2011 Core Exhibition

Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Katia Zavistovski

Nick Barbee, Marvelous (2010-2011); mixed media; dimensions variable; courtesy the artist

An orange rind held together with safety pins, a deconstructed baseball, a corn cob pipe, a dental impression immersed in red goop and approximately thirty other small sculptures comprise Nick Barbee’s installation Marvelous (2010-11). This miscellany of objects, the first work I encountered upon entering the Glassell School of Art’s 2011 Core Exhibition, epitomized my initial impression of the show itself as an incongruous collection of work brought together only through the exhibition requirement of the artist-in-residency program. The eight artists—Barbee, Lourdes Correa-Carlo, Fatima Haider, Steffani Jemison, Gabriel Martinez, Julie Ann Nagle, Kelly Sears and Clarissa Tossin—come from diverse backgrounds and work in disparate modes and media. Yet, just as extended looking reveals relationships between the individual objects in Barbee’s installation, so too do formal and discursive connections amongst the artists’ work eventually come into view.

Perhaps at the basis of the Core residency—in which eight artists per year are given studio space at the Glassell School of Art, a living stipend and visits from eminent arts professionals—is process: conception, experimentation, fabrication and revision. Barbee’s installation, one of the more engaging works of the show, makes the trials of the artmaking process most readily apparent. Deconstructing and reconstructing mundane objects to create strange material juxtapositions, Barbee renders once-recognizable items unfamiliar. A self-published catalogue accompanying the installation includes reproductions of the sculptures along with passages from books such as John McPhee’s Levels of the Game (1969) and Francis Parkman’s La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869). Oddly fitting, the quotations evoke a network of associative interpretations. Barbee’s publication opens with an excerpt from theorist Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions (1992): “The marvelous functions as the agent of conversion: a fluid mediator between outside and inside, spiritual and carnal, the realm of objects, the recalcitrant otherness of a new world and the emotional effect aroused by that otherness.” Here, Barbee is the agent of conversion, inscribing new meaning into objects through his playful permutations and recontextualizations.

Similarly, Julie Ann Nagle’s sculptures present a multi-layered narrative that demonstrates her interest in the history of invention. A dynamic installation in the center of the exhibition space, Breakdown of a Long Chain (2011) depicts a near-life-size ship’s prow sinking into the concrete floor. Nagle emphasizes the sculpture’s construction by leaving Styrofoam visible beneath the prow’s mahogany veneer and areas of wood unpainted. The ship’s most compelling element is its figurehead portraying Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the chemist and inventor of Bakelite, a heat-resistant plastic. Hands outstretched with string intertwined between gnarled fingers, Baekeland beckons viewers to participate in a game of cat’s cradle. Rather than honoring Baekeland however, Nagle’s sculpture challenges the normative history of exploration and discovery. Her string game also references Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963), in which scientific invention leads to humankind’s self-destruction. This critique is also evident in Nagle’s Adrift in Current Patterns (2010), where gold-leafed barrels floating in a sea of plush fabric conjure all-too-recent memories of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Julie Ann Nagle, Breakdown of a Long Chain, 2011; Aqua-Resin, mahogany veneered foam, polyethylene, tree, gold space blanket, Bakelite, sandbags, paint, wood; 16 x 5 x 6 feet; courtesy the artist

Kelly Sears, Once it started it could not end otherwise, 2011; video; 10 minutes; courtesy the artist

Fatima Haider’s Studio Floor (2011) seems to reinforce such allusions to the environmental catastrophe: A long roll of paper covered entirely with black graphite, the work hangs down both sides of a wall and rests in a spool on the floor, calling to mind an oil spill. Haider employs the most basic gestures and materials—rubbing pencil on paper—to highlight the fundamentals of artistic creation. Easily missed in the shared gallery space, the work has a quiet but striking presence. Like Studio Floor, Haider’s intimate collages are painstakingly produced. Indicated by her titles (Names, Numbers and …, all 2011), she has cut tiny squares of names, numbers and ellipses out of a telephone directory and pasted them onto wasli paper. Wasli’s durable, archival quality contrasts against the phone book’s perishable, highly acidic paper. Moreover, Haider reorganizes the data within the increasingly obsolete phone book to resemble computer code.

