The Route to Rote

You've got to do your work all the time…The same kind of work, the same style, over and over again, so people recognize it and don't get confused. Then, once you're famous, you have to keep doing it the same way, even after it's boring, unless you really want people to get mad at you, which they will anyway. -- Benny, to Jean-Michel Basquiat in Basquiat

There's something about Jessica Stockholder's work that makes it instantly recognizable. Sure, a lot of artists clump together various items in odd ways, adding touches of paint here and there, but only Jessica Stockholder can make works that look like, well, like they were made by Jessica Stockholder.

With bright, broad strokes slathered on large found objects, her work contains elements of both painting and sculpture. This combination makes for a quirky cubism, in which you can choose to think about each piece as a whole or slice it into brilliant compositions from any angle. She also plays with notions of the inside and outside, jamming together domestic items and construction materials in awkward yet interesting ways.

Her latest installation, "Sam Ran Over Sand or Sand Ran Over Sam," contains all of these elements and then some. Yellow shag carpet greets you the minute you walk in the door of Rice Gallery. The yellow strip soon meets up with another of bright red, and the two travel together underneath the rest of the installation. Dr. Seuss would be right at home here.

Yellow and white cords dangle from the ceiling, traveling from distant places to meet in a pile of light bulbs resting on top of some chicken wire and six orange Rubbermaid coolers. This is the inside of the installation -- that is, of course, assuming that there can be an inside to anything that has no apparent beginning or end. A giant white freezer faces the pile of bulbs. It seems to conquer the six white Igloo coolers underneath it.

Three large Styrofoam blocks, painted orange, green and purple, float in the air. An incomplete wall, decked out partially in drywall, has random objects, such as plush armchairs and wooden desks, sticking out of it. Broad strokes of paint abound.

The whole thing feels like someone has taken an artist's studio, complete with items for living and working, and then shaken it up. The installation plays with the confines of the space, shooting up through the ceiling and out the glass at the front. Its construction seems incomplete, almost unmasking itself of its artifices. It's signature Stockholder.

And that's the problem.

Stockholder has been doing this kind of work since her days at Yale in the '80s. For example, her 1983 "Installation in My Father's Backyard" features a mattress painted red and slapped on the side of a garage. On the roof is a cupboard door painted purple, as well as some chicken wire. Painted on the grass is a solid light blue rectangle.

Again, this work plays with the notions of outside and inside, since one doesn't expect to see a mattress outdoors, much less attached to the side of a garage. The bright, solid colors make for a painterly composition. The work is unsettling yet inviting. All of her work is that way.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Blaffer Gallery, where there's an excellent retrospective of Stockholder's smaller, more marketable pieces. Most of the works in "Kissing the Wall: Works, 1988-2003" are quirky and evocative, but they're also similar to one another.

A lamp sits in a paint-covered bathtub in front of a couch flipped on its side. A car door is jammed inside a wooden frame with a drab cloth draped over it. A stack of red buckets stands in weird contrast to a bright pink Sheetrock trapezoid. The back of a box housing papier-mâché boulders is painted bright blue.

Within most of the works, found objects are either modified beyond use or are used for odd purposes. They're all painterly compositions worthy of a snapshot from any angle. And they all juxtapose domestic items with construction materials.

Stockholder found her groove early on and has been doing similar work for the past 20 years. It's a delicious groove -- the stuff is utterly fascinating -- but when is more of the same not enough?

In three of the later works on display at the Blaffer, she seems to be moving in a different direction. Two of them, one from 2001 and the other from 2002, interact with the wall in a more conventional way: They hang on it. Featuring fake fur and other signature Stockholder touches, they're mounted on museum board and would look nice in any collector's home. These are easily the two most marketable works on display, but, regretfully, they're also the two least interesting.

And then there's an example of her 2003 foray into works that are completely freestanding. These are meant to have no relation to the wall. The one here consists of lamps, radios, fake fur and a ceramic bowl on a table. Everything is painted sporadically in broad strokes. But things seem to be acting like they're supposed to. The table actually holds things. A large stick pokes through, but it takes on the role of a houseplant in the composition. The ceramic bowl is broken, yet it rests right where it belongs.

If this work had been done by anyone else, it would be easy to assume that its creator had taken typical perceptions of reality and tweaked them a little. But Stockholder's work has always been completely off the map. Most of the time she presents an alternate universe, where doors can't be opened and couches hang from the wall, but with this piece she seems to be tending more toward the banal. It's almost as if she's got nowhere else to go.

"Sam Ran Over Sand or Sand Ran Over Sam," through October 31 at Rice University Art Gallery, 6100 Main, 713-348-6069.

"Kissing the Wall: Works, 1988-2003," through November 21 at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530.