By Paul Middendorf and Michael McFadden.

It’s hard to look back on 2017 with much fondness. We started out with trepidation, waiting with fists clenched and readied to see what this new administration would do. The year was a struggle for us as a nation, and particularly for Houston and other cities affected by Harvey. It’s been a struggle to say the least. The slow down of gallery and institution attendance put the pinch on art sales and tightened the purse strings for venues and facilitators. We’ve been through a lot, y’all, but communities came together and stood against an unprecedented surge of a negativity and stayed standing. It’s taken a severe dedication and conviction for the creative community to pull our heads out of the dirt to take a big deep breath in and blaze a new trail as us Houstonians know how to do so well.

What we saw in 2017 was venues and artists taking giant strides to break away from the “normal” and begin to program and create within this new reality. As heavy as the past year has been, we have seen dozens of refreshing exhibitions and provocative projects be presented. As always, Houston’s creative community provided a bevy of installations, exhibitions, and works that emboldened us, made us reassess our world, or provided a brief glimpse of something beautiful in what was otherwise a giant, garbage-breathing dragon of a year.

Here’s a sampling of standouts from 2017.

Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, “The Scene”

Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin | The Scene | The Wedge Space, HCC Southeast

Vaughan and Margolin are humble about their artistic practice, but each piece of work they produce is thoughtful and visually stunning. The Scene is a collection of eight road maps, each dissected with the care of a surgeon to reproduce photographs from Houston’s diverse drag scene from 1969 to 1981. In The Scene – Detail (Naomi Sims), cut-out eyes set against black stare boldly from the map as the roads shimmer like glitter exploding outward from the brows.

Much of Vaughan and Margolin’s practice is centered on unearthing these histories — sometimes buried, sometimes lost — and reexamining them in a modern light, drawing connections to contemporary queer experiences. The pair split their time between academic and social research, delving into communities as deeply as they do historical records. In the coming months, The Scene will be split between Tony’s Corner Pocket and the MD Anderson Library at the University of Houston, coming together again in a show at Devin Borden Gallery that opens March 30.

The Gabriel Martinez exhibition “Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely” set up shop at the BLAFFER Art Museum.

Gabriel Martinez | Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely | BLAFFER Art Museum

Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely consists of many ongoing, ephemeral projects that have made up Martinez’s artistic practice over the years. From building and placing benches to reshaping glass from shattered car windows for the public to knock apart, he has a long history of public interventions. In the upstairs of the Blaffer, shards of glass are shaped into rectangles, laid in rows on the floor, and arranged according to the artist’s memory. Collectively titled The Long Poem of Walking, each of these rectangles contains the exact amount of glass that Martinez collected at a specific time and place, with streets referenced in barely visible vinyl on the gallery walls. Martinez scours neighborhoods like a wasteland wanderer, picking up abandoned, neglected objects that he can repurpose or simply taking note of the detritus he crosses paths with — as he has reproduced in Ghost Trash, a series of small, white sculptures littering the corners of the Blaffer.

The Propeller Group |The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music | BLAFFER Art Museum  

A haunting soundtrack filled the Blaffer Museum galleries over the summer as The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music, a video piece by The Propeller Group, blared out from its theater ignoring the constrictions of its space. The video depicts the multi-day funeral rites of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam as the artists spin the processions out into a hallucinatory journey across city streets and rivers drawing parallels to the second lines of New Orleans. The Propeller Group specializes in a blend of design and media that utilizes the tools and strategies of advertising and marketing to examine Vietnam’s culture and history.

Three flagpoles stood afore the wall of the main gallery emblazoned with The Propeller Group’s efforts to rebrand communism — its new logo a malformed circle comprised of overlapping semicircles. Upstairs a series of cases contained blocks of ballistic gel into which the artists had fired M16s and AK-47s, capturing the impact of the bullets and freezing them in time. The group has found a plethora of innovative ways to address the issues of countries with challenging histories as they deal with the ramifications of past interventions and modern tourism.

