MBG Issue #48: July 8, 2005

Issue # 48

July 8, 2005

July 8, 2005

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...might be good Goes to Houston: Cy Twombly x 2, Terry Winters & the Unholy Trio

Last week, four ...might be good writers set out on a two-day spree of art viewing and intense discussion in Houston. In all, we looked at six short-term exhibitions which, with the exception of Terry Winters/Paintings, Drawings, Prints/1994-2004, will remain on view in Houston throughout the summer. Here, we discuss our reception of four important exhibitions: the above mentioned Terry Winters show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Cy Twombly: Lepanto at the Museum of Fine Arts, Cy Twombly Fifty Years of Works on Paper at the Menil Collection, and David McManaway and Friends: Jim Love and Roy Fridge also at the Menil.

In addition to the exhibitions discussed below, we ...mbg ambassadors would heartily recommend seeing the 22nd round of installations at Project Row Houses. In unrelenting afternoon heat we passed nearly two hours going through the installations and learning about the project's noble intentions from an astute PRH veteran named Benjamin. While PRH is worth a visit any time of year, the current round of installations, featuring work by Creative Research Laboratory director Hana Hillerova, has an additional draw for Austin audiences. From the Third Ward to Montrose Boulevard, the contemporary art in Houston impressed us.

Cy Twombly - Fifty Years of Works on Paper
On view at the Menil Collection through September 4

Cy Twombly: Lepanto
On view at the MFA Houston through September 11

Cy Twombly has long struck me an artist whose paintings and drawings give their viewers as much as they are able to handle. As Stephen Bann has described Twombly's work, it is difficult to be categorical about their meaning because they both "provoke and repel interpretation" at the same time. And when they do provoke interpretation, Twombly's allusions say one thing with the intention of being understood as having said another. For Roland Barthes and many other sharp minds of the past fifty years, Twombly's work has been the source of great thought on the topic of artistic signification - that is, how we get from a painter's mark to legible meaning. But for the Houston Chronicle, whose recent article on the epic twelve-painting Lepanto series included such impudent captions as "Who Sunk My Battleship?" Twombly is no more than their May 27th headline labeled him, "The Scrawl Guy."

In addition to their city's rich permanent holdings of Cy Twombly drawings, paintings, and sculptures, Houston now hosts two important short-term exhibitions of the artist's work. Hanging at the Menil since late May, Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper began as an exhibition in St. Petersburg, Russia brought together for the city's tri-centennial in 2003. Having traveled from The State Hermitage Museum to the Whitney Museum of American Art, these eighty-five drawings, collected by the Hermitage's contemporary art curator Julie Sylvester with much help from Twombly, now help commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Menil's gracious permanent Twombly Gallery. The show occupies six large rooms in the Menil's main building and those who make the drive to see the works before they come down on September 4 will be glad that they did.

The second Twombly exhibition works in conjunction with the Hermitage show. It consists of a single monumental series of paintings first exhibited at the forty-ninth Venice Biennale in 2001. Titled Lepanto, the paintings reference a sixteenth-century battle in which Venetian-designed ships helped the combined Catholic European powers (the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, and Spain) overcome the seemingly unstoppable Ottoman Empire fleet. This was a major European victory, largely attributed to superior Venetian boat designs. It was therefore fitting that the Lepanto series would first hang in the Venice Arsenale shipyard where these boats were devised 430 years earlier.

Though highly abstract, the twelve large canvasses in Lepanto create a narrative that reads as a panorama from left to right around the three sided MFAH gallery hall. Individual "stages" in the battle narrative don't always fit within the boundaries of a single canvas, giving the narrative a continuous, cinematic effect. Roughly eight of the canvases show deep red and vivid yellow paint dripping from boat-like oval forms on aqua-colored washes. The boat forms, rendered in graphic black marks, sometimes appear in profile with oars protruding and sometimes appear to be shown from above. Interspersing these paintings are four canvases that show oval forms, similar in shape to
the boats, positioned vertically on white grounds. In these paintings the ovals are put down with a thick red-pink outline (not unlike the forms in the detail from Twombly's painting above, Untitled, 2001) and are occasionally filled with canary yellow or red pigment. The series is evocative, managing to convey the drama and magnitude of the naval struggle without specific heroes or a clearly defined plotline. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting venue to see the works than the expansive, light-filled gallery where they reside at the MFAH, though the nostalgia of the Venice Arsenale must have been magnificent.

