Art over activism
Women power: Texas Gallery's 40 sends a welcome jolt through the Houston art scene
Has the art of the moment finally achieved gender equality? The 40 women selected by Ian Glennie and Fredericka Hunter to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Texas Gallery reflect the tenor of American art right now, which they see as ripe for emotional and intimate engagement. Just don’t go to the gallery looking for the kind of activist art that roared through every sector of 1980s and early 1990s culture.
None of these artists have made work evocative of the wisecracking protest group the Guerilla Girls, or like the one Barbara Kruger did that state flat out, “Your body is a battleground.” At Texas Gallery, there’s no political axe to grind — few seem concerned about their place in the social order. Rather, they’re simply making art and focusing on the basics: Material, color, forma and craft.
Glennie and Hunter have made some inspired choices in the selection and the installation. They pick uncharacteristic works by artists we know well, and turn up major statements by the ones we don’t. Overall, 40 is a welcome jolt to the Houston art scene in scope, ambition and the range of things it gives you to think about. It doesn’t account for everything, but also doesn’t make what’s missing feel ignored.
Just a glance through the show, which fills three galleries, in addition to office and storage spaces, tells you this stuff is loaded with heady ideas — and potential spin-off shows — eager to be teased out. I’m sure many will skate through with a dispassionate once-over and head for fresh air. But then you would miss a rare opportunity to think about the possibilities of painting, in addition to the whispered promise of and enduring and devoted support of art in Houston.
It’s the first time that works by 40 women — young to older, as well as deceased artists, and drawn from coast to coast — have ever been gathered together in this town. Walking through Texas Gallery’s front doors is like being immersed in a surge of cool green associated with plant life, forests and rain, with freshness and renewal.
- Pat Steir’s large painting "Lama Ghost (2006)" continues to sustain the abstractly generated imagery which has preoccupied her for years — that is, the evocation of falling water. The loaded strokes at the top of the canvas allowing the thinned paint to drip down and merge with splashes flung upward from below are hypnotic gestures, as is her use of luminous gold and verdant hues.
- Conversely, "Orange Paint Chip (2009)" by Houston artist Rachel Hecker takes its cue almost straight from the manufacturer. It’s interesting to note how much Hecker’s canvases and supports are treated like objects — take away the words “Ripe Melon” and “Wrong” and what remains is straight acrylic painting having to do with color and paint chip — in this case, the “wrong” paint chip. The matter-of-fact quality is tempered by a knowing irony that embodies all the tough-minded, callous charm of our era.
- Among the gems exhibited in the main gallery Dona Nelson’s two-sided work "Okey Dokey (2008)" formed by better-thick paint, twisted cloth and intricately knitted fields that join the transcendental with the visceral, the pure and the slapstick. The backside of the freestanding work — half staccato, half headlong rush — looks like dribbled, spattered and soggy toilet paper, knotty strands that crisscross the stained field.
- Nearby hangs Melissa Meyer’s "Klotho (2008)" in which looping and meandering strokes of diluted oils are applied with the finesse of a calligrapher. Smaller areas of squiggles and blobs pulse across the surface in cobalt blues, buttery yellows and rosy tints, seeping through to create an effect of luminous netting.
- A major painting by the underrated artist Elizabeth Murray shows what happens when the flashy, cartoonish quality of Pop art is combined with the material rigor of Minimalist abstraction. In "Cry Baby (2000)," the bulbous swelling shapes of interlocking canvases look like giant jig-saw puzzles, wiggling heads, body organs or thought balloons. Both humorous and quirky, Murray’s taut composition consists of high-keyed hues that flaunt her skill as a colorist as they give abstraction the giddy energy of a circus
- Gladys Nilsson’s strange narrative painting of morphing animal/bird/human figures with gangly, rubbery limbs engaged in highly erotic activities. The “Hairy Who” and Chicago Imagist pioneer has lost none of her penchant for outrageous distortions, nor her sense of irony.
- By the same token, the three small gouache and latex paintings on wood panel by Clare Rojas evoke strange, otherworldly realms through a delicate balance of abstraction and figuration. A blue deer rears its front legs over a red fox, which sits up on its haunches in obedience. A man clothed in black with prismatic face crouches on a barren landscape and reaches toward a seal-like creature whose head barely skims the surface of a vast red sea or desert. The flat areas of color and emblematic images slip-slide between high art and pop culture — from West Coast modernism, Native American and Quaker art, to Russian nesting dolls, quilting, cartooning and skater art.
I’m just scratching the surface of this show, which seems to offer up something revelatory around every corner.
- Be sure to look at Jane Freilicher’s "Harmonic Convergence (2008)," in which a vase of flowers seemingly floats out over the city. Her palette takes on talcum powder hues, edges are softened; the canvas not only depicts but radiates light.
- Maureen Gallace’s oil painting of white-washed New England houses and airy environs is both dreamy and reductivist.
- Also noteworthy is "Brown Horse and Mountain (1989)," a tightly ordered landscape with broad sweeping brushstrokes and bold chromatic planes by the Icelandic painter Louisa Matthiasdottir, who established herself on the New York art scene in the 1940s.
- Don’t miss the quirky, iconoclastic portrait "Summer Solstice (1982)" by Joan Brown, who was involved with at least two significant art movements — Bay Area Figuratives and Bad Art, which challenged abstract styles to reinstate storytelling.
- Lynda Benglis, a pioneer of Post-Minimalism, offers up "Turbinellidae (1980)," a wall mounted sculpture of aluminum mesh pressed into accordion folds and covered with colorful beads and string — the configuration recalls a ritualistic headdress, even a Mardi Gras costume from the artist’s Louisiana heritage.
- Childhood experiences from that same Southern region also inform the work of Shawne Major, although separated by nearly a generation from Benglis. "L’Argent (2008)," is a treasure trove of plastic toys, feathers, silk ribbons, buttons, bracelets, badges, charms and netting woven together to create a magical tapestry of fragments and memories.
What unites these 40 artists is not only their interest in occupying the territories at painting’s limits, but the way they assert their physical presence on these fringes. In and out of visibility over the years, all of these women are powerful examples for artists at this free-for-all moment, reminding us that aesthetic impurity isn’t just cathartic, it’s also a lot of fun.