Raphael Rubinstein and Heather Bause, “The Miraculous Houston” 2017

Raphael Rubinstein + Heather Bause | The Miraculous Houston | University of Houston

Published in 2014, The Miraculous is a series of brief narratives by art critic Raphael Rubinstein. Each chapter from the book does more than describe a piece of art. Rubinstein is concise in his depictions while providing a depth that activates the imagination to fill in the visuals. The brevity of the chapters is balanced with his poetic stylings to foster a sense of mysticism as he shares artists’ feats, confrontations, and attempts at wit.

2017 gave us The Miraculous Houston as part of the CounterCurrent Festival. With the support of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH, Rubinstein and his partner Heather Bause reshape and displace the book across the university campus in a series of vinyl posters. Some gigantic, some miniscule, each bears Rubinstein’s words and shares them with the unsuspecting passersby to disrupt the daily routine with an introduction to the art world. As people stop to read, add to the discussion by affixing a Post-It, or simply ignore them, the texts become an aspect of the everyday and shift reading from private experience to public.

Trey Duvall | Moving Right Along | 2132 Bissonnet

Located in the interior of a former convenience store, Moving Right Along was site specific, kinetic installation and a perfect example of contemporary public art. Randomized programing triggered a steel ball to thrash around the store during the 15-day duration of the installation. During the course of the installation, the two high-torque mechanized double pendulums smashed into shelving systems, soda machines, retail racks, drink coolers and walls creating a beautiful display of chaos and destruction. Once set in motion, each gesture created a new starting condition for the following sequence and future strike path.

The crowd of art goers stood at the windows fixed to the display of randomly exploding cabinets and cup holders, as the sculpture swung widely within the store. People were genuinely afraid due to the unpredictable movements of the swinging metal ball. At certain viewings, with the artist present, small groupings of the public were invited to view the installation from the “safety” of a side room from within the actual store.

“Im almost certain we are safe in here from harm” Trey told a group of them. As he poked and configured the somewhat questionable looking breakers behind the scenes, Duvall’s sculpture erupted into an untamed thrashing and smashing of its surroundings as the special guests jumped back from the door. How often do you question vitality and longevity while checking out an exhibit? I’d say not very often, and I applaud Duvall for his unique vision and heart-pumping presentation. Public art doesn’t just have to be a polished steel sculpture anchored in a city park.

Paul Ramirez Jonas, Atlas, Plural, Monumental (installation view). 2017. Photo by Nash Baker. Courtesy the artist and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Paul Ramírez Jonas | Atlas Plural Monumental | Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

The Contemporary Arts Museum and its curatorial staff is no stranger to moving and thought provoking programming. Atlas, Plural, Monumental is Paul Ramírez Jonas’s first survey exhibition in the Americas. Including sculptures, photographs, videos, drawings, and participatory works made from 1991 to 2016, Atlas, Plural, Monumental demonstrates how Ramírez Jonas is redefining “public art” by investigating how a public is constituted and what brings them together. Through this exhibition the museum presents a wide and enlightening view of the the artist’s body of work spanning decades. Ramirez Jonas is as much an inventor and mad scientist as he is a worldly celebrated artists.

Recreating famous inventors kites set with alarm clocks to trigger a shutter capturing his image is just one of his ongoing projects since 1993. Ramirez Jonas continued to push the boundary of art, public intervention, and scientific exploration. Signs were placed throughout the museum to ensure the viewers were aware interaction was encouraged. Without typical institutional boundaries and due to the nature of Ramirez Jonas’s work, the exhibition set forth an endless bounty of musical installation, public engaging writing projects, and engagements to shatter social and political conformities. The exhibition hummed with curatorial harmony, and a clever and informative art historical timeline was presented. Ramirez Jonas is as much of a performance artist as he is a public artist as his work requires and desires the participation of the viewer or bystander. I found his work to once again restore my faith in public motivated art and the ongoing need for collaboration between the art world and the everyday.

