A Gift to Be Simple

Nine months ago, when Yukiko Lunday opened Takara in the Village, she filled it with decorated chopsticks, kimonos and handmade Japanese paper, operating the business as a combination gallery and gift store. But now Lunday has purged her space of the expensive souvenirs, leaving a simple, open, storefront gallery that seems an appropriate setting for "Texas Wabi-Sabi," an exhibit in which the Japanese-American gallery owner has attempted to find in her current homeland an aesthetic tie to her ancestral one.

Wabi-sabi is, Lunday says, ineffable. Japanese people can't explain it, but they know it when they see it. Wabi-sabi has to do with contemplation, earthiness, nature, humility, simplicity. But it also has to do with imperfection. It's a fairly elastic concept -- it can be the result of a happy accident. The way I understand it, wabi-sabi has an underlying and pleasing notion that the imperfect is more compelling than the perfect, that the subtle is better than the direct. It's a notion that seemed antithetical to what Lunday saw as the driving spirit of Texas art, which tends to prefer the loud, colorful and large. That spirit was one Lunday was trying to counter when she decided to search out wabi-sabi in Texas for her exhibit (which will travel to Japan this fall). The wabi-sabi aesthetic may be unique to Japan, but its ideas are not. They could stand to be highlighted anywhere, Texas included. But in Lunday's exhibit, she wavers between the aesthetic and the ideas.

For example, she chose as one of her pieces Kate Petley's Japanesey Bone, a sort of organic kite fashioned from wire and muslin. In so doing, she unproductively counters stereotype with stereotype, showing us that Texas artists can indeed make work that looks Japanese. But Lunday, this time sticking to her underlying concept, also chose Petley's un-Japanesey Balance, in which a resin "balloon" sits on a pedestal, "balanced" by a much larger real balloon which dangles off the side, and which will slowly deflate. Now, Balance might not be particularly Texan, but it's a humble little sculpture. If I were Japanese, I might be surprised to see that a Texan could make Bone, but I would be more interested to find that wabi-sabi, in the form of Balance, occurs outside an aesthetic system of my own culture.

Some of the pieces in the show, such as Rheim Alkadhi's The Crown, are rescued from failure by their wabi-sabiness. On a pedestal, Alkadhi has placed a wooden wig-master's head and, next to it, a simple headdress made of a ring of stiff, cottony hair. Alkadhi, who has a dry and subtle way about her work, has embedded a wad of chewing gum in the headdress, turning an odd found object of questionable value into a crown, indeed -- a crown for a vagrant weirdo who sleeps under park benches. The combination is just enough to fuel the imagination past the "ugh, more found object art" point for a brief moment.

I'm not sure if one person can be more wabi-sabi than another, but if they can, I'd give First in Show for most wabi-sabi to David Fulton, the artist who never throws anything away. His One Year Soap Grid consists of thin slivers of soap rescued just before oblivion. Each one is sandwiched between two squares of wax paper and added to the irregular grid, creating a wall hanging translucent enough to let you make out the tiny curls of hair that still cling to some of the bars. A book about wabi-sabi sold at the show claims, in a rather oversimplified comparison, that Modernism romanticizes technology while wabi-sabi roman- ticizes nature. Fulton romanticizes something else altogether -- call it human remains -- and it feels tender and blessedly simple.

As for the accidental side of wabi-sabi, Lunday persuaded many artists to hand over works intended as studies, or not intended as works at all. She exhibits a small tester canvas she found moldering in Kim O'Grady's studio, some terse gouache studies Beth Weinberger had squirreled away and Terrell James's pocket sketchbook. As a result, my obligation as a viewer is considerably lightened -- if the artist didn't intend to show the work, then I don't have to work to divine the artist's intention. My job becomes one of pure contemplation -- wabi-sabi.