More than once in Houston I was struck by the similarities between Twombly and another great American expatriate, T. S. Elliot. Just ten years before Twombly completed the earliest works in Houston, Elliot delivered a lecture in London titled, "What is a Classic?" Its aim has been interpreted as arguing a point that Twombly's best paintings seem to demonstrate: that (western) identity is not based on a nationality or a family line, but comes from shared cultural lineage going back to Virgil. Elucidating this train of thought would require a different venue, but suffice it to say that in Twombly's best works we discover the common ground between ourselves and the ancients - ties that are not elitist, but essential and human, ties that bridge ancient Rome with life today and keep the classics relevant.

That Twombly has at times struggled to overcome his works' un-skilled appearance is well documented. Indeed, the sophisticated themes from classical antiquity alluded to in Twombly's titles often strike viewers as incongruous with the apparently haphazard spurts of coloration and savagely scrawled words on his canvases. But the fact that art writers unwilling to consider the difficulties Twombly's work raises about writing and draftsmanship, personal gesture and cultural cornerstone, can find forum in a major U.S. newspaper should make the Houston Chronicle's editorial board blush. It's one thing to struggle with interpretation, and ifs another to heckle ignorantly.

Terry Winters/Paintings, Drawings, Prints/1994-2004
On view at CAM Houston through July 10

The exhibition title Terry Winters/Paintings, Drawings, Prints/1994-2004 would seem to prepare patrons of Houston's Contemporary Art Museum to witness everything and the kitchen sink in the artist's oeuvre. In fact, the works that comprise the show do an admirable job of addressing Winters's interests in a variety of media and exhibition formats while presenting a relatively unified body of work. Those that can make it before the show closes this Sunday will see the most extensive retrospective of Winters's work to date in this country.

If the exhibition presents Winters as an artist working a single idea through iterations, it comes as something of a surprise that critics have developed so many explanations for his seeming simplicity. For some, the web of lines layered across the surface of his images represents electric circuitry, for others they evoke an urban street grid. At times they are the inner workings of the human brain, at others they are computer generated three-dimensional models. Whether this was the artist's intention or not Winters's pieces could illustrate any of these ideas. Yet for me, the works' proximity to a variety of representations undercuts any of these explanations. If the images are equally valid as x, y or z, chances are they aren't any of them. Something else is going on.

To be fair, Winters has used computers In the creation of some of his works. His Graphic Primitives 1-9, some of the most compelling pieces in the show, are woodcuts whose blocks were incised based upon a partially computer-generated pattern. The blocks were then inked white and printed on black paper. This produces quite a puzzle for the attentive viewer. First, Winters's design has been mediated through a computer. Then, the woodcut making process requires the artist to cut away the negative areas of his design, mediating his positive thoughts through a process of negation. Finally, the design appears white on a black ground. Inverting the normal order of graphic positive and negative. After navigating the intricacies of Winters's process, one is still left to wonder what one is looking at. The systems of lines are nearly concentric but vary by degrees, at times almost irrationally. They conform to some unseen, unknowable principle, but their organic variance belles their computer generation. They are representational of an absent, or invisible, reality.

The museum has wisely installed three large canvases from a series based on the Graphic Primitives next to the prints. In each case the paintings follow the prescribed graphic design with surprising exactitude. On closer inspection, however, one sees that the paintings diverge from the prints. Not only do the paintings rebel with their color, they refuse the clarity of the prints by the nature of their process. The printmaker puts down his information all at once, while the painter uses a necessarily additive process. Despite their pre-programmed design, these images grew and their Information accreted over time. Scumbled paint and overworked minutiae attest to Winters's role as the agent of creation. Regardless of the overt attempt to derive these paintings from pre-existing concepts. Winters reveals that these pieces do, and by their nature must, stand as independent, evolving creations.

The debate between design and execution finds its fulfillment in one of Winters's recent untitled paintings. The blue monochrome of the image is divisible into a linear patterned foreground and a painterly, smeared background. The lines proceed horizontally from the left edge of the canvas before spiking up in unison. In a manner reminiscent of a lie detector read-out The path of the lines is volatile, yet their unanimous reaction implies a single cause—a meaning—for the variance. The lines are the messengers that point to something greater than themselves. These lines, the foregrounded subject of the painting, act as a meta-narrative for this piece and perhaps for Winters's work as a whole. The subject of these images is the painter's act of painting. Painting is a process that relies on evolutionary production by volatile human agents no matter how choreographed their initial concept may be. For all the talk of Winters's lines, he is ultimately painterly in his approach and his execution.

Not all aspects of the show are quite so stimulating. The Systems Diagrams, while interesting for their use as stage sets in a Merce Cunningham production, are less thoughtful. Likewise, few of the Set Diagrams seem to have occupied Winters's imagination for more than the time required to paint the small canvases. Nonetheless, the exhibition is a welcome addition to the art currently on display in Houston and is well worth seeing if you find yourself there this weekend.

