Jamal Cyrus, Linda Post and Kristin Musgnug
Isabella Court, Houston
Through May 15
by Wendy Vogel
Though the three artists currently showing in Houston’s Isabella Court galleries work in disparate mediums (painting, video and a variety of sculptural and photographic techniques), their practices can be linked through strategies of displacement, disorientation, excavation and reframing. Make sure to take a stroll along that stretch of Main Street before the weekend is through, as the three exhibitions close on Saturday.
Jamal Cyrus, Bryan Miller Gallery, 3907 Main Street
Cyrus’ second show at the newly rechristened Bryan Miller Gallery (formerly CTRL) is titled DKONKR, a pidgin transcription of “the conqueror” that references African-American folklore legend John the Conqueror. Cyrus is also part of the Houston-based art collective Otabenga Jones & Associates, and like their work, DKONKR riffs on themes of revolution, violence, social upheaval and the African diaspora, using found images as a point of departure.
In the back of the gallery, four sheets of papyrus titled Eroding Witness bear the laser-cut imprint of declassified, redacted FBI documents that detail the government’s shadowing of the Black Panther party in the 1960s. The delicate sheets, evocative of Biblical screeds, transform the evidentiary quality of the documents into an object that suggests a transhistorical narrative of oppression and resistance. This thread is followed in photographic objects with a strong tie to Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. An untitled black-and-white photo of the Black Panther party headquarters, splashed with catalogue numbers from King Tut’s tomb, is overlaid with deep blue Mylar tape. A photograph from the recent Egyptian uprising, printed in black-and-white, becomes the background to a makeshift roadblock (complete with sandbags) in FA / TA / HA.
Though many other artists have mined Warhol’s image-making strategies, Cyrus’ rigorous and imaginative take resists the facile implications of, for example, Kelley Walker’s chocolate-splashed Black Star Press.
Linda Post, Art Palace, 3913 Main Street
Linda Post’s solo effort at Art Palace is a spatial exercise; she reconfigures earlier site-specific work while creating new videos that unsettle the viewer’s experience in the gallery space. A highlight of the first category is Approach, first created for the AC Institute in New York. At Art Palace, the work is installed on two small flat-screen monitors in the back right corner. We see Post performing simple acts of preparation in the AC space on the left screen (mopping the floors and so on), while on the right, shots of an exterior elevator are intercut with footage of Post and a performer using the long, narrow art space as a makeshift bowling alley. Rather than distorting one’s spatial perception, references to 1970s performances abound, from Nauman’s phenomenological investigations of the corridor space to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance actions.
Wherever and Not use Art Palace as a location to stage simple actions such as stacking blocks, rolling a ball or climbing a stool. Focusing on the blinding white of the gallery’s floors and walls, the videos both reference the specificity of the gallery architecture and gently deride the supposed neutrality of the art setting. There is Post’s sculptural quasi-monument, pushing the show in an anarchitectural direction. She reframes Houston’s Buffalo Bayou as three separate vignettes, chopped up and playing on three tube televisions precariously balanced upon one another. Repurposing obsolescent technology as an object of study, the work references both a “wherever” and “whenever” that ties her work to a larger history of intermedia experimentation.
Kristin Musgnug, Inman Gallery, 3917 Main Street
I recently saw Veins in the Gulf at Aurora Picture Show as part of Shrimp Boat Projects’ satellite programming. The documentary explicates the complicated options to slow or reverse the erosion of coastal wetlands in Louisiana, along with the divisive opinions of locals about these potential solutions. With that backdrop in mind, I went to Inman to check out Kristin Musgnug’s Unnatural Histories, a series of landscape paintings documenting the proliferation of invasive plant species in various locations in the U.S. These alien plants, introduced by humans, are slowly destroying local ecosystems.
Musgnug’s paintings, described by the artist as “detailed but not photographic; observationally based, but not completely objective,” are worthwhile provocations but do not always succeed on the level of critical reception. These paintings mimic 17th-century landscape conventions and are meant to convey that nature is always framed through pictorial conventions that structure our perception of reality. The problem is that her works try to ride the line between criticality and complicity. By depicting invasive plant species without some reference beyond the pastoral frame, she does little more than reinscribe representational traditions. In other words, many of the landscapes look impressive, but without a specialist’s knowledge of how dangerous the plants are, they don’t urge us to seek additional, politicized information (which Musgnug has provided amply, in the form of extended wall label-like texts available for the taking about the plants and their histories). These works fall into the trap of Ansel Adams’ photographs, which arguably often excise the social landscape for an aestheticized one.
The paintings that work in the built environment (Tallow Trees and Power Lines, 2010, and Japanese Dodder with Zuo Gui Wan, 2009) break from these traditions in a refreshing way. By the “staged” insertion of takeaway food containers, or through the rendering of faraway power lines in shaky skeins of paint, Musgnug points to the difficulty of reconciling contemporary motifs with pristine painterly motifs, much like the difficulty of introducing alien plants to a fragile ecosystem.
Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.