Friday, July 31, 2009

The Big Show at Lawndale

As I understand it, Lawndale has been doing "The Big Show" every year for the past 30 years. I don't know if the format has always been the same though. This version of it featured works by a whole bunch of artists from the Houston area. They were chosen by a guest curator from St. Louis from works by 409 artists who entered works (and paid an entry fee for the privilege). The show on the walls is what Laura Fried picked. You can see it until August 8.

I don't have any idea what was rejected from the show, but I was surprised by the number of paintings (as opposed to sculptures or video or installations or mixed media work). I was surprised by the number of basically realist paintings, or paintings that used elements of realism within postmodern contexts. It seems like a really conservative show over-all. That's OK. I was impressed by the painting prowess of Houston.

Hope, Kevin Peterson, oil on canvas, 2009

Like this amusing painting byt Kevin Peterson. The artist assures us that the man on the left is not meant to be Obama, and that indeed both men are white. He made this statement at a slide show given by the artists. Not all the artists spoke, though. I am pretty sure we didn't hear from Michael Arcieri, for example.

Nation Builder
Michael Arcieri, Nation Builder, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2009

The idea here is kind of cheesy, juxtapozing a baroque style painting with grafitti. I think he may be suggesting that the two modes of expression are both highly coded in ways that their intended audiences would understand easily, even if they are opaque to 21st century gallery goers. I just like the contrast between the flatness of the grafitti and the depth and roundness of the baroque figures.

Michael Arcieri, Slave, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2009

Grafitti played a part in several pieces. Street art has come a long way since I was doing pieces in the early 80s. I am not sure the name of this artist or piece (if anyone knows, please contact me), but I like the way he (she?) painted an illusionistic depiction of basically flat grafitti. I like the feel of the railyard.

title unknown, artist unknown

Mindy Kober showed slides of her work over time (as many of the artists did). Her work began being done mostly with gouache but she recently changed to using crayon.

Contemplating the Universe
Mindy Kober, Contemplating the Universe, crayon and gouache on paper, 2009

The reason she gave was simple--crayons were cheaper than gouche. The recession has hit everyone hard, hey.

Jed Foronda was one of the slide show artists. He showed a lot of older work that seemed fairly loud and colorful, a little like Ben Jones, but now, as he put it, "painting wasn't working" for him anymore. What he was doing now was excavating magazines with a sharp knife, creating these debossed objects that, in contrast to the earlier work in his slides, seem quite elegant.

Glory Hole
Jed Foronda, Glory Hole No. 8, primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

I like how they look like colorful, terraced open-pit mines.

the wheels keep on spinning 2
Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning, primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

the wheels keep on spinning
Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning, primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009 (seen from an angle)

Foronda said the best magazines to use for this kind of piece were art magazines and porno magazines--because they both have really good colors.

for ultimate carnal knowledge
John Runnels, From the Series: Whisky Tango Foxtrot - For Ultimate Carnal Knowledge, encyclopedia and bookends, 2009

There are a couple of punks in the show. This by John Runnels piece amused me. It was also one of the few sculptural pieces in the show.

Jasmyne Graybill managed to get three sculptures in the show. Well-deserved--these pieces are astonishing (and really disgusting in a totally surprising way).

Jasmyne Graybill, Specklebelly, steamer basket and polymer clay, 2008

Yech, right?

Jasmyne Graybill, Citruspur, lime squeeze, polymer clay and plastic, 2008

This is art you can almost smell--musty, gag-inducing. The craftsmanship is astonishing.

Crested Buttercream Polyps
Jasmyne Graybill, Crested Buttercreasm Polyps, muffin pan and polymer clay, 2008

I love them. Perfect art for the kitchen!

