Sweet Stuff

If there's one thing Houston's summer heat is sure to dissolve, it's any attempt at snobbery. If you're like me, by early June your radio is reprogrammed from KUHF to the Buzz, and you've already started to understand the allure of plastic footgear and the mall. In summer, I crave all things bubble gum: sweetness and light and an AstroWorld season pass. In summer, the most appealing thing about an art gallery is its air conditioning.

Unless, that is, the gallery happens to be Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery (formerly Hiram Butler Gallery), and the artist on view happens to be Houston's Paul Kittelson. The result of their pairing is "Double Delicious," a double delightful, pastel Willy Wonka garden to which no golden ticket is required. As the show's title implies, Kittelson's confections are designed to satisfy any sugar craving. And his timing is perfect -- just when the mind shifts from work mode to play mode, the artist pulls out some eye-catching treats.

Kittelson, who teaches sculpture at the University of Houston, is one of the city's least pretentious artists. Though he participates in traditional exhibits, he's also well known for his public "urban relief art" projects; those who were around in 1986 may well remember the 35-foot foam stegosaur he placed under the Highway 59 overpass at Montrose. In addition to his participation in the Art Car Parade and his involvement with the Buffalo Bayou Artpark, he designed an acclaimed dinosaur bone park for a Woodland Heights elementary school and a giant whale and a garbage monster (with Tim Glover) for the Houston International Festival. While Kittelson's work often has an edge -- his entry into the "First Texas Triennial" at the Contemporary Art Museum was a set of headless bodybuilders titled Mindless Competition, and he once converted an AMC Hornet into a roving trash can -- it seems the artist has pledged to follow a manifesto of fun.

"Double Delicious," an array of Claes Oldenburg-style enlarged commonplace objects (in this case lollipops, bubble gum, a Popsicle and a Hershey kiss), fits well into that manifesto. Much like Oldenburg's monumental lipsticks and cigarette butts, Kittelson's work is predicated on the familiar without jeering at or ignoring the concerns of "fine art." While exaggerated lightheartedness certainly contributes to the pieces' appeal, they also carry a good deal of formal integrity, even elegance. Candy Necklace, a mammoth version of those chalk-colored candy "beads" that are strung on elastic chokers, is both a visual joke and a classic study of geometric forms. The beads that, strung on a wire, make up Candy Necklace are the size of saucers and fashioned, as are most of the works in "Double Delicious," from hydrocal, a hard form of plaster to which intense concrete pigments are added.

Gummy Bear and Cherry is also elegant, if somewhat ostentatious in a Las Vegas kind of way. A chocolate gummy bear positioned on all fours acts as a sort of coffee table, on which is perched a chipper maraschino cherry with an upward-sweeping stem. The sado-sexual implications are hard to ignore, and even harder to take seriously (a gummy bear as a stand-in for a Clockwork Orange ceramic-woman table? A cherry?). Soft and chewy, Kittelson's work plays innocent, refusing to hit hard. His Perfection is a ten-inch pink heart. The front side is smooth, but the rear has a delicate, and unmistakably sphincter-like, pucker. Sinful fun, the artist seems to wink, is contained in such sweet, dandified innocence.

Kittelson's formal meditations are continued in Blow Van Gogh (the name is presumably a takeoff on a former Houston gallery named Go Van Gogh), Blue Bubble and Double Bubble, shin-high wads of hydrocal chewing gum, complete with tooth marks and bubbles. On the gallery's lawn, fluffy pillows cast in pale concrete have sprouted up like gargantuan toadstools, prompting several guesses as to what they might be. The answer, once known, is a head-smacker: these are Kittelson's After Dinner Mints.

These works display the imagination of a child and the formal sense of an adult. Kittelson plays on the slick look of the hydrocal, sometimes allowing it to glop through its armature without sanding it down. That effect, as well as the enlarged scale, exaggerates the oddities of manufactured treats -- a Popsicle looks like a beached fish, a gummy bear looks like a bar of soap whose features have been worn away with use.

The show's only major failure is the "Sucker" group, which takes the viewer from candyland to the sex-gag gift shop. The show's five giant suckers, each a different two-tone color combo mounted on a wooden stick, feature breasts and feminine bellies. The "lick me" joke is obvious -- this hard candy does the preaching that the other pieces gracefully avoid. It seems the artist is simultaneously sugarcoating and criticizing infantile desires; it's difficult to discern his intentions. As a result, the suckers come across as gratuitous, and cause me to feel the same vague discomfort as does merchandise such as blow-up dolls and lewd greeting cards.

At Lawndale Art and Performance Center, there was some buzz that the annual juried "Big Show" would have something for everyone, including those with a sweet tooth. Artist Sean Simon submitted a sculpture made out of hard candy. Coated with an experimental preservative, it held up long enough to be awarded second place by juror Laurence Miller III, director of San Antonio's hiply bracketed nonprofit gallery [ARTPACE]. However, the piece succumbed to the humidity and collapsed before the show opened. The $500 award was withdrawn, and Simon went back to the drawing board. Third place went to Mark Lombardi for Neil Bush, Silverado, MDC, Walters and Good, an incredibly detailed schematic diagram of political and financial relationships surrounding the savings and loan scandal. First prize was awarded to Keith J.R. Hollingsworth for a neon colored minimural.

All in all, the judging must have been tough, for this year's version of the "Big Show" actually includes a fair share of good, solid pieces among the dreck. (Though I would certainly be content if I never saw another piece of Barbie art, and race-themed works dedicated to artist Michael Ray Charles are becoming a genre in themselves.) It's certainly worth a look, and Lawndale does have good climate control. However, I've always insisted on dessert first. And Kittelson, with his mastery of both form and whimsy, serves up a sweet that eats like a meal.

"Double Delicious" will be on display through August 10 at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom Street, 863-7097.

"The Big Show" will be on display through August 3 at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, 4912 Main Street, 528-5858.