Hard Edge: Ping-Pong Abstraction from Houston Thrift Stores
Through November 14
by Michael Bise
P Amdur, (Untitled), 1980
Bill Davenport warned me not to take the current exhibition of thrift store paintings at Optical Project too seriously. Davenport founded Optical Project, a gallery in a building he owns and lives in with his wife, the painter Francesca Fuchs, about a year ago. This show, entitled Hard Edge: Ping-Pong Abstraction from Houston Thrift Stores, consists of geometric abstract paintings from thrift stores. In the center of the gallery sits a well-worn ping-pong table. It’s the ping-pong table that Davenport claims as the raison d’etre for the exhibition; he has wanted to host a ping-pong tournament since he acquired the table a couple of years ago. One of the paintings on the wall is a representation of a ping-pong table, which by virtue of its being painted on canvas and mounted on the wall, also manages to be a geometric abstraction. Davenport, known for transforming Inman Gallery into a faux-wood-Styrofoam lodge, has never been one to shy away from a kind of obviousness so ridiculous it ceases to be quite so obvious.
The real interest in Ping-Pong lies not in the intellectual exercise of legitimating thrift store paintings. Rather, the show, and the gallery itself, makes the most sense in the context of their proximity to Bill’s Junk, Davenport’s neighboring junk shop. In Bill’s Junk you’ll find plenty of interesting crap but you’ll also find a bunch of junk handcrafted by a guy who went to RISD and came to Houston via the MFAH’s Core Program—Davenport himself.
The clean white space of Optical Project stands in stark contrast to the folksy clutter of Bill’s Junk, but what is not quite so clear-cut is the question of where the real art is. There are a lot of objects in the junk shop that you might just as likely find in a vitrine at the San Antonio Museum of Art, which owns a variation of a Davenport sculpture that can currently be found next to a rubber band ball at Bill’s Junk. Indeed, a smaller version of Bill’s Junk itself, complete with three walls and a door, has lived the last several months of its life in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston as a part of the exhibition No Zoning. While some of the art-junk in Bill’s Junk seems to genuinely blur the line not only between junk and art but also between junk and good art, one would be hard-pressed to confuse any of the paintings in Ping-Pong with good abstract painting. In this seeming paradox lies the most interesting thing about the numerous dialectical hairpin turns that lead from Bill’s Junk to Optical Project and back again: the objects that most clearly resemble art (the paintings in Ping-Pong) are the most boring things to be seen at 1125 E. 11th St.
Davenport tells me that he has spent much of his life pursuing the idealistic goal of finding a place where the “wall” between high art and art-like stuff made by regular people crumbles and one can become the other. Yet he admits that he has failed in this task over and over again. Ping-Pong, he says, will be the last exhibition for a while that would bring junk into Optical Project. While Davenport seems to be swearing off junk in the gallery, I have no doubt though that we’ll continue to see art on the shelves of Bill’s Junk. It seems to me that Davenport has decided, at least for now, that the traffic of objects between the real world and the art world takes place on a one-way street. You can put art in a junk store with a lot less complication than you can put junk in a gallery. But I also have no doubt that Davenport will keep working on a way around this problem. As I left Bill’s Junk he was making a paper-mache pretzel, the Styrofoam eyeballs glued to his stocking cap bobbing up and down.
Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.