Over all, the artists seemed too smart. Lots of references to other art and to art history were worn too close to the surface. When the artists spoke, they often spoke of "exploring issues around" this or that. I kept waiting for someone to say, "I paint X because I like X." For all the skill shown here, I didn't feel much. Even the political pieces seemed old hat. I saw reflections of art from New York and elsewhere, filtered through BFA and MFA programs. This may be unfair because I know not all the artists come out of that world of university art education. And I liked a lot of the work! I just wasn't blown away by much, and maybe part of the reason for that was hearing the artists speak about their work. Maybe that was a mistake.

The earnest, intelligent artist statements perhaps gave me extra appreciation for Jim Nolan's slide presentation. He described his work as post-minimalist, and name-checked one of my least favorite artists of the 80s, Joel Shapiro, but in contrast to so many of the artist here, he felt free to declare, "I try to stay away from craftsmanship as much as possible." After all, he added, "if you spend a lot of time on something, does it get better?"

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Wilshire Village Going Down

It was grey and rainy when I drove by the Wilshire Village. They have finally started tearing the place down.

wilshire demo 2

Not much to say.

wilshire demo 1

wilshire demo 5

Read more here and here.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Note to Self: Bike Helmets Are Not Bullet-Proof

This is nuts.
Charles Alexander Diez, 42, apparently fired at the Asheville man after arguing with him about riding his bike on the busy road with his 3-year-old child in a bike seat behind him, Asheville Police Capt. Tim Splain said. (Josh Boatwright, Asheville Citizen Times, via Felix Salmon.)
But wait, it is even more bizarre than this journalistically correct paragraph implies. Keep reading.
Diez was driving his car off Interstate 40 at Exit 55 at about 11:24 a.m. Sunday when he saw Alan Ray Simons and his wife riding bikes up the road with Simons' 3-year-old son behind him in a bike seat, he said.

“He decided he needed to tell them he thought it was unsafe that they would do that and have their child out there in an area where they had a lot of traffic,” Splain said.

Diez stopped his car and confronted Simons near 1360 Tunnel Road. When Simons began to walk away, Diez shot at him, Splain said.

The bullet blew a hole through the outer lining of Simons' helmet and went straight through both sides of it, but he was not hit.
Amazing, huh? So this Diez guy must be completely out of his tree, right?
Buncombe County Sheriff's deputies found Diez's vehicle at his home on Rowland Road in Swannanoa and arrested him. Diez was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of the shooting and has no prior criminal record, Splain said. He has been employed by the Asheville Fire Department since February 1992, according to interim Chief Scott Burnette. Diez has been placed on paid leave during the investigation, Burnette said.
This case is too weird to draw any general conclusions from. But hey, overreaching is the birthright of all bloggers, so I'll try.

1) This is an extreme example of what to me seems like a really common problem--that many drivers have an irrational resentment of bicyclists. As a cyclist, I have seen this in the behavior of lots of drivers who will pull dangerous, asshole-ish moves near me (passing way too close to me, honking when they get next to me, etc.). You can also see it whenever there is a news article about a car-bicycle accident in the comments--a frightening proportion of the responses will side with the driver (regardless of the facts of the case) and excoriate cyclists in general. (In this article, however, Diez's action was so extreme that none of the commenters have defended him, as far as I can see.) As a cyclist, it's this irrational anger that I fear the most.

2) Gun rights advocates often say that an armed society would decrease gun violence because people contemplating using a gun would know that their victims (or any bystander) might be armed as well. This makes sense if you assume everyone is acting with rational self-interest when they make the decision to use a gun. Obviously that is not the case, and Diez is a really good example. Assuming the information in the article is correct, even if you had iron-clad laws prohibiting criminals or crazy people from owning guns, you wouldn't have stopped Diez.

I'm not suggesting that guns be outlawed or anything. But I would like gun rights advocates to have a little less hubris when they assert that gun violence would drop if more people carried guns. Such a statement is like the efficient market theory--it depends on self-interested people who are rational. People who fire guns at other people are not rational. They're drunk or high or crazy or jealous or...

