Art: Wednesday, April 10, 2003
The Scream

Getting all symbolist on Spring Gallery Night.


As a social event, Spring Gallery Night is usually pretty cool — and we mean “cool” in the way that watching your rich, drunk, and very white uncle flop around a dance floor, singing “Everybody dance now!” is cool. The fact that very few young folk (a.k.a. The Future) deign to experience Gallery Night should piss off anybody who really cares about art, especially local art. Also, think of how much “cooler” Gallery Night would be with some edge. I mean, would it kill Anne Marion to import some Japanese teens for the night? C’mon!

OK, let a brother get off his high horse and get down to bidness, the real bidness of life, the bidness of ... symbolism. Every object, every spoken or depicted image, can, of course, be seen as a symbolic event (if you want it to be, and you do, because you’re a deep thinker). An object is even more symbolic if it’s taken out of its natural context and placed in another, less-natural context, like a beer can (or at least its pictorial representation) hanging on canvas in an art gallery. The can is no longer merely a can ... it’s a comment on litter. The same way in which a mustachioed chimera riding a Big Wheel is not just a mustachioed chimera riding a Big Wheel. It’s ... something else.

Your head can explode if you look too deeply into the references and the objects.

Hardcore art types will say, well, a work of art’s only properly symbolist when it’s full of time-honored motifs (e.g., chimeras, dead women, forests, sphinxes) and rendered in a realistic style; anything contemporary is inimical to true symbolism. Horseshit. Especially after pounding a few brews, you can see symbolism in every piece of art hanging on every wall. At Spring Gallery Night, the symbolism was rampant in works by Bill Haveron, Robert McAn, and Benito Huerta.

A fun little game I played at Artspace 111 last week was watching people react to Haveron’s crazy-ass mixed-media pieces. (I need to get out more, I know.) The one work that kept people looking was “Course of Conquest.” A squarish piece with three-dimensional elements, it depicts Osama bin Laden in a cave beneath two oil derricks that frame the Plato and Aristotle of Raphael’s “The Athens School.” Company logos — Shell, Blockbuster, Domino’s, Sonic, Days Inn, Waffle House, and others — stand in vertical columns to either side of the philosophers. Above their heads, off the “frame,” the Titanic approaches an iceberg. Call the piece a cartoon or a car wreck, if you want. It’s still engaging.

Even more fun than watching people react to this stentorian work was dreaming up what they must have been thinking while looking at it: “OK, the Titanic headed for the iceberg, I get that. That ur-American nautical icon symbolizes America. The iceberg, disaster. Oil derricks sprouting from Osama’s cave? I kinda get that — the world’s dependent on oil, and the third world, unfortunately, controls most of it. Now this deal about Plato and Aristotle? I know from Art History 101 that Plato using his right hand to point at the sky — or, in the case of this painting, the Titanic — symbolizes his belief in truth while Aristotle opening his palm to the ground symbolizes his belief in the observable world. Titanic above, philosophers in the middle, and Osama below with company logos all around? It’s clearly a warning that if we don’t eat Domino’s pizza while watching The Titanic at a Days Inn, Osama bin Laden is going to bring the Houston Oilers back into the NFL and appoint Plato and Aristotle the defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively. Clearly.”

And therein lies the danger for an artist in depending on coded images to say something. If you’re talking too much, you’re really saying nothing. Not to take anything away from the sensual pleasure of simply looking at “Course of Conquest,” but, dear reader, we’ve been put here in this column space by Jesus/Buddha/Mohammed to continually ponder the big question — does this or that work of art advance the form? “Course of Conquest,” while well-painted, merely makes creator Haveron seem like he’d be a cool guy to share a Harper’s magazine subscription with — and, unfortunately, little else.

Robert McAn’s mixed-media works at William Campbell Contemporary Art were equally spellbinding and schizophrenic. The McAn style is all about proportion: Miniature wicker chairs with four-foot long legs; tiny human figurines sitting comfortably on a tree in the shape of a dowsing rod that in comparison to the tiny people is immense; miniature domestic tableaux featuring pets. It’s all very precious. The most intriguing sculptural piece is of a miniature sky-blue house situated atop a tower of what look like ladders, made out of a type of clean, pale yellow wood that resembles box matchsticks. Let’s get all presumptuous and give some meaning to the piece: It could be about the precariousness of home life; that no matter how secure things may seem, the bottom is liable to fall out from under you at any minute. Taking this piece’s imagery further, the “ladders” could be said to symbolize the American desire for obtaining a wonderful life, represented by the calm blue house. Or the ladders could mean that the path to security is harrowing. (The answer I think I was looking for came when, on the way out of the gallery, I chatted with the artist, and he mentioned something about the piece that I didn’t see — ants at the bottom of the ladders. That pretty much says everything about the work, doesn’t it?)

An appropriate ending to all this Spring Gallery Night symbolism comes courtesy of Gallery 414, where Benito Huerta’s “The End” hangs in the rear viewing space. The piece is a massive canvas anchored in the center by the words, “The End,” in florid type. Scattered throughout the sky-blue background are neat little depictions of internal organs. The point here? It’s quite obvious, no?

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