Revolution in Chrome

Page 7 of 7

Chin is another old friend of Harithas's. Like Lott, he grew up in the Fifth Ward; unlike Lott, he left Texas and became nationally prominent. "Mel Chin, John Alexander, Julian Schnabel," says Harithas, shaking his head. "They had the sense to leave." His meaning is clear: Houston doesn't support its own.

Octo Quad Ring, Andy Mann's latest video installation, glows in the back room. Seventeen TV screens beam versions of the same image, oriented differently, as if reflected in a kaleidoscope, and in the center is a mirrored pentagram. The images, of flowers and clouds and fire, are natural and timeless; if you position yourself just right, you see your own face reflected in the pentagram's sides, part of all that swirling beauty and terror. At the end of the cycle, the screens go dark. The effect, to use one of Harithas's favorite words, is "spiritual."

Andy Mann was recently diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and the news hangs heavy on Harithas's mind. Mann, he declares, has always been a terrific artist -- "the first socially conscious video artist! one of the best cameras in the world! Houston is lucky to have him!" When Mann told Harithas that he had cancer, Harithas pushed him to work, pushed him to consider his audience: "You want them to think better of you than they do now, don't you?"

It must be Houston's lousy air, Harithas grumps: Everyone he knows is undergoing chemo, or dying, or dead. It's hyperbole, of course, but it contains a grain of truth. Lately he has felt surrounded by death.

Only days before, Ann's mother died. A few months ago artist Mark Lombardi, once one of Harithas's bright young curators at the CAM, committed suicide. And last year Harithas's old friend Norman Bluhm, the sensual abstract expressionist, died of a heart attack.

Harithas delivered Bluhm's eulogy at the Whitney, and he wrote a moving essay for a posthumous Bluhm tribute show. In the essay, you can hear echoes of Harithas's life: Bluhm's work fell out of fashion, but he stuck stubbornly to his vision of the world. Bluhm's work wasn't fully appreciated "by the New York art establishment." He lived a life "that tolerated no compromise." And his late phase -- the mature works, the last ones he painted -- was his most profound.

You figure that Harithas thinks a lot about his own late phase, that he wants "them" to think better of him than they do now. Sometimes, when he talks about the future, he's bullish. He and Ann are considering sites for a second little museum in yet another Houston neighborhood. The new one might or might not show art cars; they haven't decided. And after that, there might be even more little museums -- maybe a whole string of them -- scattered through Houston, like so many rebel bases. Soon, he says, his young curators won't need him anymore; they'll be ready to run the places on their own, and he'll show up only to watch them work.

Other times, Harithas is quieter. He and Ann might leave the Art Car Museum and its offspring to the city of Houston, he says, but he's not sure the city is interested.

He stares for a few seconds at Andy Mann's video screens, then snaps to attention as Bryan Taylor, the museum's shaggy front man, ambles into the main room.

Taylor explains art to visitors, and Harithas wants to make sure he gets it right. Harithas gives him a penetrating look and points toward Jim Hatchett's show: "What are you going to say about these 'Dirt Paintings'?"

"I don't know," shrugs Taylor. "I just saw them half an hour ago."

"Well, you can say this. Say, 'Texas artists have been treated like dirt for so long that now they're working with it.' "

Taylor nods, and Harithas once again starts pacing.

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Lisa Gray