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Will Blog for Shwag

As a blogger, I have never even considered threatening someone with a bad review of their product in order to get free stuff. Apparently this happened at the Blogher conference, a convention of "mommy bloggers."
I’m sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton – where I spent much of my time. I was just hanging out, doing some work, and talking to the people who were coming up to me. Okay – I’ll be honest, I was talking to people and playing the “Tiles” game on Microsoft Surface because, (expletive deleted), that is possibly the most addicting game ever. Anyway, it was about mid-afternoon when someone came up to me. I’ll call her generic mommyblogger because I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup if I tried.

“Are you the Crocs guy?” she asks, timidly.

I look up and smile. After all, it’s nice to be recognize and it’s a sign that I’m doing my job right.

“Yes, I am.”

We continue with small talk. She says her name but, while I probably caught it at the time, it slipped out of my memory as the events of the next couple moments transpired. She asked how I was doing at BlogHer. If I was having fun. How it felt to be one of the only men there – all those typical questions that were being asked of me. Then her demeanor changed completely. She mentioned how she didn’t get any shoes at the SocialLuxe lounge. I apologized, saying that we provided what we could but it’s hard because we didn’t know everyone’s shoe size. She nodded but I could tell that wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear. Then she says something that I couldn’t believe.

“Ya know, if you don’t give me shoes – I could totally write something bad about you on my blog.”

“Excuse me?” I asked – hoping she would laugh or give me some indication that she was just joking around. Nope…

“It’s just a pair of shoes. It’s a lot easier to give them to me than deal with the negative press I could make.” (From No Sense of Time, via Consumerist.)

At first I read that and thought, wow that is really lame. But then I thought, hey! Why doesn't anyone gift me with free stuff to review for my blog? Aren't my 2000-odd pageviews per month worth some free books?

OK, they totally aren't. Nevermind.


Baby Steps in Criminal Justice System Reform

We still have the death penalty, and that seems unlikely to go away despite the huge and growing number of reversed cases, the growing questions about the veracity of eyewitness accounts, the history of incompetent or pro-prosecution forensics, not to mention craziness like letting the "testimony" of dogs count as evidence.

But at least the state of Texas recognized that handing over the appeals of death row inmates to often inexperienced or incompetent attorneys is on its face unfair.
Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state in the nation, will open its first capital defense office next year to manage appeals for death row inmates after years of reports that appointed private attorneys repeatedly botched the job. [...]

The law was inspired by a series of stories about Texas inmates who lost crucial appeals after court-appointed attorneys missed deadlines or filed only so-called “skeletal” writs — documents with little information often copied from other cases. It represents a significant reform for Texas, one of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to oversee key death row appeals known as state writs of habeas corpus.

The office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of nine, won't open soon enough to help any of the inmates whose appellate rights were squandered recently.

“Better late than never,” said Juan Castillo, one of four death row inmates whose state appeals were never filed by the San Antonio attorney assigned to represent them. “This is a start. There's a lot of cases” that have been screwed up. [Lise Olsen, Houston Chronicle, July 27, 2009]

Something like this is long overdue, but it is only one small reform to the criminal justice system that we need. Improved, independent forensics and revised rules for the use of eyewitnesses (for example, new techniques for the flawed method of police line-ups) would help insure that innocent people are not convicted and that the guilty ones don't walk in this world free in the meantime.

You can help by joining The Innocence Project. I did.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Box 13 Bullet Points

Box 13 is a storefront artspace with studios. Located on Harrisburg near the corner of Wayside, it seems physically far from the Houston art world (the Frenetic Theater is relatively close by, though). Harrisburg is lively and urban, but decidedly working class and Mexican-American. I wonder what Box 13's neighbors think about them.

Box 13 exterior

So when I heard they were displaying a Stephanie Toppin painting, I went to check it out. I liked her work in $timulus.

