The Biggest and the Baddest

"The Big Show" at Lawndale Art Center looks like an art garage sale. It's as if every sometime artist living within 100 miles of this city unearthed a 20-year-old craft project from behind the gas cans in his garage, stumbled across a flyer for the free juried exhibition and said, "What the hell, I'll give it a shot." And they were all accepted.

One exhibiting artist came home from the opening and told her husband, "Don't stand next to me, I smell bad. I smell bad from being in that show." While things aren't quite as grim as that -- there is some good work intermingled with the bad -- she has a point. The visual stench of some of the entries is so strong it threatens to overwhelm everything in the gallery.

The public opening was packed beyond anything even the laxest of fire marshals would consider acceptable. Artists and their husbands, wives, children, grandparents, friends, co-workers, cousins -- the turnout was huge, as it usually is with juried shows, which often provide young or emerging artists with their first public exhibitions. It's the kind of thing friends and families like to turn up for. Juried exhibitions also provide a good opportunity for more established artists who are not involved with a gallery to have their work seen. Although there are a number of them in the show, few of the Houston art world's usual suspects were in attendance at the Saturday opening, possibly because they were still recovering from the free gin and tonics offered at the Friday members' and artists' preview, or perhaps because they were hiding.

Juried by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, curator of American and contemporary art at the University of Texas's Blanton Museum of Art, "The Big Show" simply contains too damn much work. But this is a common complaint with juried exhibitions; maybe we should rephrase that to say too much unsuccessful work. A severe paring-down of Carlozzi's 145 selections would have helped the situation immensely.

Admittedly, being a juror is a thankless job. No matter what you do, somebody's not going to like it. In her statement, Carlozzi says she "wanted the show to be inclusive of an extremely broad range of artistic vocabularies -- conceptually derived objects, new media, fine crafts and painting, drawings, prints, sculptures and photographs that range from the vanguard to traditional." This is where she went wrong, because while she may have found examples of a wide range of artistic production, she didn't specify that they be good. It's a variation on the Noah's ark approach -- if Noah wasn't real picky and we ended up with two-headed calves, three-legged dogs and stunted giraffes.

In the main gallery, Raul Lemesoff's Tish, a six-legged sculpture/coffee table is crafted from car windows and masses of telephone wire cut to look like fur. There's not much to say about it beyond, "Wow, that's a lot of phone wire." Dixie Friend Gay's muddy, green-gray swamp painting, Caddo Lake, features cypress trees unconvincingly placed in the water like upside-down mushrooms. The rectangular canvas has two pointless square stainless-steel additions at the top and bottom. Why would anyone make this painting (unless it was an album cover for Credence Clearwater Revival)?

"Why?" is also the question inspired by Rosalind Lilly's series of five -- yes, five -- triangular black boxes packed with Hydrocal casts of big toes. Each box is brimming with big toes tinted in the lurid '80s designer colors lime-green, purple and pink. The piece is called Uncle Jamie's Toes. Why the boxes? Why the toes? Why those colors? I don't even want to know why that title. It looks like a misguided decorator item crafted by a person who has only recently visited our planet. It's icky, weird and bad in an inadvertent way.

Paul Fleming's Guidex, a wall sculpture with a series of luminous orange resin hemispheres from his series of Hydrocal and resin castings, is unluckily situated directly beneath Vincent Fromen's creatively titled Sunset, a long horizontal canvas with peach underpainting, an encroaching lavender sky and a thickly painted and perfectly spherical orange sun in the center. You can't really see Fleming's work, because the orange of his resin is inexorably linked with the big orange circle in Fromen's sky. Somebody needs to separate these two.

But we promised that there was some good work -- or at least better work -- interspersed with the bad. Tod Hebert's five-foot-eight Santa took first place in the competition. Its strips of intricately twisted and knotted white packing foam give it a Michelin Man quality. Lee Littlefield's Texas Big Bowie looks like the skeleton of a giant tadpole snaking down one of the gallery's columns. Painted a highway department yellow and made from Littlefield's trademark stripped tree branches, it has a long tail attached to an ovoid body with a semicircular series of wooden ribs.

Laura Neaderhouser adds a new chapter to the book on needlework-as-fine-art. Hung flat on the wall, her coiled, ruffled and sprawling crocheted forms act as woven line drawings or knitted paintings without borders. If the scale were increased, they'd be even more interesting.

In the back galleries, Jason Villegas presents quirky mutant animal sculptures. His Educational Restroom Attendant consists of two spiky, conjoined rabbitlike creatures with eerie plastic eyes; they're fashioned from papier-mâché twists of toilet paper. Fireplace Romance Bearskin Rug is a crudely stitched and headless stuffed bear/Tasmanian devil in worn rust-colored fabric with odd protuberances.

The marks that overlay the subtly toned background of Sharon Willcutts's Transmutation #3 have a nice lyrically linear quality to them. Marty Arredondo's own line obsession has something of Kenny Scharf's comics-derived style; networks of black lines and figures grow over the matte yellow urethane surface of Peace After Life. Laura Lark's witty ink drawings of vintage fashion photos -- high heels, anklets and blankly staring models -- convey the sketchy style of a fashion-obsessed high school girl.

For Robert Pruitt's The Devil Planted Fear Inside the Black Babies 50¢ sodas/In the hood they just gone crazy, an endless spiral of tiny black figures is drawn on the interior of a banged-up white enamel sink. The antlike line of anonymous people disappears down the drain.

The mother lode of bad art is located upstairs, and if you need more warning than that, just check out Stop Crying near the steps. The image of a sad, longhaired woman has been created by cleverly hammering roofing nails into a slab of chipped black plywood. Glue or varnish was dripped on the eyes to simulate tears. Rumor has it that this was a high school art project, and if I were on Antiques Roadshow, I too would guess a '70s vintage. Of course, if this is true, the artist had to lie on the entry form; "Big Show" works are supposed to be no more than two years old.

If you must go upstairs, at least look for the standouts: Daniela Epstein's Crash #1, an airline pillow with a photographic image of floating wreckage, and John Earles's tiny rectangular paintings with bright comiclike fragments. Much of the rest runs along the lines of Self Portrait as Nefertari, an image of a blond woman in a quasi-royal headdress with an Egyptoid background and a scarab in her mouth. It could be the cover illustration for a tome on past-life regression.

I hate to rain on egalitarian art parades like "The Big Show" (each of the four separate times I viewed the exhibition, there was someone enthusiastically leading relatives through the show), but there is more than the usual dose of crap in this one, and it's a shame. Houston has a great art scene, but this show makes us look like a bunch of earnest but untalented hobbyists.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer