“Titanic SHIP” by Sister Gertrude Morgan from “As Essential As Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither” at The Menil Collection. Photo by Paul Hester, courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston.
By Paul Middendorf and Michael McFadden
Last year was indeed an arduous one, but it provided some powerful programming and projects to help us realign our focus. From large institutions to small project spaces, all the stops were certainly being pulled. Perhaps it was the unfolding of the political climate or racing towards uncertainty that sparked an abundant variety of conversations within the arts; whatever the reason, we ended up with a beautiful melange of solid exhibitions. Certainly Houston has been moving forward at the speed of light within its creative community. Every year we see a stronger push to provide nationally and internationally recognized exhibitions. The city saw programming that would not only hold up within our community and region, but would create a strong voice to project outside of the state. Outstanding work did not go without some incredibly flat curatorial endeavors. Pet projects and poor organization lead to a variety of painful duds, which were largely forgotten as soon as the press releases archived in our inboxes. However, we learn from these mishaps and continue to build on our solid foundation that has continued to impress and maintain. There were absolutely a greater number of successes and here is the best core sample we could provide from 2016.
Parallel Kingdom at the Station Museum presented works by artists from the Arabian Peninsula as a means of addressing and challenging Western notions of the Middle East. While many Westerners tout the ease of access to other cultures provided by the Internet or the emergence of a global culture, a great deal of 2016 revealed how easily our views can be molded — by others or by ourselves — to whatever shape is convenient. Through Parallel Kingdom, the Station offered up exposure to external viewpoints that dealt with the politics of our country and the artists. Sarah Abu Abdallah’s video installation “Saudi Automobile” showed the artist slowly painting a wrecked car. The paint, pink like frosting on an ornate cake, served as little more than wistful gesture of beautification to cover up the impossibility of the artist’s dream of owning her own car so that she might drive herself to work. Soft gestures of physicality stood in correlation with grandiose sculptures — like the massive boobytrap of “Capital Dome” by Abdulnasser Gharam or the chainlink mosque that is Ajlan Gharem’s “Paradise Has Many Gates,” which still stands outside the museum.
Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin have long been collaborating on a series called 50 States, delving into the history of LGBT communities in each state as far back as possible. At Art League Houston, the pair presented some of their findings in 50 States: Wyoming, including a series of performances and gatherings that reflected aspects of both their research and their artistic practice. The work on display often blends media together, consisting of conceptual and performative interpretations and labor intensive pieces with photographs and historical images etched into maps. In a separate exhibition hosted by Devin Borden Gallery, Where the Ranch Actually Was, Margolin and Vaughan offered up a peek into the research they’ve been conducting in Texas. A series of Texas maps lined the back wall of the space, each one displaying an excised image of the buildings and areas where prominent LGBT clubs, bars, and spaces once stood. The third segment of the series from last year was Colorado. Presented as a one night installation hosted at UH’s Mitchell Center in one of its project rooms, the piece featured a six channeled projection of different cities from around the country. As you sat around the finely crafted gazebo like structure, the viewer shifted their attention to each projection as it screened a different group of LGBT community members, artists, activist, and civic leaders celebrating the queer history of Trinidad Colorado. Colorado opened up at HCC Central Art Gallery on January 17 and will run through February 21.
Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’ large installation of paintings, The Fabiola Project, consists of more than 450 reproductions of a lost 1885 painting of 4th-century Roman Saint Fabiola by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner. The project was initiated by Alÿs in the early 1990s, shortly after he moved to Mexico City. The works are impressive and they view well in the dark church-like space, giving you just enough light to see them. The star of the exhibition was a performative lecture by Houston and Madrid based artist Lauren Moya Ford. As well-executed as Alÿs’ works, Ford’s lecture was enchanting. Not very often does one leave a lecture wishing to see it again on DVD so as to be able to pick through the subtleties. Ford started with a story of love and loss and weaved the audience through experiences. She forced patrons’ minds not to focus on the slides she presented, but the sound of her voice and coached the listeners to close their eyes and visualize a photo she described instead of seeing it projected. Many times there was no projection at all, just darkness. It was much more of a performance than a lecture and featured well with Francis Alÿs’ work, which she describes and discusses throughout the talk. While focusing more on experiences and the moment our bodies and hearts feel true movement, the artist elevated the installation through the talk and left the listeners in tranquility and thought upon leaving the chapel.