Stephanie Tobbin piece
Oneself by Oneself, Stephanie Toppin, 2009
  • The piece is huge.
  • Evidently, the piece at Diverse Works and this one are part of a single larger piece.
Stephanie Tobbin detail 3
Oneself by Oneself detail, Stephanie Toppin, 2009
  • The bigger piece is a "self-portrait" in the form of a timeline.
  • It might be better to call it a "memoir".
  • But of course, no one would be able to figure out the subject of this large abstract work by looking at it.
Stephanie Tobbin detail 2
Oneself by Oneself detail, Stephanie Toppin, 2009
  • Instead, one sees a brightly colored abstraction that rewards close looks.
Stephanie Tobbin detail 1
Oneself by Oneself detail, Stephanie Toppin, 2009
  • Her handling of paint and colors remind me of early Melissa Miller.
  • I love this work.
picket fence
Black and White Picket Fence, Emily Sloan, 2009

  • Emily Sloan had three pieces that I thought were cool.
  • The show was somewhat lacking in identifying labels, so I don't know what they were called.
  • One could call them "Picket Fence," "G Cone," and "Castors" I guess.
  • Update: I have titles for her pieces, as you can see beneath the photos.
yellow & black piece
Traveling Bauhaus R, Emily Sloan, 2009

  • These sculptural works kind of belong to the category of works that can be described thus:
  • No Artistic Talent Was Required to Make Them
  • But They Are So Intriguing and Visually Interesting, They Must Be Art
G and cone
Turf, Emily Sloan, 2009

  • This is not meant as an insult.
  • After all, Duchamp proved that this approach could be art back in 1913.
  • It becomes incumbent on the viewer, aided by contextual clues, to decide what is art.
  • Postmodernism contended that this was always true.
  • See for example 'La Mort de l'auteur'* by Roland Barthes.
  • And in my eyes, Emily Sloan's work is cool.
bufaloes from below
Stampede, Kia Niell, 2009

  • I guess the same could be said about the flying buffaloes of Kia Niell
buffaloes from above
Stampede, Kia Niell, 2009

  • I liked how the shape of the piece changed as you walked up the stairs.
styrofoam tower
from "Zen and the Indulgence of Environmental Destruction," Anthony Day, 2009

  • The notion of building things out of the interesting "negative" shapes of styrofoam packing material is not a bad one.
  • But with the weak coloring (stryrofoam is notoriously hard to paint) and scattershot approach, Anthony Day's totems have little impact.
Box 13 back area
back yard of Box 13

  • Remember Kathy Kelly? I think Box 13's back yard might be her studio.
  • All in all. Box 13 is one hell of an art space. I'm embarrassed that I had never heard of it before this weekend.

*That's French.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Old Comic Books

When I first started looking around at comics in the ’80s to educate myself on the history of the comic book, I thought there would be a lot of funny old comics out there, and there really aren’t. The truth is, there are almost no good old comic books out there. Those old comics turned out to be exactly as you’d expect: cheap junk produced quickly to sell to children. (Seth in an A.V. Club interview)
I'm astonished that comics fans consider the 30s, 40s, and 50s to be the "Golden Age." Comics then were almost all terrible. Individual old comics occasionally contain an interesting semi-redeeming feature that stands out because the rest of the comic is so awful. Really good cartoonists in those days did comic strips, not comic books. Of course there are a few exceptions, but for me personally, the "golden age" of comics is now--the age of Asterios Polyp and Black Hole and George Sprott: 1894-1975, etc., etc.

page from George Sprott by Seth


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Proposal for a Method to Change Street Names in Houston
Recently, the India Cultural Center suggested changing the section of Hillcroft between Highway 59 and Westpark to Mahatma Gandhi Street. I don't have a strong opinion about this (except to say that Hillcroft is a very boring street name, but that it would be really weird if the street were Hillcroft south of Westpark, Hillcroft north of 59, but Mahatma Gandhi in-between). The repsonses on Swamplot were quite passionate, though no one was quite as passionate as Slampo on his own blog.

