The Old, Weird America

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston

On view through July 20, 2008
by Scott Webel

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      Kara Walker, Still from 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker, 2005
      DVD video, 15.57 minutes (with sound)
      Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

      View Gallery

      The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, through July 20, 2008, bills itself as “the first museum exhibition to explore the widespread resurgence of folk imagery and history in American contemporary art.” Perhaps a better exhibition title would have been The Old, Haunted America.* The exhibition is packed with phantoms, from Cynthia Norton’s whirling, bodiless red and white dresses in Dancing Squared (2004) to at least twenty apparitions of Abraham Lincoln in Barnaby Furnas’s Civil War paintings and Greta Pratt’s photos. Dario Robleto’s funereal The Pause Became Permanence (2005-2006) materializes war’s vast time-span by memorializing the early 21st century deaths of the last three Civil War widows. Jeremy Blake’s video Winchester (2002) floods the celebrated Mystery House in San Jose, California, with luminous ghosts, some of them armed with rifles. Both Blake and Margaret Kilgallen are artists that died far too young, and the inclusion of their work adds to the exhibition’s haunted atmosphere.

      Ghosts from the founding traumas of slavery, Civil War schisms and wars against Native Americans loom large in the works brought together by curator Toby Kamps. Kara Walker’s 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of an African-America (2005), a film of shadow puppets, unrolls like an old Disney cartoon’s repressed dreams of menacing racial desires. In addition, given the show's titular reference to the old folk music scavenged by Bob Dylan, Walker’s soundtrack of scratchy string band tunes provides an apt audio presence within the exhibition. Sam Durant’s slowly revolving, two-faced diorama, Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006), recreates Thanksgiving’s happy myth/genocidal truth out of wax figures, fittingly salvaged from the obsolete Plymouth National Wax Museum. The works of Walker and Durant, along with Aaron Morse’s paintings of Westward expansion and Brad Kuhlhamer’s drawings of bloody battlefields, build up an anti-nostalgic history; landscapes, humans, and animals alike have undergone brutal, supernatural transformations: America as Mystery House, populated by restless phantoms.

      The antic history of American aesthetics, which comes giggling out of circus sideshows, roadside attractions, Old West shows and the like, sometimes lightens the exhibition’s haunted feel. Entering the exhibition, you’re confronted by Durants’ wax figure tableau and Kilgallen’s installation of a ramshackle streetscape, Main Drag (2001); it feels a bit like walking into an aged theme park or midway, especially with Kilgallen’s hand-painted signs. Circus imagery jaunts through both the cotton elves in Walker’s film and the uniforms worn by the queer Civil War Zouave soldiers in Allison Smith’s work. Matthew Day Jackson’s fake taxidermy faeries near David McDermott & Peter McGough’s broken urn, San Francisco Earthquake Box 1906 (1988), transform one corner of the exhibition into a sort of dime museum. But the haunting aesthetics of trauma trump the aesthetics of old, weird entertainment in the exhibition, suggesting that “folk themes in contemporary art” are more concerned with confronting ghosts than tinkering with bizarre spectacles.

      By gathering artworks together under a “folk theme,” the exhibition evokes the specter of folk/vernacular/outsider/self-trained art worlds that authenticate “contemporary art” through their categorical exclusion (and vice versa). Artworks like those displayed in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s 2007 exhibition Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds hover around the exhibition in a timeless un-contemporary. In The Old, Weird America, contemporary art is privileged to experience this residual world of the folk without being downscaled to folk art as such. Art environments like the Flower Man’s house, the Orange Show, and others you might discover “wandering the old, weird America” in search of “visionary places and spaces,”** beg questions about who gets to be contemporary and who stays folk in the landscape of galleries, museums and houses haunted by artwork.

      Perhaps the lurking spirits of folk art objects are most clearly channeled by Kahlhamer’s Dolls, made of the artist’s hair, rusty nails and scraps of leather and wood. Of all the works in the exhibition, these look most like the un-contemporary folk art you’d imagine finding in somebody’s yard or living room or in the Kohler’s Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds. The dolls are jailed in a chicken pen, far from Kahlhamer’s works on paper, a separation that unfortunately dampens the menace that the bloody drawings might lend the cute fetishes. Looking at the dolls, an art-goer remarked, “they should either be caged like that or put next to a candle and worshipped.” Thanks to the exhibition, they get to be simultaneously locked up in the time of the contemporary and worshipped for their residual, resurgent folk spirit.

      * Didn’t I warn you about being haunted by our Ghosts exhibition in my last feature for …might be good?

      ** Quotation from Erika Doss, “Wandering the Old, Weird America: Poetic Musings and Pilgrimage Perspectives on Vernacular Art Environments” in Sublimes Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Build Environments of Vernacular Artists, edited by Leslie Umberger (New York: Princeton Architectural Pres; Sheboygan: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2007), 24-45.

      Scott Webel is a Ph.D. student in the Folkore/Public Culture program at The University of Texas at Austin. With Jen Hirt, he co-curates Austin's Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata.

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