Bret Shirley capped 2016 with an exhibition of new paintings and sculptures at Cardoza Fine Art. Shirley’s work seems to operate between plane, with each work itself acting as a nexus for inter-planar activity. Shirley tears through the black vacuum we understand to be space and allows a glimpse into what seems to be a Crystal Kingdom of sorts. In this light, New World looks more like a series of artifacts and findings from the artist’s research of this other plane of existence. In the painting “Burial Banner,” the remnants of two banana leaves are set against a black backdrop. The leaves themselves have been replaced with layers of crystalline colors that could represent the layers of our world as easily as they could be a stellar form. Such paintings are then counter-balanced with works like “Exhibitions are Frightful,” making direct use of crystals through chrome alum to create organic, earthly patterns. Between the two, Shirley maintains an interesting balance between the planar systems.
Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus has dedicated a large part of his career thus far to socially engaged projects, paintings, performances, and sculptures that hone in on histories, people, and communities. Through this commitment, he produces thoughtful and reflective work. His affinity for histories pervades his work and can be seen in STANDARDZENBLŪZ, his recent exhibition at Inman Gallery. While the majority of works on display make reference to music — a reproduction of an Al Green poster stained with blackened grits or a series of assemblages affixed with notes in Japanese to imply their re-discovery abroad — the artist also makes references to identity politics in African-American history. “X-plane,” resembling a prayer rug, makes direct references to Malcolm X through a combination of an FBI files and brick rubbings from the site of his murder. Recognizing that these two histories are not separate, Cyrus ties them together in three hanging works of canvas that bring forth imagery of sheet music and files with sections redacted – attempts to alter or erase history.
2016 started off strong at the museum with Jennie C. Jones’ Compilation, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver. The traveling solo show focuses on Jones’s playful dance between painting, sculpture, and sound works. Unlike the other museums around the country, the Contemporary Arts Museum had a special opportunity to really define the space with Jones’ work given the unique diamond shape of the institution, leading to the unique presenting methods and custom building that was involved with the exhibition. Jones’ sculptural works featured elements such as cable, cable ties, endpin jacks, CD cases, and a variety of current and vintage music accoutrements, including sculptures of sound absorbing panels and reimagined speaker boxes. All of these pieces, pulling from jazz, blues, and experimental sound history, created a movement of its own. The space was populated with her paintings composed of acoustic dampening panels, works on paper, and her iconic Acoustic Painting series, as well as site specific installations, and sound works. Jones was in town for her show and it was great to be able to catch up with her and talk to her about her work. She was fascinated by the new dialogs her works created as a whole and was eager to discuss her process and ideas within. During the run of the exhibition, Jones participated in a walkthrough and talk with the curator about the history of the works. The talk offered an unusual perspective as it featured live music from local musician David Dove who played the conceptual score from a body of her works on paper.
Christopher Wallace and Samantha Persons are both prolific artists working in the realm of the tedious. The exhibition, Surface Dwellers, was over a year in the making and featured works on paper as well as installations. Both artists’ work seemed to have been completed side by side based on the visual harmony of the show. While both kept an open dialog about some of the works in the show, many of them were created in the solitude of their practice. The pieces, varying in size, all held solid viewability with many of the works reading as intricate tapestry patterns, all hand drawn, bringing the audience closer and closer to discover more from within. Persons’ work focuses on pattern, repetition, and color, while Wallace’s work is very similar in nature, yet brings in a bit more fantasy and pop culture such as “Haunted House,” featuring a gathering of gaming and fictional characters mashed together in a marvelous color explosion. Both presented a drawing party, which was amazingly packed for a Saturday afternoon and involved more details into the creative process of the artist’s works as well as the music and films that inspire their process.