But this got me thinking. I think it should be possible to change the name of a street. But it shouldn't be easy. The requirements for changing a street name should be transparent. So what I am proposing here is a general outline on how to change a street name.

First of all, the mechanism for the change should be a petition to the city government. Get enough registered voters to sign off on the name change, and the name will be changed. Let's call this the Petition to Change the Name of PCN, for short. The PCN would have some minimum number of signatures collected within a reasonable time frame (let's say 6 months). For the sake of argument, let's make 1000 signatures the minimum. (It could be more, though.)

Now in order to change a street name, you have to replace a bunch of signs, and that cost money. And the taxpayers of Houston shouldn't have to bear that cost. So if an orgnaization like the India Cultural Center (or any other orgnaization or individual) wants to change the name of a street, they must not only get a minimum of signatures on the PCN, they would also have to place in an escrow account enough money to pay for the new signs, their installation, and the confirmation of the signatures on the petitions.

Yes, petitions. Because once someone started a PCN, at the same time, a petition to retain the old name, or PRON for short, would be begun. It would have the power to veto the PCN, and would have six months after the PCN was turned in to be completed. (This makes the entire process last at least a year, but that seems reasonable for such a big change.) If enough registered voters were actively against changing the name, the name would stay the same. The minimum quantity of signatures on the PRON would be a percentage of the number of signatures on the PCN. For the sake of argument, let's say 50%. So let's say the supporters of the name change got 5000 signatures. If the PRON has 2501 signatures, then the name remains the same, the escrow is returned to the sponsoring orgnaization (minus a fee for validating the petitions), and we all go home.
So let's say I am president of the Houston Classic Comic Strip Appreciation Society, and we decide we would like to honor George Herriman, the immortal creator of Krazy Kat and other classic comic strips, by having a street named after him. The one we choose is a one-block street called Herridge. So we go to City Hall, pay our escrow ($650: $250 each for the two street signs we would replace, and $.10 each for the minimum 1000 signatures we need, plus $50 for the possible 500 signatures on the PRON. Note--all prices are just made up in this example.) In getting this petition, a notice goes up on the City of Houston website that the HCCSAS has started a PCN, and that if anyone wishes to get a PRON to oppose, they can pick it up at City Hall.

Now the HCCSAS has a mailing list of all the classic comic strip fans in Houston, and we also go out in public places and get random citizens to sign. We do pretty well at street festivals, in Montrose, and in the Heights. Their PCN gets a total of 4000 signatures. When they turn it in to City Hall, though, they must pay an extra $500 into the escrow to pay for the extra signatures (theirs and the potential extras on the PRON).

In the meantime, the anti-Herriman folks are collecting signatures on their PRON. First of all, several people who live on Herridge don't want their street name changed. Then Slampo puts up a scathing denunciation of the whole plan on his website, which encourages even more people to sign the PRON.

If the PRON has more than 2000 signatures, the HCCSAS loses and Herridge stays Herridge. (The HCCSAS gets $500 back from the escrow account.) If the anti-Herriman forces are unable to generate opposition in the form of 2000 signatures, then the HCCSAS doesn't get anything back from the escrow account, but Herridge St. becomes Herriman St.

(In addition to all this, there would have to be some guidelines and maybe a mayoral veto power to prevent people from creating "Shit St." or "Hitler Lane.")

The reason I like this method is that it puts a big burden on the people who want to change the name--they have to pay for the change, and they have to convince a lot of registered voters to go along with them. And it gives people who are actively opposed to the change the ability to veto it, if they can convince enough voters to agree.

I'm not sure what the best minimum number of signatures on the PCN would be. Is 1000 enough? Or too high? Also, should the percentage of the number of PCN signatures needed on the PRON for a veto could be 25% or 40% instead of 50%. These are details.

The main point is that the hurdle for changing a street's name should be high but not insurmountable, and the process for doing it transparent and open to any citizen of Houston.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Death of an "Artist"

I am officially an old fogey because I agree with every word in this article.