Laura Lark, “Guest Star” Photo: Mark Matsusaki

Laura Lark | Guest Star | Devin Borden Gallery

Over this past summer during the sweltering heat Laura Lark curated this outstanding installation including works by dozens of artists, writers and filmmakers who have made her studio compound their temporary residence over the past twenty-five years. Complete with a living room set up, beat up coffee table, and lamps, viewers were invited in to plop down on the sofa to read through books, magazines, and watch an assortment of compelling videos. With an overwhelming collection of talents such as Zoya Tommy, Geoff Hippenstiel, James Radcliffe, Seth Alverson, Patricia Hernandez, and more, there was no stone left unturned. A beautiful core sample of Houston’s creative scene and beyond was laid forth, allowing the viewer to get lost in the collection of vibrant works, writings and sculptures. It was a welcome change in white cube presentation and not only showed bodies of works different from the artist normal portfolio, but was a zestful presentation of Larks dauntless art practice. Much in the vein of her recurring article, Laura Lark Loves You, featured with the arts website Glasstire, Lark presents a pure, undiluted view of what and who motivates and energizes her.

During the run of the exhibition Lark and gallerist Devin Borden set up “Meet Ups” inviting curators, artists, journalist, and eccentrics in small groups to come by the gallery for snacks, cold beers and conversation. With no real direction other than pure socializing, the gatherings were simply meant to bring folks together to spark raw dialog, with the occasional informal video screening. Laura Lark, jumps in and out of the arts world as she pleases. And when she does, her presentation never disappoints.

Roberto Jackson Harrington’s “C Wut Stix” was on display at Bill’s Junk.

Roberto Jackson Harrington | C Wut Stix | Bill’s Junk

The Center for Experimental Practice’s C Wut Stix was an exhibit featuring work by Austin-based artist Roberto Jackson Harrington at Bill’s Junk, located in the Houston Heights.
The often times radical and outside the box Harrington, presented an impressive collection of works on paper, small objects, sculptures, and odd yet pleasing environments. Part revolution, part future time travel, Roberto’s work was intriguing for sure and left the viewer circling the very small gallery like a shark without purpose.

A result of exploring, failures, dead-ends and self-amusement, the exhibition featured one-off pieces, jokes, prints and objects not usually associated with Harrington’s work. I’m not sure he wanted you to know what is going on within his pieces. The gallery presented only a sampling of the artists works and left the viewer wanting more and looking for the next project from Austin’s Roberto Jackson Harrington’s studio.

Upcoming in 2018 and ongoing projects:

Nameless Sound | Lawndale Art Center

There has been wide range of changes in programming and staffing at Lawndale, but much can be said about most nonprofits operating in these questionable times. One of the exciting changes to occur is the organization partnering up with David Dove and Nameless Sound on its They Who Sound programming. Previously the They Who Sound programming could be seen at various venues around town over the past several years. Now with a set location and date of every Monday, the They Who Sounds programming brings experimental sound, noise, performance art and more. The programing changes mark a change in direction for Lawndale Art Center and a glimpse at a changing vision.

Grown Up Story Time & Neo Benshi

Recently the power duo of Emily Hynds and Lindsay Burleson have ended the performance non-profit Bootown and have decided to change things up a bit. The well-attended evenings of Grown Up Storytime and Neo-Benshi have become two separate groups. Grown Up Story Time, being a packed-house, two-part evening of stories read by strangers and creatives within the community to a live audience, has been a staple of performative literature for years. Neo-Benshi is the twist on Japanese theatre but with more swearing, comedy and wild videos read by and recreated by musicians, artists, writers, and more. Hynds and Burleson are engaged with the redirect and want to rattle the cage a bit with the new remodeling and transformations within the two performative events. With a more dialed in focus, GUST and Neo want to kick it up a notch, and we shall see just what new directions are in store. With these two amazing people, I’m sure we are in for a treat!

Paraspace Books

Paraspace Books is a pop-up book space operated by sweet angel babie S Rodriguez and Sara Balabanlilar. They operate as a transient queer bookspace that focuses on books, zines, and other publications (as well as excellent merch) by queer and POC individuals who address issues of the body, materiality, time, and identity as well as the point of collision between any or all. Awarded a grant in the 2017 Round of The Idea Fund, Paraspace organized a series of workshops collectively titled Textu(r)al Response, seeking to foster dialogue around ideas of embodiment in regards to personal experiences as well as what a future body is or can/could/would/will be. What will they do in 2018? Probably something wonderful. Keep in touch with Paraspace on Facebook and Instagram.