Sunday, January 16, 2011

Evening on Colquitt: Exercise in Disppointment

Last night was Colquitt gallery night and Earl and I headed over to take a look. Now I know why I don't often go to these monthly gallery events. There was very little or nothing that I couldn't find a facsimile of at Midtown's High Fashion store. At High Fashion, you can buy impressionistic, abstract expressionist and realist paintings in small, medium and large for very few dollars.
Let me narrate our evening, which I would classify as disappointing. At least, the art was disappointing. I must say that not often do I enter an art space and feel a rush of possibility, a thrill and perhaps, most important, a covetousness response to the art. When I get that rush and want to possess what I am seeing, then, to me, that art has some meat on its bones. It's gone past decorative.
Decorative is what we saw last night and its effect is dispiriting. Give me an Earl Staley or a Dick Wray, paintings filled with energy, that engage, that are assertive, aggressive, that give and give and give. And take, too.
Here's a Dick Wray, from when I do not know, but it's energy jumps right out of this blog post. Worth looking at. For a long time.
Sometimes, even my 30 year old Dzubas and my 40+ year old Dorothy Hood look like calm waters next to Earl and Dick's work.
This morning, it is raining softly and we are still in bed with the two cats, the Sunday NYT and mugs of quickly cooling coffee. We've just engaged in an intentional conversation about what we 'saw' last evening on Colquitt. Here's what we said, more or less.
We'd just entered the first gallery (Thornwood Gallery, LLC) when Earl said, "This is what you see in Santa Fe." I looked around and saw a lot of traditional landscapes, competently done, paintings one could pass by without seeing. Except that we were there to see. So I 'saw' paintings that perhaps many folks want in their homes because they are serene and pleasant and accommodating.
Earl said more this morning, "They're all dumbed down. They make 'nice.' They're 'modern' without an edge. A never-never land of impressionism."
"Never-never land?" I asked.
"Real impressionism was always about the 'real' landscape. The artists were pushing themselves to paint what they saw optically right in front of them. Now, it's thick paint, thin paint and good brush strokes, so you can tell they really worked it."
In the rear gallery space, we found faux Gerhard Richter paintings, lots of them and little bronze sculptures. A trio of square pear and apple paintings appeared, very like the ones at, you guessed it, High Fashion.
"Might as well go to High Fashion, because you're not going to get any better or worse."
The next gallery was New Gallery-Thom Andriola, that featured a series of photo realism work, painted with a high degree of skill. Lots of swimming pool or ocean view backgrounds with portraits of folks whose faces clung to the bottom edges of the canvases. Hard to tell if the paintings were paintings or photographs. I guess the magic lay in the fact that they were made with paint, not with digital images, though they must have come from such images. The artist revealed skill, but might the images have been more unnerving as photographs? The work was repetitious without building to a finale.
Then we came upon the John Cleary Gallery, filled with photos mounted in large spare white frames. All horizons. The space between sky and sea shown at different times of day, in different seasons. Meant to be repetitive, gaining power from the repetition, with only slight changes in the light, in wave formations. All horizons. "Nicely done."
I said, "Nice for law offices. For the work's ability to 'center' clients, to assuage conflict, to indicate contemporary knowingness. Good for a corporate setting, a firm collection. I'd not put these photographs in a hospital corridor or even a bank. Those places have staccato energy, even when they might prefer 'serene'."
We saw the new work of Kelli Scott Kelley, a friend of an artist friend. I wanted to love this work that used old table linens and doilies, embroidered and bounded by fine vintage crochet and tatting. The artist had stiffened the old fabrics (with old fashioned starch?) and then drawn, stitched, collaged and appliqued on each piece. She called them fairy tales. The work was pinned to the white gallery walls with the effect of a butterfly collection. I wanted more.
More, meaning that for me the drawings on the linens were not quite fanciful or bold or disturbing enough. The artist was careful, seemingly tentative. As if the linens themselves contained the narrative and were now revealing their stories with help from the artist.
I thought of my own collages where I struggle to break free and instead find myself playing tentative too, over and over. When I am unable to break through to something absolutely compelling. I could relate to the work of this artist because I thought that it needed to fly on its own linen, and if not, then to be surrounded with 'context'. Dark colored walls, strange lighting or hung as if swirling through the gallery space like small kites or wind blown leaves. So there, that is what hit me as I looked at this artist's work. She reminded me of myself. Not enough, Push further.
I thought about Jermayne MacAgy, who came to Houston decades ago as the first director of the Contemporary Museum of Art and then worked with the Menils.

MacAgy had the ability to make both fine art and everyday objects absolutely dazzling because she could place them in a context of color and light and space, all of which became integral to the work and quite seductive. As I said, I thought about MacAgy when I saw the drawings and applique on those vintage linens. Yes, I wanted more from those linens.
We saw ceramics at Goldesberry and Earl said, "Wow, they really can do that." Meaning, "Is that the point?", but we weren't inspired. Ceramic animals accompanied large color photographs in heavy black frames. I liked some of the animals, but if I were buying, I'd not put the accompanying photo right next to the animal. I'd place it in a more unexpected place so the viewer might wonder where he/she'd seen one or the other 'before.' I'd play a game with the two. Otherwise, it doesn't intrigue. Back to context and placement again. Where are you Ms. MacAgy?
Entered another gallery, the name of which I cannot remember. Had to cross a lot of pebbles in the dark to get to the doorway. Climbing the stairway, I met young patrons in leather jackets with cell phones in hand, texting, heading for the next and the next place. The work here was shiny and slick, looked like they'd been produced on a production line for a whole series of cross country galleries. The crowd was young, the noise level high. Buy this work for the lofts in Midtown.
Ronnie McMurtrey was showing a series of abstract paintings by Sydney Philen Yeager. The background color of one of her biggest paintings took my breath away until I realized that chartreuse is my favorite color. Of course, the background rocked for me. But the work as a whole with its broad brush strokes of many colors seems the kind that I'd see on a AIA house tour in those big new homes with granite counter tops and closets as big as bedrooms. Beautiful colors and totally safe.
I like many of the artists in the McMurtrey Gallery stable. Always wanted an Ellen Berman painting, Keith Carter photos and perhaps even an early Lance Letscher. I even showed work at Ronnie's during the early FotoFest years, a very long time ago. And that chartreuse I saw last night was memorable.
We headed to Moody Gallery where I am often intrigued with the art, if rarely covetous. We saw pleasant little tableaus of sculptures by Page Kempner, carefully placed on pedestals or on walls. She's been at Moody for a long time, since the late 1980s. I remember looking at her earlier work when I lived in the immediate neighborhood and wondering why it was good. It's spare and possibly has a little mystery. I like the little objects, the houses, the leaves. But I wonder too. The work is precious and I bet it sells well. The rest of the show comprised a piece from each of the gallery's stable of artists. I'd seen the work before and some of it I've always liked. But all of it was safe. None of it demanded that we look or try to understand or fall in a state of love and covetousness for the work itself. None of it took time to ponder, to wonder about.
I said, "Maybe galleries are not the best way to show artists' work anymore."
He answered, " Years ago, I heard an art critic say, 'Yes, yes, get on with it.' So, artists and galleries and patrons too, get on with it.


Robert Boyd said...

I think you should have named names (galleries and artists). I could tell which galleries you went to--as far as I could tell, the only one you missed (or maybe I couldn't identify based on your description) was McMurtrey. I liked the Goldesberry shows, particularly the animals of Merrie Wright. I agree about Kelli Scott Kelley's fabric pieces--good but she needs to be a lot bolder. (Kiki Smith she ain't.)

And you too. You need to be bolder. There is something unappealing about unloading a lot of criticism without naming the names of the criticized. There's a word for it--"chickenshit." And I say that with respect, because otherwise I liked the post. I want to read stuff like this about the Houston art scene--most writers (myself included) are just too damn polite. Artists, galleries, curators--they all need to be challenged, and when bullshit must be called, let's hope there is someone up to the task.

(Next time, try the galleries over on Main Street. On average, I would say they risk more, which leads to a greater possibility for failure--interesting failure.)

MMH said...

Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I was timid about naming names because I've never written anything such as this before. But we did come home disappointed. Besides Hooks Epstein, Moody and Goldesberry, I couldn't remember any gallery names. Have to log on and do some homework. I often rewrite blog posts adding more info or links. So I may add names to this post. Consider this first attempt more of a personal overview rather than a public critique. Again, thanks for your input.

MMH said...

So, I've amended this blog post.