(hat tip Art Market Monitor.)
untitled, Dash Snow, 2005

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Airborne Toxic Event II

A two-alarm fire broke out Saturday at a plastic recycling plant in east Houston, creating billows of black smoke visible for several miles. (Houston Chronicle)
I'll say. I got on I-10 from Bunker Hill Drive and I could see the smoke. I was driving east on I-10, so I figured I would check this fire out as I passed. I guessed it was somewhere near the West Loop, a guess so completely wrong that it demonstrates how huge the billows of smoke were. I thought the fire was about five miles from where I was. It was actually 13 miles away.

I drove east on I-10, mesmerized by the dark gash against the blinding Houston sky. Curiosity grabbed hold of me. I finally exited on Lockwood. The fire appears to have been at the intersection of Shotwell and Old Clinton, but you couldn't drive anywhere close to those streets--the police had them blocked off.

But there was a railroad track that crossed Lockwood just north of Clinton that appeared to pass right by the fire. I parked my car off Lockwood and started walking down the tracks. This is what I could see from Lockwood:

As I got closer, I could see the firetrucks working:


I talked to a couple of people as I walked. They were under the impression that it was a rubber warehouse (not plastic, as the Chronicle is reporting), and that they were able to put the fire out, but every time they got it out, it would just reignite as soon as they shut the water off. Apparently the strategy now was to just let it burn out.

That said, they were pouring water onto open flame when I got there.

The water was coming through hoses laid across the railroad tracks (and presumably they had closed the tracks to train traffic).

This was the coolest thing I saw all day:

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$timulus and I Love You Baby Bullets

Two art shows opened Friday so I decided to check them out after work. First was $timulus at Diverse Works, a group show of 2009 recipients of grants from Artadia, a grant-making outfit that supports selected artists in selected cities, including Houston. So like any group show, you have some winners and losers. Usually I only like to talk about the art I like, but I have to complain about El Franco Lee II (or Junior, for short).

El Franco Lee playas
not sure what the title is, El Franco Lee II
  • Junior's art looks inept and adolescent.
Blacksheep vs. Marvel
Blaqsheep vs Marvel, El Franco Lee II
  • It troubles me to look at it--is Junior being ironic or is this work just plain dumb?
  • You are meant to wonder this when you look at some of the work of, say, Mike Kelley or Lisa Yuskavage. But, y'know, really it's obvious that these two are clever postmodernists producing double-coded art.
  • The only hints that he might be an ironist are his elite education (Yale, UH MFA) and where his art is shown.
  • But for me, that just doesn't make up for the bad drawing and general stupidity of the work.
Blaqsheep vs. DC
Blaqsheep vs. DC, El Franco Lee II
  • If he were 16 years old and drawing this, I'd feel slightly embarrassed for him.
from "The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey," by Dan Clowes
  • But I like to think I'm less naive than "Bubbleman"--I don't care if Junior is being postmodern. This art is horrible.
Blaqsheep Vs. Triad
Blaqsheep vs. Triad
  • I mean "Blaqsheep vs. Triad"--Jesus.
  • But some of the art in the show was good.
Stephanie Toppin self portrait
Self-Portrait, Stephanie Toppin
  • Like this.
Delilah Montoya
La Llorona in Lilith's Garden, Delilah Montoya with Tina Hernandez, 2004
  • And this.
Delilah Montoya detail 1
La Llorona in Lilith's Garden, Delilah Montoya with Tina Hernandez, 2004, detail
  • Here's a detail of that last one.
Dawolu Jabari Anderson
Mam E, Dawolu Jabari Anderson
  • This one made me laugh. (Laugh with it, not at it.) Dude digs Kirby, eh?
I left Diverse Works with mixed feelings. I was worrying over whether ineptitude as a strategy, as a way of questioning certain artistic meta-narratives, butts up against ineptitude that happens because an artist doesn't know any better. With Junior, like with so much postmodern art, context is everything. If you saw one of those "Blaqsheep" drawings in a teenager's notebook, you might be encouraged that he is being creative, but you certainly wouldn't encourage him to pursue an art career. My question is, does this really change just because the work in on the pristine white walls of Diverse Works?