David McManaway and Friends: Jim Love and Roy Fridge
On view at the Menil Collection through September 18

In an interview published in ArtLies last year (Issue 43), the indomitable and somewhat infamous cultural critic Dave Hickey opined caustically, "Texas may be an artistic place, and it may be a creative place and it may be a scholarly place, but intellectual endeavors are not respected there." But, after expanding his views on Texas' climate of cultural self consciousness, and noting the state's preferential treatment of nice—albeit not particularly interesting—guys, Hickey affords a tip of the hat, almost in spite of himself, to the Texas art world's most acclaimed "nice guys": David McManaway, Jim Love, and Roy Fridge.

Despite the fact that any praiseworthy remark about Texas sounds tongue in cheek when it comes from Hickey, the air guitaring critic strikes a chord when he commends these artists. He lauds the "genteel surrealism" and "formalist surrealism" that characterize the Unholy Three and made them dear to the Texas art community, especially to the de Menil family. These defining attributes announce themselves once again at the Menil's summer exhibition, David McManaway and Friends: Jim Love and Roy Fridge, an understated but strong exhibition of works from recent donations that pays tribute to the recently deceased curator Walter Hopps. The memory of Love as well, who died in May, is never far away in the small exhibition hall. Forrest Prince's disco-ball style mirrored mosaic heart. The Greatest of all is Love, is inscribed with the word "love" but the inscription "Jim" would have conveyed the same message.

"Our ability to transform the crap of popular culture into something that's more interesting is always amazing" says Hickey. Picasso's bicycle-seat Bull's Head of 1943 tells us he's right. So too, do many of McManaway's found conglomerations and loosely-archival works, like Jo Mo Board # 2, and a good number of Love's "put-togethers." Still, Hickey chooses to reduce Texas to a land of "farmers" and "bad dreams." In his haste to chastise Texas, maybe Hickey missed a few tricks that he could have picked up from the Unholy Trio. In addition to their artistic skill, charm and wonder set McManaway, Love, and Fridge apart in a field all too replete with inaccessible ideas. They flew, as the saying goes, because they took themselves so lightly. If intellectuals can't do that, what self-respecting Texan would want to be one?

San Antonio's Blue Star 20
On view through August 21

Last Thursday, June 30, marked a kick-off party to celebrate the Blue Star Center for Contemporary Art's 20th Contemporary Art Month Show, curated this year by Anthony Jones, President of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Jones's curatorial decision to include both twenty-year veterans and a smattering of new emerging talent was a good one. Unfortunately, he was also a bit too inclusive. In contradiction to the words of the newly late Luther Vandross, "Never too much, never too much", Jones's curatorial decision to include 47 artists and over 100 works was "too much." Someone needs to save us from the modern objective of overabundance and if not the curator or director, then who?

Although they have selected some amazing artists from both recent and past archives (heavy handed on the past) Blue Star has managed to group the art in such a way that the viewer is unable to partake and enjoy the singularity of a work from the cacophony of color and form. Easily missed in the mire are treasures like Dan Sutherland's exquisite graphite drawings, Jessica Halonen's whimsical, colorful paintings (look to the immediate right as you enter The Project Space and you'll find them crammed into the corner), and Richie Budd and Ken Little's collaboration RISK in Gallery 4 (on view, unfortunately, only through the end of July because it isn't part of the official show).

The original intent of Blue Star was to draw attention to the local artists as opposed to the aggrandizement of the space for the sake of puffed-up excess. Audience and artists have a right to expect more than an exhibition that looks like a randomly hung artist co-op show or fund-raiser.

By definition the job of the curator is to select, reject, organize, and pull together the work to be presented in accordance with a defined vision. Is Blue Star 20 a contemporary retrospective? Should the viewer experience a sense of the past with a gateway to the potential of the future? If so, this exhibition, despite a few exceptional pieces, fails miserably. Work that has been made in the Year of our Lord 2005 doesn't look a day over 1989 and it is difficult to grasp what Blue Star wants to say about itself in the face of its 20 years.

Five Artists Show "OBJECTS" at d berman gallery
On view through July 30

At Austin's d berman gallery, five artists (Lance Letscher, Lauren Levy, Marjorie Moore, Gladys Poorte, and Steve Wiman) respond to the word "object" - the noun, not the verb. The resulting show is as varied as one would expect. The vague organizational term offers plenty of room for interpretation, indeed, almost to excess. There lacks an overall sense of cohesion between the works which gives the impression that the organizers simply wanted to hold a group show. That said, the artists rise to the occasion.