But a problem here is that the unintentional works are exhibited side by side with intentional works, as if to say that an artist's aesthetic sense is always functioning at the same level, whether actually working or just checking out how a certain kind of paint is absorbed by a new brand of canvas. On the other hand, Lunday sometimes allowed artists to make unfortunate adjustments -- a small drilled clay figure she found on Monti Mayrend's desk, for example, was given an awkward brick pedestal. Granted, he quite wabi-sabily found the brick lying in his yard, but it would have been better to leave well enough alone.

In this show, the general concept takes precedence over the individual pieces and the artist's aesthetic is subsumed completely by the curator's. That's okay once in a while, though it should be the exception. And if that's the case, the curator should be able to, as Lunday did when she chose a suite of low-concept objects by the Art Guys, stretch her idea beyond the obvious.

I did like the quirkier side of Lunday's vision, where she was willing to let wabi-sabi be something she herself didn't expect it to be. My favorite object in the show is a lamp pilfered from William Steen. Steen had practiced his gold leafing technique on the lamp's oversize bare bulb, leaving a kitschy mini-landscape of accidental gold hills marooned in an expanse of white glass, sort of the way the Hill Country is surrounded by flatlands. When the bulb burns out, that's it for the "piece," which Steen titled with a translated Japanese haiku. Now that's some Texas wabi-sabi.

Walking into "Night Lights," Robert Montgomery's solo show at Inman Gallery, is like walking into a stylish boutique that just received next season's shipment: Suddenly you realize that everything in your closet is the wrong color and the wrong cut. You have seen the future, and it looks not trendy, but evolved. Set into the wall of Inman's foyer are nine discs of must-have color, ranging from barely yellow to sunset red. These gentle, warm-toned beacons, lit from behind, are lined up in a horizontal row.

The plastic discs are CAPLUGS, as tiny raised letters on each one say. They all began life the same color of red, plugged in the ends of real estate information tubes in the yards of houses for sale, and were bleached for different lengths of time by the sun, thus producing the surprising variegation of hues. Like the other glowing works in "Night Lights," this installation has a distinctly uningratiating minimalist form. Montgomery's work is rife with references to the Donald Judd box and the Agnes Martin grid. Because of his use of fluorescent bulbs, Dan Flavin's light sculptures spring inevitably to mind.

But in Flavin's work, the light is the sculpture. In Montgomery's, it functions more as mood lighting. Montgomery's work is infused with an emotional tenor I'm not used to seeing in minimalist works. As if to coax the viewer to open up, his titles are often snippets of song lyrics. In don't let me fuck up will you 'cos when I need a friend it's still you, a line taken from Dinosaur Jr., two triangular light-holding tubes with narrow Plexiglas windows sit on the floor, beaming to each other silently. In how do we get far away, two "lamps" the brown of cheap hotel furniture are mounted side by side on the wall, their curved shapes coolly shrugging away from each other. Their yellow Mylar windows are on opposite sides, as if set to illuminate a bed in which one member of a couple might want to sleep while the other reads.

Like a new band covering an old song, Montgomery has different production values from his forebears. Instead of milled aluminum, enamel and steel, he uses cardboard, wood and paint. In so doing, he invokes Modernism without buying its premise of progress. Still, he pays tribute to the idea that in minimalist sculpture, art went from representation to object in itself. Montgomery, with his pieces made of glowing blue Mylanta bottles and exit signs made mournful by a cloak of cheap plastic, simply makes his objects even more everyday. Through the strength of his affection for minimalism, Montgomery manages to breathe life into its sanitary aesthetic.

A fashion analogy is not a bad one for Montgomery's work. In fashion history, styles return again and again -- though not necessarily in the same materials -- and the cultural baggage they carry is constantly refiltered. Art history pretends to be more linear: Abstract expressionism was destroyed by minimalism was destroyed by pop. The End of Art has been declared many times -- the end of fashion, never. Montgomery's work is not so much nostalgia for an earlier time as it is a decisive update. It is the minimalism of the now.

"Texas Wabi-Sabi" will be on view through March 31 at Takara Gallery, 2412 Rice Boulevard, 520-5270.

"Night Lights" will be on view through March 22 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, 529-9676.