These questions didn't get easier at my next stop for the night. An art group, I Love You Baby (ILYB for short), was showing at The Joanna.
  • The Joanna is just an ordinary house on Graustark across from the University of St. Thomas.
  • Its shows last one night only--on Friday, that was from 6 pm til 2 am.
  • The group I Love You Baby is a collective of anarchic art punks.
  • They were among the exiles from the Commerce Street Artist Warehouse who were in the movie by Skeezer Stinkfist. (They were ones who had the office Christmas party that degenerated into an orgy of destruction.)
  • Their paintings seem a bit cleverer and more knowing than Junior's.
unknown title, ILYB
  • I liked this one.
unknown title, ILYB
  • And this one made me laugh.
  • But even though they were basically exhibiting in someone's living room, context was everything.
unknown title, ILYB
  • The work would seem ridiculously crude and inexplicable outside a gallery.
unknown title, ILYB
  • One last I Love You Baby painting.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Airborne Toxic Event

Last night in Cy-Fair. Read the comments--apparently many residents were not told about the vapor.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ah 2003, When We Were Young and Invincible

Here's some nostalgic bellicose hubris for you! (Hat tip: Obsidian Wings.)

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Asterios Polyp

David Mazzucchelli has always been an artist with more potential than achievement. He demonstrated early in his career that he could effortlessly do great "realistic" cartooning of the Caniff/Sickles school (a school I define as being represented by artists like Alex Toth, Jordi Bernet, early Alberto Breccia, Enrique Breccia, Frank Robbins, and at a certain extreme, Jose Munoz and Blutch). For some artists, that would have been enough. But Mazzucchelli had greater artistic ambitions. His drawing morphed into a kind of non-realistic expressionism that drew from Gary Panter, Julie Doucet and others (while not going quite as far as those artists) while still honoring the chiarascuro of Caniff and Sickles. He wrote his own stories, which mainly appeared in his own magazine, Rubber Blanket, and which were not bad but not brilliant. Working with Paul Karasik, he created an adaptation of Paul Auster's novel City of Glass. This adaptation was universally well-received, and the drawing was fantastic. But the brilliance of the layout was mostly due to Karasik's input. In a sense, Mazzucchelli was just a brilliant pair of "hands". At this point, no one knew if David Mazzucchelli had reached his peak or if all that Rubber Blanket work was prelude to something greater.

His last solo stories were published in 2001. It was known that Mazzucchelli was teaching, and occasional illustrations popped up in The New Yorker, but to me it seemed that Mazzucchelli had become the most prominent example of a great cartoonist who basically quite the medium. (This is all-too-common in alternative comics, which is historically less renumerative and far less respected than even poetry. And we know how poor poets are. The list of excellent alternative cartoonists who basically have left the field include Michael Dougan, Julie Doucet, Dave Cooper, etc.)

All this is a build-up to what, for me, is the biggest surprise of the year--David Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. It truly fulfills the promise that comics readers have seen in Mazzucchelli all these years.

His art has always been about synthesizing traditions, and shockingly, what he does here is to chuck the Caniff/Sickles tradition. Sort of. Caniff and Sickles themselves seem to have been influenced by the chiarascuro of Chester Gould. Gould himself though was a true original. The heavy blacks in Dick Tracy were part of the mood of the strip, but the essential quality of his drawing was in the clean line and stylized, reapeatable forms--particularly faces and figures. The only thing like it are the traditional face cards in a standard deck of cards.