Gladys Poorte's paintings offer fanciful perspectives of positioned toys. In God's Eye View, the patterns in the background first attract the viewer. The toppled childhood toys and darkening clouds suggest something more sinister, however. A dark edge also appears in Lauren Levy's sculptures. Gallery lights reflect off of shiny buttons that fill in the shape of Levy's wire structures. With the addition of the buttons the wire forms become softer, round, and anthropomorphic. Yet any desire to reach out and run a finger along a row of the buttons is deterred by pencils, pointedly protruding from holes in the sculptures.

As with Poorte's childhood toys, Lance Letscher's collages hearken back to boyhood obsessions with airplanes and tires. His Striped Shoes, one of two sculptures by the artist, are perhaps the most fun work in the show. Taking a pair of deck shoes, he collages them inside and out with magazine cutouts, old newspaper clippings, and handwritten notes.

Marjorie Moore, the other painter in the group, works in ink and oil on Corian. A product by DuPont mostly used in homes for countertops, the use of Corian in contemporary art is on the rise (see recent works by London-based designer Ron Arad). Moore's tondos are painted in bright greens, accenting reds and soothing yellows, and feature a cartoonish frog in a red jacket and white-and-green striped pants.

Perhaps the most literal response to "object" comes from Steve Wiman. His two collections of found objects reveal his sensitivity to shape and color as well as his interest in how the two meld to create cohesive visual poetry. In the end, the most out-of-place work is Letscher's The Moon. With its skull resting atop a pedestal-harp this macabre sculpture made of wood, marble, steel wire, and thread fits neither with Letscher's other works nor with the rest of the show. To quote Tristram Shandy, "Alas, poor Yorick!"


Introducing Gallery 3 at the Co-op

Beginning this fail there will be a new off-campus exhibition space for visual artists and burgeoning curators at the University of Texas at Austin. The three-walled, third-floor gallery space will reside in the Co-op Bookstore and has been appropriately titled "Gallery 3 at the Co-op." Working from student proposals but offering curatorial supervision, Gallery 3 hopes to strike a middle ground between the strictly scheduled Creative Research Laboratory and the smaller, less-formal gallery venues housed within the Department of Art and Art History. Gallery 3 is a wonderful gift from the Co-op to the student body, and its central location on the Guadalupe Street drag is sure to expose students, residents, and tourists to the impressive work being made at UT.

Gallery Curator Amanda Douberley says that, "We've seen some great student initiated exhibitions in Austin this year, and although Gallery 3 isn't the size of the ground floor at AMLl [an expansive residential/commercial space in downtown Austin where local artists have begun to host exhibitions], I hope some of that energy comes to the Co-op." In addition to student-proposed exhibitions, which UT graduate and undergraduate students submitted throughout the spring and early-summer. Gallery 3 will have juried shows and one to two exhibitions organized by Douberley throughout the fall. As for the spring semester, Douberley seems happy to keep her options open. "I had a great studio visit with a UT grad last month, and as I was getting ready to leave he said, I'm up for anything.' My reply to him goes for Gallery 3 in general: So am I."

First Night Austin

First Night Austin seeks proposals from established and emerging artists across the visual and performing arts disciplines! On Saturday, December 31, 2005, a new tradition will be born in downtown Austin, Texas - an annual New Year's Eve Celebration of the Arts called First Night Austin. Artists whose proposals are accepted will be paid for their work. The deadline for proposals has been extended to Monday, July 11, 2005 at 5:00 PM. Artists will be notified of their selection on Monday, August 29, 2005. CHALLENGE AUSTIN'S IMAGINATION!

San Antonio's Automatic Downtown Studio Tour 2005!

This is a free and easy tour of artists' studios in San Antonio. Tours run on July 9, from 10 a.m. to 6 pm. There are both old favorites and new faces in the lineup this year. For information call 210.532.7131 or visit www.automaticstudiotour.com to download a map

Southern Space Project

Curated by artist Charlie Morris, this project allows artists to infiltrate the Morris' building. Artists featured include: Michele Monseau, Lawrence Jennings, Jessica Halonen, Charlie Morris, Fatheads of the Deep, Randy Wallace, Mark Hansen, Zane Lewis, Georgia Tambasis, Bryan de la Garza, and testsite 05.2 artist Rae Culbert.

Congratulations go to Joe Lopez and Gailista Gallery for being featured in Triumph of Our Communities, a new book by Gary D. Keller about organizations that promote Mexican American art and art education. A book signing and reception takes place July 9 from 6 - 9 pm at Gailista Gallery.

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