Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, Fort Worth
Through February 25
by Benjamin Lima
Michael Bise’s exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts opened under the shadow of first grim, then hopeful news about the artist’s health, communicated to the public via the Glasstire website, e-mails from the Moody Gallery, and otherwise. In November, an open letter broke the news that Bise had been told he needed a new heart to live. In December, a benefit concert was held in Houston. Then in January, news came of a successful transplant. Next to events like those, art criticism is trivial. But the matter-of-factness with which Bise faced down death, as related in Life on the List, Chapter 1 (2011), decisively proving Epilogues to be a prematurely bestowed title, will encourage many visitors to eagerly await the next chapters of the Life, after the list and beyond.
The works here are all autobiographical drawings in a distinctive, observationally precise yet casual style; nevertheless, the show comprises two quite different formats. The first is represented by the eight easel-sized graphite drawings depicting wordless memory-images of pivotal moments from childhood and afterward; the second is a narrative series in ink on letter-size sheets, Life On the List, Part 1, which was published on Glasstire in October. Each type of work gives us a different perspective on the artist’s life story, centered on the congenital heart disease that he inherited, and the family Pentecostalism that he rejected.
The graphite works are big enough to get absorbed in; they allow a viewer to be a connoisseur, enjoying the textures of different kinds of upholstery, linens and clothing as they are rendered by Bise’s careful pencil. They are also ambiguous; much of their significance will be mysterious to the casual viewer. The sinister primal scene in The Puppy Song (2011) is deeply chilling even if the precise subject (a puppy-killing) isn’t perfectly clear at first, as it wasn’t to me. The Spirit-filled female congregants worshiping in the tent in Revival (2009) are multiple versions of different women (mother, grandmother, girlfriends) important in Bise’s life. They are frozen in poses of ecstatic abandon–evenly lit and outlined so that we can see every single one of them clearly. Uncle Corky (2011) refers to the senseless death of the artist’s grandmother’s brother at the hands of Los Angeles police. It looks like a 1970s suicide tableau, but the anachronistic reflection, in the station wagon’s fender, of a Model T Ford and two Bonnie-and-Clyde-era lawmen suggest a dream overlaid on a memory. In Mom and Dad (2011), Mom’s carefully arranged up-do and the folds of Dad’s shirt over his belly are crystal-clear, but the thoughts behind Mom’s bemused and Dad’s attentive facial expressions are much less so.
By contrast, the sequential presentation of Life On The List gives us a protagonist, dialogue, a storyline and blunt candor. Thought bubbles tell the story of the first hours after his diagnosis as we follow the unlucky patient (looking somewhat more scruffy and rough-hewn than he does in published photographs) through bad-smelling hospital rooms filled with overweight nurses and medical assistants. Drawn at a smaller scale than the graphite works, each frame has a crowded energy and a comix-style irreverence that gives the sentimentality an edge. Among the first consequences to flash through his mind is the fate of his devoted basset hound: “What would Oliver do without me?” When passed post-diagnosis at a traffic light by a slack-jawed doofus in a Firebird: “I bet he lives to be a hundred.” What is his response to learning that the five-year male survival rate for a transplant is 73.1%? “C-. Fuck.”
As a near-contemporary of the artist’s, I felt an uncanny familiarity with many of the period details: the cut of the pleated cheerleading skirt in Holly’s Backdrop (2011), the bowl haircuts and Velcro shoes of Mrs. Lehmberg’s 1984-1985 third-grade class at the Sechrist School in Children (2011), and the Hillary Rodham-style eyeglasses and turtlenecks in Revival (2009) can all be found in my own family albums, I’m sure, as in those of others who had less wrenching formative years than Bise did. Of course, the harshness of the subject matter undercuts any sense of nostalgia.
The well-lit, glass-front storefront space at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts shows the careful selection of works to good advantage. Each drawing gets plenty of space, with just one on each wall in both the front and back rooms. Epilogues fulfills the fundamental precept of cultural presentation on many levels: it leaves us looking forward to more, a lot more.
Benjamin Lima is assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Arlington.