In the gallery notes for "Red Velvet: Making a Case for Domestic Tranquility," the current group show at Vine Street Studios, Sean Morrissey Carroll (a Houston Press contributor) explains that the show is an answer, in a sense, to David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet, which delved into a horrific ugliness beneath the clean, tranquil facade of American domesticity. "Red Velvet," according to Carroll, imagines a realm in which sex and violence exist in harmony with American Dream clichés.
Vine Street Studios apparently imagines otherwise.
Ironically, the best example of raison d'être of "Red Velvet" was missing upon my viewing, allegedly the victim of censorship (a FotoFest staff member had to unlock the door to let me see it). Last week, Thedra Cullar-Ledford's Backyard Stripper, a beautiful, spectacular kimono bearing images of a topless, platinum-blond bombshell posing pinup style in a suburban backyard, was moved from its original position in Vine Street's main galley to a locked room, which houses Nancy O'Connor's elegant installation Inhabited (available for viewing by appointment only).
Cullar-Ledford notified the Press of the incident, which, according to her, occurred without the permission of the artist or the gallery. Apparently staff members of the Carnes-Ely law firm and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (who lease space in the building) objected to the placement of the piece, which was hung near the building's main entrance. Building owner Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen Jr. was contacted, and the superintendent was given permission to move the kimono. "There are small children that come into the building because of the nature of the work that some of us do," says Tom Carnes, a partner at the family-practice firm, "and maybe those pictures shouldn't be up in an office building anyway, which is essentially what this building has become. There are very few artist tenants in this building anymore, perhaps three." One of those tenants is FotoFest, which Carnes is happy to share space with; he blames the current lack of artist tenants on rising rents. Despite that backhanded slap, or the idea that art doesn't belong in a building with no artists, Carnes emphasized that he has never supported removing artwork from the building; he has only objected to placement.
Weirdly, though, Matthew Bourbon's Secretly Wishing You Gone escaped tampering. The disturbing portrait of a petite girl wearing a white tank top and no bottoms, flanked by two men in suits, still hangs. In the painting, all three subjects engage the viewer. One of the men holds an object (possibly a weapon), obscured by multicolored horizontal lines. The threat of impending violence (and sex) is heavily implied. That painting is closer in proximity to the law firm's doors and would seemingly carry much more potential for disturbing children involved in family-law cases than a garment decorated with images of pinups and Hummers. Which is scarier, a Playboy centerfold or, say, Blue Velvet?
"I get the idea that the artist is trying to create controversy to get her name out there," says building owner Thorne-Thomsen Jr., who claims that ArtScan's Volker Eisele gave permission to move the piece, although according to Eisele, they didn't even discuss it until after the fact. Eisele also entertained the notion that Backyard Stripper had been singled out. "There's a really racy painting up there," he said, referring to the Bourbon piece, "she doesn't have any panties on, and nobody complained about that. What can I say? It's a private space, and the owner [Thorne-Thomsen] warned us this might happen. When a lawyer tells you they have underage, abused kids from bad families coming in, how can you argue with that?" Eisele said that he and Cullar-Ledford will find a new location for the piece, away from the building's office traffic.
Clearly, though, Thorne-Thomsen responded hastily to the tenants' complaints, acting with little regard for the artist or fully investigating the complaints and the alternative options for installation, and Cullar-Ledford has every right to be pissed. "When you install something, it's like checking a kid into child care; you are the only one who can come back and pick that kid back up," she says. "At first I thought it was stolen. It could have been damaged. It was a lot of trauma. You're already, as an artist, so far down on the totem pole in life; the only thing I have is my show. I'm shocked that tenants in a warehouse can complain and something can be removed from a show without the artist or the gallery knowing."
The fact that the kimono was removed to the room containing O'Connor's installation Inhabited is even more infuriating to Cullar-Ledford, and it disrupts the environment of O'Connor's piece. "They just put all the titties in one room," says Cullar-Ledford (Inhabited contains female nudity). "To me, it seems like a weird witch-hunt. This is not a Coke-machine, fountain-in-the-lobby kind of building. These people need to be outside the Loop with a paid-parking garage. This building is obviously more on the artistic bent. A family law office? Maybe you shouldn't be there." Cullar-Ledford has a point; it's a disturbing trend, and one that even Thorne-Thomsen acknowledged. He wishes he had more artist tenants.
Eisele chalks it up to taste. "It's unfortunate these things happen. In Europe it wouldn't have happened. This is America."
As for the rest of the show, particularly if one goes along with Carroll's rambling, pontificating notes, eh. It's a stretch. It's also a dubious exercise to engage in a smackdown with Blue Velvet, arguably the most important American surrealist film. Carroll writes, "The 1986 film by David Lynch takes the cleanliness of the American Dream as nothing but a cover for violence and vulgar eroticism. He breaks down his characters, emotionally and physically beaten into submission. No one here desires to lay themselves naked; they are in complete control of their opportunities as artists." But this is probably not the case. Most likely the artists and works were chosen, after which a theme and a title were haphazardly picked.
Whitney Riley's paintings imagine the sex object as domestic goddess. Picture your favorite upper-middle-class suburban landscape populated with bikini models. At first, the brightly colored images seem innocuous, just an exercise in fun. But cumulatively they express something threatening: insipidness as a nurturing entity.
Houston Press contributor Kelly Klaasmeyer's Huggies is a hilarious "monolith" symbolizing the profundity of childbirth. A cartoonishly painted pregnancy-test box lies on the floor with a dotted line connecting it to a giant box of diapers. Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," famously known as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays in a loop on a small speaker.
Che Guevara Family Portrait, by Donna Huanca, is an impressive mixed-fabric "mural" that imitates its titular image. The detail and complexity Huanca achieves with fabric scraps are striking both up close and at a distance. Similarly, John Hartley's paintings of tin soldiers are remarkable for their careful attention to detail, wild color and blown-up proportions.
"Red Velvet" contains some fantastic work, but curators should be careful not to inject too much narrative into the proceedings. If our expectations as viewers are coaxed too far into a corner, we react against, not with, the theme. As a result, our experience is cheapened and the artists are saddled with opinions and perspectives that their works were never meant to embody.