receive. Everything is subsumed to an etiquette of form that entices the viewer -- except when, as in Serenade, narrative creeps in.

This show is definitely symphonic, in that all of the works combine to make a unified exhibit. Some of the discrete works seem as if they were put in just to balance out the show. The bear piece breaks up the rectangularity of the other works in the main gallery, and in the foyer, a piece called Jazz, in which Fuchs transferred a found graphic featuring the word "JAZZ" onto the wall, looks like a paranoid act of horror vacui. It's the only piece in with no object, and although it's a nice graphic, with swooping orange and fuschia waves, is the point only that Fuchs liked it? Or that it exists in the world? Or that it expresses some lapse, or for that matter some pinnacle, of mass taste? Jasper Johns's dictum was "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." Maybe the problem is that Fuchs is missing that last step.

If the objects form a sort of vocabulary, as rearrangeable and potentially disjointed as those little magnetic poetry kits, then Fuchs asks them to denote rather than connote, draining them of all but a residue of meaning. Her sentences are sunny, bright and refined: Vestibule offers a vase of tulips with a cheerful blob of blue paint; Timeless Ikebana has orchids with refined rectangles as a backdrop. But they're not quite eloquent yet. As objects, they've lost their tongues. As art, they haven't quite found them.

"Serenade and Other Works" is on view through December 19 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 524-1593.

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