SPOTLIGHT: Houston

Acknowledging the city’s challenging but inspiring infrastructure, Houston artists are reflecting the city’s streets and houses -along with their histories-in their work. by Kelly Klaasmeyer

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“Funnel Tunnel,” 2013
Patrick Renner
Photo: Dave Salinas, courtesy Art League Houston

The late artist Lee Littlefield brought his work to Houstonians in their native habitat-the highway. He created his tall, slender Dr. Seuss-worthy sculptures from stripped-down trees painted vivid hues. They would appear on medians, the sides of highways, and in difficult-to-reach no man’s lands between heavily trafficked flyovers and interchanges.

Littlefield used to tell a story about one of the many times the Texas Department of Transportation removed his guerilla-installed work. He came back to the scene and saw a yellow streak of paint on the ground where workers had dragged the sculpture away. The yellow line went over the grass onto the highway shoulder and over a discarded mattress, left in situ. TxDOT and Littlefield later reached a détente, and you can still see one of Littlefield’s sculptures on the north side of 1-10 before the 610 loop west. It is surprising and wonderful to spot as you fly by at 70 mph or crawl through in a traffic jam.

Houston is a city that inspires its artists to respond. A sprawling, unzoned, subtropical, multicultural swamp, it is a city where if the old does not rot away in the humidity, it is often bulldozed to make way for the new and shiny. Houston is per capita the most ethnically diverse city in the United States and a fascinating place, but sitting on a vast, flat and featureless coastal plain and mostly built around the car, it isn’t conventionally charming. It is an acquired taste.

The latest in drive-by viewing is Patrick Renner’s Funnel Tunnel. Dedicated to Littlefield and placed on a traffic island in the middle of Montrose Boulevard in front of The Art League Houston, the funnel-like shape is comprised of multicolored strips of wood woven into a steel armature. It snakes in and out of the median’s trees like some polychrome leviathan. The “funnel” is also a reference to Inversion, a stunning, temporary and traffic-stopping work by Dan Havel and Dean Ruck.

Havel and Ruck constructed Inversion in 2005 from two 1920s bungalows on the Art League campus. They had been used as classrooms for 40 years and were slated for demolition to make way for an expansion of the Art League building. Havel and Ruck used materials from the buildings themselves to create a something that looked like the vortex of a tornado boring through the houses. People slammed on their brakes to look, even stopped their cars and climbed inside the vortex. International media reported on the project and Honda (whom Havel and Ruck have since sued) appropriated their work for a commercial.

Houston’s vernacular architecture plays an important role in Havel and Ruck’s work. For Give and Take, (2009), the artists, wielding Sawzalls, excised a 20-by-30-inch ovoid shape from the interior of a one-story bungalow. The building could be entered to view the striking void. The artists then reconstructed the excised interior and presented it as a massive sculptural object inside the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, as a part of the “No Zoning” exhibition. A bit of roof from the top of the egg hovered overhead, completing the shape.

The duo has been named “Artists of the Year” for 2014 by the Art League Houston, and a new exhibition of their work, “Three Houses,” opens September 19 and runs through November 1. For months, the artists have been extracting material from three tear-down houses with the intention of layering sections of wall and architectural fragments in the gallery. The idea is that the history and patina of the houses will intermingle; the flaking paint, peeling wallpaper and the smells of old mildewed wood carry the histories of the houses and their occupants. Havel and Ruck transform Houston’s slash-and-burn development into surreal, and often haunting, work.

Houston’s neighborhoods have also been the subject of work by other artists, such as Carrie Schneider, and the collective Otabenga Jones and Associates (Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, and Robert A. Pruitt). In a series of installations last spring at Project Row Houses, Otabenga Jones and Associates created monuments and memorials to the Third Ward community, a traditionally African American neighborhood that real estate developers are starting to circle. The potential loss of historic structures as well as the community’s rich history inspired the artists to action. In the preserved shotgun house exhibition spaces of Project Row Houses, the artists’ installations commemorated civil rights struggles-the 1970 murder of activist Carl Hampton on Dowling Street and the 1967 incident in which Houston Police fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into a Texas Southern University men’s dormitory. Other row houses focused on community institutions like the Unity National Bank, the only black-owned bank in Texas, established in 1963 to give the home and business loans no other bank would.

Their Row Houses project closed this summer but the collective’s mural, The People’s Plate, is currently on view on the side of the Lawndale Art Center building. It’s based on a 1969 Black Panther poster by Emory Douglas that showed a young boy with a rifle slung over his shoulder holding up a Black Panther newspaper with “All Power to the People” printed on it. OJ &A altered the original image, so that the newspaper now reads, “Dare to Struggle, Eat to Win!” and the child is holding a sack of groceries, while a stalk of broccoli pokes up next to the rifle barrel. The work indicates a new struggle, against “food deserts,” obesity and related health problems. The mural is a banner for the collective’s upcoming series of food and health education programs for the community, which will include urban gardening, urban foraging and cooking classes. (More information is available on the Lawndale Art Center website.)

Carrie Schneider’s fascination with Houston fuels her ongoing web project “Hear Our Houston” (hearourhouston.com). Her project is included in the group exhibition “Right Here, Right Now: Houston,” at the Contemporary Arts Museum (through November 30). It consists of audio walking tours of myriad Houston neighborhoods and communities-all created by members of the public. From the Welcome Food Mart on the lengthy Bellaire Chinatown strip to the Indian-American businesses and centers of the Mahatma Gandhi District at Hillcroft to the neighborhood surrounding Project Row Houses, Houstonians offer up very personal tours of their city. Unlike a lot of social practice art, Schneider acts as a quiet, behind-the-scenes curator on the site, showcasing each contributor and contribution. Houston is an insider city and these tours offer the outsider glimpses into its cultural richness Many will listen to these tours in the museum or online in the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. Walking in Houston is no casual saunter, and the act of walking in a city with oppressive heat, massive traffic and a lack of sidewalks takes on the quality of a bold expedition. Schneider has described walking in Houston as a “radical act.” The CAMH exhibition includes a pair of white, quasi-space suits, artifacts from a “radical act.” Schneider and artist Alex Tu created and wore them for another walking-based project in which they traced the path of The Human Tour.

The Human Tour was created by artist Michael Galbreath (1/2 of the conceptual art duo, The Art Guys) in 1987 as a way to lead people into different parts of the city and into under-known neighborhoods. Laid out over a Houston map by Galbreath using early computer technology, the route takes the shape of a human body and includes histories of those neighborhoods. Schneider, Tu and a few intrepid followers retraced the route over ten Sundays, experiencing their city, as Galbreath planned, in new ways.

Their efforts, as with all these artists, make clear the effect the city has had on its creative community. Houston, in all its glories and all its flaws, remains a highly inspiring place to make art.

“Havel Ruck Projects: Three Houses” on view September 19 – November 1, 2014 at the Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose Blvd. Opening: September 19, 6 – 9 PM www.artleaguehouston.org

“The People’s Plate: Otabenga Jones and Associates” is on view through January 10, 2015 at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main Street. www.lawndaleartcenter.org

“Right Here, Right Now: Houston” is on view through November 30, 2014 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Boulevard. www.camh.org