Claire Webb is typically known for her whimsical jewelry and metal work. In 2015 her work was featured in the Texas Design Show at the Contemporary Art Museum. This past year, Webb made a new departure. Moving completely away from her smaller works, Claire did what many artists fear to do and left the “Comfort Zone.” Refusing to make the same object or series over and over again, her work in Gspot’s group exhibition Co_WORKS was refreshing and exciting. The piece “Fourfold above and below,” included several organic shapes cyanotype printed on silk and iridescent fabric lying in a box of dark sand with a custom built table to hold it all. The new sculptures were interesting and led to you wanting more of her work within the group show. I kept coming back to her piece and spent the most time with it looking over the elements of her presentation and the craft of her objects. Not that I’m not a fan of her jewelry work, as it’s a sound body of work, but this new direction is ambitious and I look forward to seeing more of these sculptures.
As Essential As Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither was exhibited at the Menil Collection, showcasing autodidactic artists whose drive to create led them to develop practices outside of institutions. The aesthetics on view varied quite drastically, but were looped together both by honing in on self-taught artists and with the collectors’ obvious interest in surrealism. These ideas are far from separate, though, with surrealists often valuing artists who work outside of traditional means and attempt to transcend rationale in favor of something that exists beyond reality. Without going into the full list of artists on display, the rear wall of the space offered a clean summation of the exhibition in a salon-style hanging of works. Howard Finster’s “TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY,” a circular painting on metal roughly the size of a tire that reads “Take care of your body it is a house for your should take care of your body it will help take care of you life cannot stay here without a body,” hung in proximity to a tiled sculpture of a woman carrying a box on her head, contrasting in methodology but hinting at the general philosophy that drove the Smithers to collect.
Bradley Kerl and Bill Willis never disappoint. Kerl with his heavy brush stroked paintings and bold colors seemed to be a great fit for collaboration with Bill Willis, whose works range from collaged digital works to light handed yet tightly compositional paintings. Their exhibition, Simple Taste is Popular, featured paintings by both artists and their works harmonized together. Kerl presented a series of paintings of vintage nude playing card ladies, a playful departure from his more academic studio paintings. These melded nicely with Bill Willis’ paintings of food still lifes with the imagery torn almost directly from vintage italian cookbooks and ‘60s magazines. The exhibition seemed to poke fun yet celebrate the vintage culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s and almost maintained a men’s stag basement feel with works as a whole. Rarely am I disappointed with the works from these two artist and was pleased to see the two paired together. Willis opened a new body of works on paper in Art Palaces project room on January 13 and the exhibition runs through February 28.
As could be expected, Mark Flood’s retrospective, Gratest Hits, curated by museum Director Bill Arning, offered quite the spectacle. With an army of the museum’s preparators, local art celebrities, and Flood’s own merry assistants, the show was not just installed, but also created on site. Dozens of Flood’s paintings were attached together to make various rooms and walls, creating a maze-like exhibition. The retrospective featured videos, installations, performances, and happenings to say the least. While certain publications questioned his motives, the exhibition was solid, and all in all, Mark Flood does what Mark Flood does. While the individual works — such as lace paintings and tongue in cheek text stenciled pieces — certainly held their own, the overall experience was for the viewer to indulge, even including “Like” paintings to be placed at the foot of each piece to not only pay homage to the rise of social media, but to mock the process of artist, viewer and institution. The opening was a zoo of who’s whos, local celebrities, artist, curators, and even a tighty-whitey-sporting exhibitionist. Arning showed his admiration for the dedication and perseverance of Flood’s career, resulting in one hell of an entertaining show.
There were several younger artists refining their work this past year, one of whom is interdisciplinary artist Michael Bhichitkul, who had two great shows in 2016. The first was Real Life Situations at Cardoza Fine Art in the spring. The breakout show not only showed the potential of the artist, but was yet another leap for gallerist Pablo Cardoza. Cardoza curated tightly and presented the diversity of Michaels work, trusting the artist to create an elaborate set of installations and sculptures. The show was of museum quality and embraced the vastness of the gallery’s new space. “Tree Study” placed a mid sized tree in the middle of the gallery with a blank canvas shoved through its branches and “Look Where Gilligan Got Us Know,” which involved an inflatable raft stuffed into the rafters high above the gallery floor. Greenhorn gallerist London Alexander of Blank Check Gallery presented a whole new body of work by Bhichitkul, which, while called 5 New Paintings, actually featured more than five smaller works and installations and zero paintings. While the newer gallery, located above Paulie’s restaurant on Westheimer, was smaller in square footage than Cardoza, it carried the same intensity and professionalism. Alexander and Bhichitkul prevailed and the show as whole read as a large and amusing installation. While maintaining the danger and tension element with pieces like “Bungee Jump,” which featured a dangling cinder block above a digital print of broken concrete on the floor. There were subtle pieces like “Lumberjack,” representing a framed print of tree bark with a physical axe embedded into it, leading the viewer to the final gratifying moment when the artist was to have thrusted the axe into the print and wall.
