Pat Graney: House of Mind

DiverseWorks, Houston

Exhibition Only on View through February 21, 2009
by Kate Watson

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      Pat Graney
      House of Mind, 2009
      Photograph by Tim Summers
      Courtesy the artist and DiverseWorks

      View Gallery

      The walls of Pat Graney’s House of Mind seemed to murmur that familiar 2nd-wave feminist anthem, “the personal is political.” I couldn’t help but ask myself—is this still true? “The personal,” at least in the visual arts, has been an icky topic during the last decade. Many contemporary artists weave multi-layered narratives, but have preferred to explore the topic of identity in more abstract terms (think Mika Rottenberg or Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn). But House of Mind, Diverseworks’ most ambitious project to date, unabashedly embraces the personal. Graney, a Seattle-based choreographer, merges stunningly elaborate installation with contemporary dance, seeking to (obsessively) catalog the depths of her personal experience through epic visuals and movement.

      Wandering through the maze of oversized rooms built around the main dance space, I was shocked by the sheer number of objects incorporated into the exhibition. Trickles of water flow across a wall composed of 100,000 mother-of-pearl buttons. Adjacent to this wall, 4,000 well-loved books are stacked quietly in obsessively neat, colorful piles. Graney conjures up personal ghosts and serves them to us on an eerie platter—giant dolls’ dresses loom above in one room; ancient police reports (written by Graney’s policeman father before he was killed when she was a child) tell the official tales of gangster violence in Chicago on the narrow walls next door.

      If “less is more” is a familiar refrain in contemporary art, Graney’s House could use some decluttering. I give myself the heebee jeebees saying this, but the piece actually feels overfunded (No, NEA, this is not an invitation to slash funding for the arts, although Tom Coburn would have a field day with this show). Despite the (at times) overwrought installation, the lush, abstract movement of the performance saves the day.

      Skip the knick knack cubbies—much of the installation feels like an unoccupied set, and I’m not sure what it’s doing there. The best objects and spaces in the show are the ones that the dancers activate with their beautiful choreography—a solitary, nude dancer emerging from a clawfoot bathtub in the opening of the performance; the “family” gathering together at a dining room table to eat freshly baked birthday cake. The dancers move deliberately, sometimes obsessively, through the space in a maze of domestic ritual. Mary Janes clack sonorously across the floor; chairs are rearranged endlessly, sometimes sweeping up the dancers with them. Individual dresser drawers emerge from nowhere and bodies suddenly crunch up inside of them. The mechanical and the sensual merge: frenetic chair “line dances” quickly give way to aromatic cakes baked in an old fashioned oven and languorous bodies overlap in momentarily intimate scenarios.

      Ultimately, it’s a beautiful window into Graney’s world. Rarely (especially in Texas) do we get to see such a massive multidisciplinary undertaking, and it’s fascinating to explore how contemporary dance and sculpture work together, and how they don’t. House of Mind could tell us more and show us less and we’d leave just as satisfied. Yet in this new political moment (Obama has, after all, won two Grammys for his spoken word), the personal seems suddenly refreshing.

      Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite and Associate Editor of ...might be good.

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