Also working with collage, Kelly Sears created a surreal technological mediascape in her campy but mesmerizing animation Once we started it could not end otherwise (2011). A mix between the horror film Carrie (1976) and Charles Burns’ comic book Black Hole (1995-2005), the video takes place in a high school circa 1974. Black-and-white yearbook photos of teenage stereotypes—jock, outcast and prom queen—slowly move against a vibrating background tinted in muted hues. Coupled with her eerie soundtrack, Sears’ narration tells a disturbing story of a nameless evil, which takes the form of viscous black liquid bleeding from bodily orifices, lockers and architectural openings. The video ends with the ominous words, “As the school year ended, the students carried the trace of what happened into the outside world, where it quietly continued to spread.” This spreading dark ooze echoes the black that runs down the wall in Haider’s Studio Floor, which is installed right outside the video’s viewing room.

Gabriel Martinez's and Clarissa Tossin’s more politically minded works also take up the theme of dissemination, though to less engaging effect. Martinez’s video They who do not love you remain without a homeland (2011) weaves a story about commodity culture, the Iraq War and globalization. Writing in the first person about being an artist in residence preparing for an exhibition, Martinez speaks to his own artistic practice while tracing a narrative path between Syria, Italy and the United States. His attempt to address communication and exchange in consumer culture is lost in his convoluted story, though maybe that’s the point.

Tossin’s Matter of Belief (2010) displays two stacks of currency on a table, American dollars and Brazilian reais, along with the conversion rate on February 7, 2011 (1.00 USD = 1.6733 BRL). Viewers are encouraged to take a bill for good luck. Picking up a banknote, I immediately realized it had a dollar printed on one side and a real on the other. Tossin's treatment of issues surrounding capitalist culture and the art market is predictable, and the work feels gimmicky. More thought-provoking and visually compelling is her Re-mappings (2011), where drawings of what look like land masses have been crumpled up, smoothed out and tacked onto the wall. Below them, crumpled balls of paper maps lie on the floor like disfigured globes. Humorously alluding to the anxiety inherent in artmaking (and writing), Re-mappings recalls the cliché image of discarded drafts strewn around a trash can or studio floor and suggests the process of scrapping one’s work and starting anew.

Steffani Jemison, Untitled (Transparency), 2011; 24 x 18 inches; laser print on acetate, found paper, gesso on wood; courtesy the artist

Steffani Jemison’s laser prints on clear Mylar (all 2011) likewise deal with the theme of revision. Playing with language and seriality, statements one might see in a self-help book (“If I can, I will love myself first, so that I may love others”) are repeated with changes in verb tense (“If I could, I would…” and “If I could have, I would have…”). Contrary to the aims of self-help mantras, these phrases—all in the conditional tense—express uncertainty and regret. Confusion and futility similarly pervade Jemison’s video The Escapist Lunatic (2011), which portrays four men running, jumping over curbs and scaling chain-link fences in a Sisyphean loop. Changes in the camera’s point of view confuse the viewer’s perception of chaser and chased, and the video ends with a dizzying sequence of shots, presumably taken from the perspective of one of the running figures.

In opposition to the frenetic movement in Jemison’s video, Lourdes Correa-Carlo’s large-scale photographic installation The Inverted Structure (2010) is particularly still. Reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions, Correa-Carlo depicts an upside-down view of an old house with boarded-up windows and paint flaking off its wood siding. The structure’s noticeable disintegration contrasts against Correa-Carlo’s apparent interest in construction. The Inverted Structure reveals its own making; printed in four sections, the seams between each panel are visible. Installed leaning against a wall of the gallery space, the raw wooden support is pronounced, contributing to the exhibition’s overall in-progress aesthetic.

The artists in the 2011 Core Exhibition display differing styles and sensibilities, but they all draw on ideas of process, fabrication or dissemination. Emphasizing studio production while exploring themes of cultural and historical imaginaries, they create a multivalent narrative field, resulting in (to re-quote Greenblatt) the recalcitrant otherness of a new world.

Katia Zavistovski is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at Rice University.

This exhibition will be on view through April 22, 2011.

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