Last year presented many projects and exhibition to ponder. Galleries and institutions alike had a stellar year, including the MFAH, FotoFest, David Shelton Gallery, the galleries of Isabella Court, DiverseWorks, and plenty more. 2017 proves to have an over the top year for programming with new projects and exciting budding artists taking the stage. Fresh nonprofit projects and initiatives are in the works and will be bringing a productive new source of funding and opportunities for artists, curators, and creatives. Redevelopment and reorganization within several institutions this upcoming year brings a change in direction and gleaming revisioning.
Upcoming for 2017 and ongoing projects:
With Stephanie Schumann Mitchell taking the reins as the new executive director, Lawndale Art Center has been bringing back the institution’s early grassroots vibes and presenting more evening events and providing a new jolt to Lawndale’s programming. SPEAKEASY is a new program initiative that re-envisions Lawndale’s “Speakeasy” series that took place from 1993 to 2002. The events have featured night performances from celebrated performers such as David Dove, Jawwaad Taylor, and Jandek, and the series does not disappoint. Lawndale Live is a TV studio audience-style show in Lawndale’s project room directed by Phillip Pyle II and hosted by Maurice Duhon Jr., with music programming by Jawwaad Taylor. The show brought on many local talents, artists, featured DJ sets from Flash Gordon Parks and Hip Hop artist Fat Tony, and even hosted former mayor Annise Parker. The new move for project and evening performances is exciting and has received much attention to date. We look forward to much more to come.
Iva Kinnaird is an ever-changing visual and performance artist. Her shows at Aurora Residency, galleryHOMELAND, and works at Lawndale Art Center have always been fascinating. Kinnaird has really kicked it up this past year and appears to be working on several bodies of work at once. This past fall she served as artist-in-residence for Performance Houston’s Instagram page, presenting some incredibly interesting social media works. Ranging from still images to videos of Kinnaird climbing around a table like a troubled feline was entertaining and compelling. Moreover, Kinnaird’s work is fresh and the performances are highly original. She doesn’t overthink it or try to force shock value, it’s a mixture of new concepts and the reimagining of old ones. What makes her work and the work presented online work so well is that she presents what she finds interesting rather than what she feels the viewer wants. The project evolved throughout her online residency and was a highlight of the day to see what was next. Kinnaird’s upcoming exhibition, Art Show!, opens January 27 at Art League Houston and runs through March 11.
Paraspace Books is a project by Sara Balabanlilar and S Rodriguez that is currently housed within the new storefront of TOMO Mags. They define the project as a transient queer book space, providing literature by queer and POC writers with a sci-fi bent. The project also received funding from Round 9 of The Idea Fund for a lecture and workshop series titled Textu(r)al Response, through which they hope to develop a community dialogue around ideas of embodiment in regards to personal experiences as well as what a future body is or can/could/would/will be.
Nick Barbee — Art Lending Library Galveston
The Art Lending Library Galveston is a new project led by Nick Barbee with the assistance of a grant from The Idea Fund. It’s just like a regular library, but instead of checking out books, members check out original art. Working off a membership, participants get to keep art works for three months. With a collection of up to 20 works focused on promoting younger artists based in Galveston, the goal is to help out emerging artists and collectors and removes the economic barrier of living with art.
Although 2017 is going to be one hell of a challenge, we have our community to turn towards for guidance and pride. There’s a great deal of exciting creative endeavours within Houston, with new spaces in the works and new festivals being formulated. Not all of these will be worth noting once they have come and gone, but as of now there are many that will be here for this year and next. Houston has been moving above and beyond its creative boundaries and an assortment of international projects are bringing brand new conversations and dialogs throughout the state and beyond. Although we enter 2017 with trepidation, we eagerly await the impulsive and instigative events that shall present themselves from within the creative community.