Round 33: The Seventh House
Project Row Houses, Houston
Through February 28
by Massa Lemu
It is not through formal concerns that Project Row Houses’ Round 33: The Seventh House is understood as a collaborative project. Rather, it is as the viewer walks from one shotgun house to the next, each hosting a site-specific project by an individual artist, that subtle interrelationships in the work reveal themselves. According to the curators Edgar Arceneaux and Nery Gabriel Lemus, the exhibition is intended to express a dialogue that informed several years of numerous discrete collaborations between the artists on view, most of whom studied at or are affiliated with the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. In fact Houston’s Third Ward, the neighborhood where the Project Row Houses are situated, is an apt location for dealing with the cultural, social, and political problems that are at the heart of most of the artists’ work.
Olga Koumoundouros recreates abdominal viscera and other internal organs in the form of lamps made from consumer detritus in Accumulation of Mondays. Milk gallons and other food containers, coated with print advertisements and lit from within, are suspended from the ceiling by electric cords in a space painted a fleshy red. The work regurgitates a number of issues related to accumulation, human sustenance and the harsh realities of survival. Materialism and overconsumption structure our contemporary Western being, but they are also a cancer that threatens our existence.
The issue of cultural self-expenditure is echoed in Rodney McMillian’s work. Portal: a state of kemmering in the Council-era of corrosion physically engages the architecture of the house it occupies. The hand-sewn room of black vinyl covers the interior walls and floors of the house, and extends outside the portal to temporarily disfigure the building. The exterior appearance could evoke anything from architectural corrosion to the aftermath of a man-made or natural disaster. In the context of Project Row it is about the story of failed metropolitan ambitions that leaves neighborhoods in neglect and disrepair. Edgar Arceneaux’s The Human Sugar Factory (one) shares similar concerns. The installation of open and burnt cardboard boxes growing sugar crystals on metal shelves evokes images of a hastily abandoned factory. Possessing a dark and perverse beauty, the installation speaks of ruined prospects and entropic transformation.
Andrea Bowers’ project Hope in Hindsight directly references the present American political scenario, reflecting upon the current cultural ambivalence towards Obama’s presidency. The work questions whether participatory democracy is possible. Painted in blue and white on the front of the row house is President Obama’s declaration from a 2006 fundraising letter: “What Washington needs is adult supervision.” Inside are a poster and two videos titled Inauguration and New Reality. The poster features a teenage boy wearing a t-shirt of Obama as a superhero with another quote of hope from the inauguration speech by the president. Inauguration is a 30-minute projection on the wall focusing on the crowds that attended President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. These euphoric messages of hope and change are contrasted by the ominous weather conditions on the inauguration day. But reality is also encountered in the second video in the room, featuring a woman who frankly tells the president that she is exhausted by defending his administration.
Until Day Breaks and Shadows Flee by Nery Gabriel Lemus tells the story of domestic violence in Five Acres Grace Center in Pasadena, California through t-shirts and a wall mural that appropriates comic strip imagery. The mural depicts ugly scenes of domestic violence punctuated by a few delicate scenes of tenderness and love. The omission of text in the speech balloons and the displaced chronology alludes to the silence of the victimized, a silence that shields and thereby perpetrates horrific acts of violence in the home. But this strategy also offers the viewer a chance to fill in the blanks according to their own narratives. Lemus has also given the victims a rare chance to express themselves and retell their experiences through images and text on t-shirts they created, on display in the center of the room. Charles Gaines’ string theory: Rewriting Fanon also reinterprets the story of the marginalized. It ventures to rewrite excerpts from Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and to (re)present them in the form of carefully stenciled and neatly framed graphite drawings. The text undergoes a re-sequencing and reframing based upon the rules of grammar and not meaning. The resultant sentences occupy the murky terrain between perverse meaning and nonsense, with such examples as “There is a sibling who requires the girl to hurt” or “The aversion of the father is predestined in the depositary of partners.” Gaines suggests that perhaps this is where Fanon’s seminal book on the existential condition of the post-colonial subject has been relegated to due to repeated revisions and abstractions over time.
The last house showcases aspects of the various Project Row programs that engage the Third Ward community. On shelves and walls are African-American literature and post-colonial theory texts from ongoing book club readings, and uplifting quotes by members of the educational Young Mothers Residency. Besides minor installation hitches, Round 33: The Seventh House offers a timely space for engaging the present socio-political environment.
Massa Lemu is an artist and freelance critic based in Houston, TX.