The Jury's Still Out

A juried exhibition is the art-world equivalent of the lottery, but with significantly better odds. Say an artist completes a conceptually and physically weighty sculpture he would like the world, or at least some people in Houston, to see. He decides to enter it in a juried exhibition, an action with several possible outcomes:

Most likely: He hauls his 300-pound lead object to the venue. It is rejected. He hauls the 300-pound lead object back home.

Less likely: His 300-pound lead object is accepted.

Even less likely: His 300-pound lead object receives an award, including enough cash to pay someone else to haul the 300-pound lead object home.

Yeah, right: Someone -- a well-known collector, a gallery owner or maybe even the curator for the next Whitney Biennial -- stumbles upon his Meisterst¨ck, and the next thing you know, he's downing brandy Manhattans with Saachi.

Two of Houston's hallmark juried exhibitions are currently on view, the "Houston Area Exhibition 2000" at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery and "The Big Show 2000" at Lawndale Art Center. While most competitions charge an entry fee and choose works based on only slides, both the Blaffer and Lawndale steadfastly refuse to do either, and insist upon selecting pieces only after seeing the real thing. It's a more egalitarian approach that allows artists who can't afford fees or decent slides to be given an equal opportunity. Limiting entrants to those within a 100-mile radius of downtown Houston makes this logistically feasible.

Jurors for the Area Exhibition -- Joe Havel, director of the Glassell School of Art; Jessica Cusick of Cusick Consulting in Los Angeles; and Mary L. Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection of Sculpture at the University of California, San Diego -- selected 81 works from 1,560 submissions. Sarah Kellner, former director of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York, and current director of DiverseWorks, selected 103 pieces from the 863 submitted for the Big Show. Let's see: This leaves the artists who produced the remaining 2,239 unselected works free to question the judgment, if not the sanity, of the jurors.

Trying to divine cohesive themes in a juried exhibition is like trying to pinpoint the center of the universe. Jurors' curatorial choices are confined to what is set before them. These shows can function like a loosely accurate topographic map of the highs and lows of Houston art, with most of the real chasms edited out.

The interesting thing about juried exhibitions is how they call into question our perceptions of art, and how we make judgments. Sometimes a juror views a work in a way that it may not have been intended. There are always examples of bad, kitschy paintings, which a juror has perceived as ironic, but which a viewer suspects are sincerely bad, kitschy paintings. But does it matter? It's still the same object. What do you do if the conceptual underpinnings that would cause a work to be viewed as art with a capital "A" don't exist, but the object itself calls them to mind, regardless of the artist's intent? Should intent really change the validity of an artwork? Jurors, unless they are familiar with local artists, step cold into a pile of art and may be more likely to give a work the benefit of the doubt. It can make the subjective world of art slightly more objective.

Both shows have their share of strong work as well as the obligatory assortment of "what the hell were they thinking?" selections. Keep your eye out for some wonderfully gloopy abstract paintings. At Lawndale, Teresa O'Connor's misshapen canvases -- acrylic and varnish over fabric-covered upholstery foam -- are great painting/sculpture hybrids with boldly and brightly viscous surfaces. The Blaffer presents Hilary Harnischfeger's strangely original Kiomisan Rice. Vibrantly colored shapes are painted on layered coats of resin to create a visually dimensional composition. The surrounding surface is covered with a sugary pink opaque coating that, according to the wall label, actually contains sugar -- a boldly optimistic move in light of Houston's roach population. The material is built up thick and fleshy with what can only be described as a pustule erupting in red on the lower left.

Portraits seem to have made something of a resurgence, considering that Beth Secor's witty, pseudo-historical painting Brett as a Member of the House of Lords won third place at Lawndale. Patrick Palmer's portraits scored awards at both venues -- a combined cash prize of $1,250, for those of you keeping score at home. His images are well painted and direct. The cleanly modeled profile Portrait of Kurt took third prize at the Blaffer and is slightly more effective than another portrait, Lovelock, which earned second place at Lawndale. (Quite a few artists, incidentally, have work in both shows, and the Blaffer's earlier deadline seems to have given it first choice in several instances.)

Richard Fluhr's stylized profiles of In Between Us (1999) received Lawndale's grand prize. It's an unremarkable but inoffensive painting whose primary flaw is that it reminds you too much of an artsy T-shirt design. First place at the Blaffer went to Ariel Masson's elegantly restrained decorative abstraction Décor II. Its dense black shapes have a Rorschach-blot symmetry as they obscure floating stenciled patterns.

Laura Lark landed work in both shows, wonderful tiny cheerleader paintings (of all things) as well as drawings of Shirley MacLaine in various film roles. Her work has elements of perky fashion illustrations or spunky girl cartoons, but with a witty edge that's hard to isolate. You want them to meet the guys of David Harrison's Rasslin' over at Lawndale. Not only has he given it a great title, but he has filled its small surface with a web of carefully drawn masked wrestlers. Also at Lawndale, Betsy Coulter's subtly unambitious sculpture Block Tower II resonates beyond its straightforward construction. Her stack of eight blue-painted cinder blocks is anchored to the floor with aluminum tape down one side. The third brick from the bottom is slightly off-kilter, which is disturbing enough to make you want to fix it.

At the Blaffer, Ann Bengston's fluorescent vagina "denta" vision Bride is hands down the boldest and nuttiest thing on display. Giant eyeball sperm with spiraling wire tails swim toward a hunter-orange orifice encircled with steel wool and sprouting spikes -- an over-the-top, slapstick feminist commentary. Slightly less over-the-top is Ruben Coy's lush hypertropical landscape Down from the Sky and on to the Forest the Evening Glow Dancer, which wets its feet in the kitsch pool.

These shows offer the chance to poke around and view lesser-known work you might not see in any other venue, short of the artist's garage studio. Eclectic is the operative word, but the shows adjust themselves to the institutional character of their respective venues. The Blaffer exhibition is more elegantly spaced, more tightly edited and a little slicker. Lawndale's Big Show is jam-packed -- although less crowded than in previous years -- and casts a wider net, pulling in a broad, freewheeling assortment. There is enough meat at each location to keep viewers masticating for a while.

"The Big Show 2000" runs through August 26 at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main. For more information, call (713)528-5858.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer