Last Friday was an auspicious evening for Wade Wilson and his self-titled gallery. As part of the opening of a new exhibition featuring paintings by Harold Garde, and in celebration of the eve of ArtHouston2010, the venue played host to a dinner party:
The guest of honor is Garde himself, although the event drew a slew of patrons, filling over a handful of tables. Lavish opening events weren't always de rigueur for the gallery. As I observed interning there only three years ago, exhibitions were revealed to the public with simple fanfare, providing guests with fresh art and the options of red or white, sparkling or still.
Arriving at the space from the closing of the Mary Ellen Carroll charrette at the Architecture Center Houston, I find a flock of gallery-goers chatting, name dropping, sipping, gossiping, air kissing — everything but looking at the art — which is the best possible sign for a significant art event.
"I'm so glad you could make it," says Wade, preceding a strong embrace. ("We're friends, OK?" he once decided in 2007 while we were installing a Joseph Marioni exhibition in Dallas. It's true, we all agree he's "good people.")
"I knew you'd love the work," he beams, and indeed, the milky brushstrokes and vivid palette of the distorted portraits is appealing, as if Philip Guston had painted people rather than phalluses. I compare the notion of "rupture" in Garde's work to Dubuffet; Wade approves before dismissing himself to be a good host.
As we take our seats, I find myself sitting beside Lucinda Cobley to my right, a UK-born painter who also works for the gallery, and an eccentric dame with a powerful New York accent and a toothy grin. It's advisable not to introduce oneself with, "Tell me, what's your passion?" — but those were the exact words that came from my mouth.
"Lately? Not a hell of a lot," she yells into my ear, followed by a description of her passion for clinical hypnotherapy and an art gallery in Maine that she partially operates. Wade cuts her off with the declaration that Joseph Cohen, the just-announced winner of the Lawndale Art Center's The Big Show prize, is in our presence. With his black ensemble and bushy red beard, Cohen resembles an Hassidic hipster — a Matisyahu for the Houston art world.
Nobody at our table has any idea what Cohen's art looks like, but I do recall the two of us chatting over lavender martinis at a Dallas Art Fair after-party.
"What do you think of these paintings?" asks the woman to my left, adding, "You weren't around to remember it, but decades ago, everyone said that painting was dead."
I say that I find the compositions "compelling."
"Compelling — great word! Where did you study?" she asks, not taking a breath before admitting that the works on the wall are the product of her father. This is Elissa Joia-Garde I am speaking with, who, when she's not practicing hypnotherapy or managing her gallery, spends time throwing pots and organizing the details of her father's estate.
Being seated next to such a character requires a particular mood of the listener, which is perfectly acceptable since I'd had a fairly hectic day and little remaining energy to entertain the table. In any case, assigned seating (even when your name's misspelt) is a blessing when I'd typically drive myself insane trying to decide which artwork I'd prefer to watch for the evening from the distance of my dining chair. Tonight I'm in a staring war with the blue-haired figure on the acrylic Glass Bomb (2000).
Elissa explains that her foil, in the form of her sister, is sitting across the room at another table.
"She's a quadruple Libra," Elissa divulges, elaborating that she creates her own self-accepted reality. And apparently for the other Garde sister, that reality involves strategic blonde highlights and a lot of time in doctors' offices in Boca Raton.
The dinner passes over the course of colorful conversation, during which Ms. Cobley reveals that her guest is an employee at Halliburton, and is also her husband. She describes the transition from London to Houston, softly concluding, "I've found that life has different phases."
After declaring that she simply can't afford another bite of tres leches, Elissa asks Lucinda's husband if she can bum a cigarette.
"You cannot tell my father," the middle-aged maven squeals, to which Mr. Cobley kiddingly replies, "And you cannot tell Halliburton!"
A collector from across the table turns his head and begins a wandering lecture on the hazards of tobacco, to which I respond, "This conversation is so compelling, but I must be on my way." I stand up to begin my short walk home, finding a former coworker flicking a cigarette butt onto the "For Lease" sign in front of 4411 Montrose.
This address that has been the host to landmark exhibitions (and landmark infighting) may soon find itself vacant. Earlier in the evening, Wade whispered plans for a new outpost of his gallery in Santa Fe — if you've been to the important fairs, then you know that in some circles, having a branch there is the art business equivalent of "making it."
As for the fate of 4411, it remains to be seen what will become of the building — maybe a cupcake boutique, or a sushi-themed nightclub — really, anything compelling will do.