Wide-Open Spaces

Whenever you walk into an art space and find yourself thinking, what the hell, take that as a good sign. It usually means you're being challenged. Take, for example, what greets you when you enter the main space at DiverseWorks: On your right, there are three large, pot-bellied paintings (sculptures?), one purple, one yellow, and one red; to your left, a large-ish box containing miniature sculptures arranged as in a gallery (with the box it travels in sitting on the floor beside it); a little farther on to your left, several light boxes illuminating some brightly colored, childlike diagrammatic drawings; and, in the far corner, what vaguely resembles a life-sized quadruped -- no, wait -- quintruped! -- as might have been designed by a committee.

Welcome to "Big as Texas," DiverseWorks' entry in the crop of Lone Star State survey shows that have recently sprung up around Houston like mushrooms after heavy rain. First up was the "Houston Area Exhibition 2000" (a.k.a., the "100-Mile Range Round Up") at the Blaffer Gallery last summer, followed in the fall by the more thematically focused "Out of the Ordinary" at the Contemporary Arts Museum (see "Everyday Art," by Kelly Klaasmeyer, August 24, 2000). Later this summer, we'll have "The Big Show," Lawndale Art Center's annual check-up on the general health of the local art scene.

Faced with this embarrassment of riches, the staff at DiverseWorks knew they needed to take a different angle. They wanted fresh faces, not a parade of the usual suspects. So they settled on a sole criterion: Artists who had exhibited rarely, if at all, in Houston. They not only got their freshness, but they also managed to find a lot of diversity of subject matter and materials -- as well as approaches to both.

Still, there is a single thread that runs through all this diversity: a droll humor, a cockeyed perspective on this amusing, bemusing world of ours. That miniature gallery mentioned above? After years of sending slides of his work to various art spaces, all in vain, Martin Delabano of Dallas created Exhibition in a Box (1995), a small white box of a gallery with a faux brick exterior, which he filled with miniatures of his sculptures. He began shipping, unsolicited, his "traveling show" (complete with exhibition catalog) to museums and art centers around the country; apparently, like a boomerang, it always came back. But, at least once, the "exhibition" sat on the loading dock at the Whitney Museum in New York for six months. Delabano is happy to interpret that as a solo exhibition with an extended run.

A much older artistic tradition than the traveling exhibition is trompe l'oeil -- literally, to fool the eye. Kirk Hayes of Fort Worth fools the eye with a vengeance. His three works -- Nerve Bundle (1999), Mouse-o-tear and KaLunk (both 2000) -- are goofy, cartoonish compositions, what seem to be collages made up of torn, worn paper, cardboard, plywood and string. But it's all paint -- oil on signboard, mounted on plywood. Whereas the usual intention of trompe l'oeil is for the painted subjects to be mistaken as real objects in a real world, the subjects of Hayes' works are obviously illusionistic; it's the materials that look real. The amazing (and mildly disturbing) thing about these paintings is that, even when you know, the eye continues to be fooled.

And I can't decide how many artistic traditions (and nonartistic practices) Ludwig Schwarz of Dallas manages to subvert with Great Moments in Painting Number Two (2000). Six canvases are stacked against the wall, as if to say "What's the point of hanging them when they'll just be coming down in a few weeks?" Next to the paintings, stenciled on the wall, is a URL, www.great momentsinpainting numbertwo.com. If you'd like to see all the paintings, you can do so virtually. And then, like so much else in cyberspace, you have to decide if it was worth the trip.

Schwarz's other piece in the show is a banner hanging in front of DiverseWorks. It announces: Ludwig Schwarz Indian Cuisine (2001). Schwarz? Tandoori? Can you imagine? This exhibit opened on a Friday evening. By early Sunday afternoon, one of Houston's Finest was nosing around, asking staff members, "Where's the restaurant?" Unfortunately, Schwarz didn't provide a URL this time.

Popular and commercial culture (assuming there's a difference) gets the same treatment from a trio of San Antonio artists. One of Meg Langhorne's sculptures is a large deep green rectangular plastic cube dotted with white flowers that are carved from soap. Its title? Glade (2000), as in the air freshener, thereby neatly melding a host of ideas about our culture's obsessions with cleanliness and convenience and "natural" flavors and scents. I Feel Bloated (2001), the pot- bellied paintings/sculptures by Ethel Shipton, are framed pieces of that faux leather that covers the banquettes at Denny's, here stuffed past the point of discomfort. And Chuck Ramirez offers crisp digital photos of clear garbage bags as you-are-what-you-consume portraiture: Absolut is stuffed with liquor and beer bottles, while Vegan (both 2001) looks awfully healthy -- until you notice the cigarette package. Even the anonymity of the black bag in the center is suspect -- those rounded bulges suggest a garbage bag sitting curbside at the Bates Motel.

We should probably get to a few Houston artists, so let's start with Scott Burns and Hilary Harnischfeger (all works, 2001). Both might be considered landscape artists, but there the similarities end. Burns creates meticulously detailed dioramas inhabited by little devils, snowmen, ghosts, and robots, doing generally unpleasant things to one another, in a perpetual battle between good and evil (and don't be too quick to judge which side is which). Harnischfeger's wall sculptures use silver leaf, glitter, plastic, and reflectors, cast in or attached to resin, to evoke stylized dreamscapes. Electric Nile consists of two of Cleopatra's barges as filtered through the Yellow Submarine, while Nichomay suggests a conflation of the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy's ruby slippers.

Less humorous is a work by another Houstonian, recent transplant Christopher French. Please More/Please No More (2000) consists of two video monitors, arranged as a tabletop, the bust portrait of a man and a woman on each. They stare up at you as small dark blotches (fingerprints) begin to appear on their images, growing more numerous until the underlying figures are almost completely obscured; finally, they each shake off the accumulated blotches, and the process begins again, all to the accompaniment of loud, somewhat labored breathing. The fingerprints are meant to convey the idea of the cumulative impact of every person and situation that touches our lives. But, as we mark the 20th "anniversary" of the identification of HIV, it's not difficult to view these blotches in a less metaphorical, more physical light. The least humorous piece in the show, it's the most mesmerizing -- and memorable.

There's much more -- the show isn't quite as big as Texas, but it's pretty big. There's Michael Roch's little plaster bunny rabbit talking to a plaster tree stump; Justin Kidd, with his IBM-meets-Playskool computer control room; and Kate Terrell's quintruped. But let's leave a few surprises. Why should I be the only one walking into "Big as Texas" thinking, what the hell?

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John Devine