Sculptor Jillian Conrad tours Gabriel Kuri exhibition at the Blaffer
The Blaffer Art Museum has a new floor, and the University of Houston's newest sculpture professor, artist Jillian Conrad, is providing a lunch-time tour of the downstairs exhibition, Gabriel Kuri: Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab. For an audience of students, professors, and the odd interested party and old guard museum donor, Conrad is providing her perspective on the 10-year survey of the contemporary Mexican artist's work.
"Just on the very surface, from a frontal read, it's serious," Conrad says of Kuri's seemingly strict formalism, "but it also has this charming feather in its cap."
Through its presentation of refined sculptures derived from consumer goods — such as the found marble slabs propped against the wall with miniature luxury hotel toiletries perched atop in Complementary Cornice and Intervals — the exhibition marries the conceptual and aesthetically pleasing. At first glance, the polished marble blocks are severe, but combined with what Conrad calls Kuri's "super light touch," the work is imbued with humor.
Conrad holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is a sculptor herself. She was recently awarded a fellowship in the Core Program at the MFAH's Glassell School of Art. With the looks and air of a Leslie Feist doppelgänger, she guides the tour group into the main, double-height gallery. With its new silver composite floor, the room is a sanctuary of light in comparison to the effect of the old 1970s brown brick ground.
This effervescent floor is punctuated by judiciously situated sculptures that elude to graphs and charts. Conceived in sharp primary colors, the works reconsider quotidian methods of measurement, such as a fragmented trash can-cum-pie chart in Untitled (Water count bin).
By appropriating the form of a pie chart and infusing it with color and raised dimensions, Kuri becomes a "material archivist." In Hard Fact Slab, steel rods connected by colored lace rise out of a composite concrete block. The interlinked bars convey stock market charts, but because there are no figures attached, the sculpture is left open to interpretation.
"I really love this piece because it changes so much depending on where you stand," Conrad elaborates, suggesting it could also represent a street with utility poles, or a skyline. "That kind of generality gives it a playfulness," she explains.
In her address to the tour group, Conrad realizes the folly in over-intellectualizing contemporary art: "He's visually relating to a system that is a bar graph on paper, and yet it's in this art gallery and he hasn't given us any more information about it — and that makes me smile because I realize I'm taking it all way too seriously. Maybe it's not about something, like, at all."
For Conrad, the most intriguing artworks are wall tapestries depicting the artist's receipts from visits to the Mexican grocery store, Superama. Everyday consumables (tuna fish and Cheetos, for example) are diet mainstays for Kuri — shallow details that are belied by the meaning behind augmenting receipts and infusing them with a craft that makes the work both rarified and open to human error. Conrad suggests that Kuri is penetrating the realm of ephemeral consumption to "put in his own agency," which Conrad believes is the essential role of any artist.
Ironically, Conrad explains, Kuri did not fabricate the tapestries on his own, but commissioned Mexico City weavers to carry out the works, further complicating the notion of value. It is at this point that Claudia Schmuckli, Blaffer's director and the exhibition's curator, steps into the tour group and begins to decode the luxury and cheap labor dichotomy of the works. These aggrandized receipts date to the Septembers of 2003 through 2005, but merely the fact that it takes three months to manufacture the tapestries disrupts their cogency, or as Conrad would say, "systems."
The still two-story gallery erupts with dialogue as Rex Koontz, the university's specialist in Latin American art, interjects with professorial wry humor, "One would hope that it takes some time, because he leaves his credit card number and expiration date."
Koontz relates Kuri's work to the artist's contemporary, Gabriel Orozco, "He (Kuri) and Orozco are playfully rearranging the everyday. And the two of them are in this fierce competition, which is not unusual in the highest levels of the Mexican art world, as to who can do it most intelligently, most wittily and playfully.
"Orozco's show in New York this winter — that was the thing everyone was talking about, you know that if you just open up the Times, the New Yorker," Koontz continues, "I think both Orozco and Kuri are on to something, and I find it so completely different from this sort of overwrought painting from the 90s and early aughts."
The tour is dispersing now, moving into the Fine Art Building's semi-tropical courtyard for lunch. The new, silver floor shimmers as Kuri's sculptures float from the ceiling while others remain static on the ground. With the metallic floor as its pedestal, Kuri's work has reconciled aesthetics and conceptual weight. Gravity is everywhere.
Gabriel Kuri: Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab is on view through Nov. 13, and will be on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Feb. 2 – July 4, 2011. (The new flooring, which was installed specifically for the exhibition, will remain.)