Death of the Propane Salesman
Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, Fort Worth
Through December 13
by Alison Hearst
Ludwig Schwarz, Untitled (Cocksucker), 2005
See image gallery for full image credit
Curiously enough, the title of the latest exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, Death of the Propane Salesman: Anxiety and the Texas Artist, curated by Christina Rees, references an episode from Mike Judge’s popular television series “King of the Hill.” In the episode, an explosion at the Mega Lo Mart kills Luanne Platter’s boyfriend and imbues Hank Hill with the fear of propane and anxiety over his imminent death. While “King of the Hill” was widely venerated during its twelve-year run, it imparts all-Texans-are-rednecks stereotypes and, thus, marginalizes Texas and Texans—something that most of us Texans simultaneously enjoy and dislike.
It’s easy to buy into Rees’s implication that artists in Texas endure many anxieties akin to Hank’s anxiety over his livelihood, propane—anxieties related to these artists’ work and context, including a general lack of attention paid due to regional constraints. In Death of the Propane Salesman, Rees brings together work by fourteen Texas-based artists to pick apart the many symptoms of such anxiety. The exhibition is mainly comprised of paintings and drawings, although there is a sculpture by Kevin Todora and three videos, two by Edward Setina and one by Amy Revier. Here, anxiety is primarily defined by anger, obsessive-ness, utopian dreams and discomfort. But what’s also important is that the carefully chosen works deflect the regional pigeonholing akin to that of “King of the Hill” (or found in the overriding folksy vibe of this year’s Texas Biennial, for example.)
In Amy Revier’s video Wooly Headed (2007), the artist is seen wrapping and obsessively knit-picking a Rapunzel-esque braid around her head to mask her face and shroud herself from her environment. Audio transmitted from Revier’s piece—which is a fast-paced, high-pitched looping track punctuated by moments of a slowed-down version—can be heard throughout the gallery and inflicts a feeling of restlessness on the viewer. This type of agitation appears again in the process behind Terri Thornton’s three nearby diptychs of nearly erased magazine pages. However, formally, Thornton’s works are calm and ethereal, and the pages’ enduring traces take on the form of abstract drawings; hence, Thorton’s process leads to markedly different results; the works withdraw from anxiety into a non-verbal state.
A blatant rage—rage spurred by the unavoidable pitfalls of being a Texas driver—can be found in Ludwig Schwarz’s paintings Untitled (Cocksucker) and Untitled (Fucking Mother Fucker) (both 2005 and from the Road Rage series). Untitled (Cocksucker) shows the word in a Pettibon-esque cursive scrawl over a plane of feisty, messy underpainting. The tension mounts in Untitled (Fucking Mother Fucker), as these words are emblazoned bigger, bolder and in all caps. The hostility prompted by anxiety—here, in relation to driving—is all too familiar. Kevin Todora’s work best fits with Schwarz’s breed of anger; the hinged, triangular MDF sculpture f.u. (2009), like his other work in the exhibition, renders vintage magazine photographs almost indiscernible underneath incensed marks of spray paint. The back of the sculpture is marked “f.u.” in spray paint in a conspicuous gesture of nose-thumbing. Got it.
In the front of the gallery, Matthew Bourbon’s paintings illustrate uneasy situations through a voyeuristic lens. For Your Own Good (2009) loosely depicts a brawl between two men in a neutral palette. Crisp splices of vivid color perk up the otherwise grim scene; the colorful interjections make light of the tense situation we are witnessing, but at the same time suggest that recollections of such events can be glossed over with time and optimism. Vernon Fisher’s nearby painting The Spectrum of Human Emotions (2006), features vignettes of Mickey Mouse in various emotional states. The work seems to relay the motions of an identity crisis, but perhaps this mainly ensues from its context within the exhibition’s overarching theme.
Yes, being a Texan means a lot of things, so prodding the psychological state of the Texas artist is a novel approach that’s played well here. Overall, the works are strong, varied and do not fit neatly into a specific niche or genre. Moreover, unlike the characters in “King of the Hill,” the artworks here rightfully eschew the provincial typecasting—minus the context-driven anxiousness—sometimes given to art in the lone star state by outsiders and insiders alike.
Alison Hearst is the Curatorial Research Assistant at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and a co-founder of Subtext Projects.