The Sultans Played Creole
Through May 28
by Lee Webster
Hinting at a new Americana, nostalgia, a reclamation and a war, The Sultans Played Creole, curated by James Cope for Champion, is a show that reveals itself in fits and starts. It’s got something big to say but is still casting around for the right way to get it out. It isn’t that many of the works aren’t compelling on their own, but as a whole they all hum at the same pitch. As a result, the ensemble never reaches that crescendo that pulls together the work into a cohesive whole.
The show title references the Dire Straits hit “Sultans of Swing,” a song that unfurls scenes from the American South: faded jazz greats, honky-tonk heroes and old timers whistling Dixie against a shifting social landscape. The pieces in the show all speak in a similar manner, opaquely referencing the shared American yearning for a near-distant past and a constant searching for identity. Many of the pieces evoke the cinematic nature of memory. And it makes sense. Americans create and savor their nostalgia through cinema.
The sidewalk-facing gallery windows hold Amy Revier’s photo series A Quiet Root May Know How to Holler (2011). These images of a baby carriage sitting in deserted public spaces, emitting billowing clouds from explosions of black smoke and fire, are jarring and lovely, dramatic and unsettlingly funny. They quite literally start the show off with a bang, but inside it quiets to a dull murmur.
Marjorie Schwartz’ untitled oil portraits are reminiscent of poorly focused family photos or ghosts caught in some limbo between this world and the one beyond. The small works are understated but compelling. In the second room, Caris Reid’s ink on paper drawing Samantha (2010) works in a concert with these portraits. The figure is distinctly the Samantha of the ‘60s sitcom Bewitched. Rendered in ochre tones, Samantha stares directly out of the paper, hands extended, casting a spell.
On an adjacent wall, Kadar Brock’s untitled painting integrates house paint, spray paint and ball point on a highly textured canvas that conjures grave rubbings and faded xeroxed images. The painting oscillates as much between abstract and representational as it does the material and ethereal worlds. It perfectly captures the sense of liminality for which the show strives.
Nick Mathis’ assemblage sculptures incorporate altered found objects that seem as if they’ve been lifted right from their original places in the world only moments before. In his piece Shoes (2011), a pair of men’s dress shoes are attached to a white board and painted over. Even a shadow is painted, giving the sense that the body of the man just dematerialized. However, in the close space, the small sculptures don’t hold the gravitas they otherwise might.
This is a show for lean times, one that focuses on works that are manageable in price and size. Lots of small-scale works means the gallery feels crowded and that the standout works that demand more attention don’t get the space they deserve. Still, the show is definitely worth a look for some transcendent moments and exciting new work by Texas artists. While you’re there, don’t overlook the small screening room in the back. Rachel Adams and Zoë Taleporos serve up an exuberantly fun video reel that can’t be missed. Originally curated for Queens Nails Projects in San Francisco, QNTV is a messy, musical queering of the universe through a handful of videos that investigate what it means to be an artist in a world ruled by pop culture icons and how to sell your body without selling your soul.
Lee Webster is an artist living and working in Austin, Texas.