So we get characters here like Asterios Polyp who are always drawn in profile. Indeed, each character, drawn with a precise (but not mechanical) line, has his or her own stylized position. Willy Ilium is almost always drawn from the same three-quarters view. The settings are likewise clean and architectural. Even the organic sculptures of Polyp's wife, Hana, are portrayed as very clean. (Ironically, because she is supposed to be someone who uses discarded material to make her sculptures. But her work more resembles James Surls than Robert Rauschenberg or Ed Kienholz.)

But his drawing changes depending on what is being portrayed. The color schemes change according to setting. In Polyp's mind, people are drawn different ways refelcting their dfferent personas. In an Orpheus-inspired fantasy sequence, he returns to a kind of Rubber Blanket-style chiaroscuro.

Now all this would be irrelevent if the story wasn't fantastic. The story is split into two alternating parts--one tells the story of Polyp's life from the beginning through his marriage to Hana to the end of that marriage. The other takes us from the aftermath of the divorce, where Polyp seems to suffer a nervous breakdown, is burned out of his apartment, and hits the road, resettling in a small town and taking a job as a car mechanic. These two strands alternate, and the Polyp in the first strand is arrogant, charming, and successful.

But his arrogance fails him when Ilium hires Hana to design his new ballet version of Orpheus. Ilium is constantly making rude sexist double-entendres towards Hana, but because Ilium and Hana are artistic partners, Polyp keeps quiet. He suspects maybe something is going on. But the reality is that Ilium is a bully, and Hana has been looking for Polyp to step up and defend her. His misreading of the situation and his inaction is one of the causes of the divorce.

This misreading is kind of a shocker, because Polyp is smart and successful. An architecture professor (he is a 'paper architect'--none of his designs were ever built. Zaha Hadid was perhaps the most famous living "paper architect" until the Rosenthal Contemporary Art Center was built in 2003.) He is a great professor and knows a whole lot about everything. This is not always an attractive quality, but it helps him make conversation in any situation.

The thing about Polyp is that he is a highly dualist thinker. Apollonian-Dionysian, form-line, etc. He's not naive about it--he realizes that dualism is an organizing principle, a hermeneutics, not reality. In addition to being about the arc of his relationship with Hana, the book is about the source of this dualism and its eventual collapse.

I really related to Polyp. Even to the point of having a particular hermeneutics. Probably a ridiculous thing to admit. But that probably made the experience of reading Asterios Polyp even better for me. I liked Polyp and I was rooting for him. Other readers might think he's kind of an asshole.

Asterios Polyp is a great achievement. It really confirms my faith in Mazzucchelli as an artist.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nasty Pictures at Frenetic Theater in Bullet Points
Skeez at work

Last night I decided to go see some art films. The program was Nasty Pictures: Twisted Films From Houston Artists. If you want to find details about the program, go here. In fact, you should probably read that first before reading my bullet points.
  • The show was at Frenetic Theater, which is way out east on the non-residential part of Navigation.
  • I was worried about my car getting broken into, but I checked out the crime stats for May--77011 had 12 auto break-ins compared to 32 in 77098 and 31 in 77024!
  • Julia Wallace showed a video of herself giving a BJ while she (live, standing in front of the audience) methodically asked each audience member what their name and favorite color was.
  • She is also the instigator of the well-known (and less-likely to offend the average person) sexyATTACKs.
  • Skeezer Stinkfist's film was a completely disjointed portrait of the punks, rappers, graffiti artists, spoken word poets, etc., who worked in Studio 3 at Commerce Street Artist Warehouse.
  • If you read the articles about their expulsion and its aftermath, and you see this film, you get the idea that they were kicked out for being street artists who didn't have MFAs. It may have been a class thing ... these Mexican punks are lowering to the tone--they must go!
  • That said, Skeez's art brings to mind Tom Devlin's classic putdown--"van art."
  • The theater was unairconditioned--ugh!
  • Frenetic Theater's Fringe Festival (theater, dance, film, music) is happening in August. If they'll put in more fans, I'm there.

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