Studio visits with Sierra Forrester, Project Row Houses, Robert Hodge, Luisa Duarte, Emilie Duval, Wayne Gilbert, Angelbert Metoyer, Rabea Ballin, CORE Fellows Shana Hoen, Yue Nakayama, and Adam Crosson, and Partner Organizations Diverseworks, Art League Houston, David Shelton Gallery, Aurora Picture Show, and Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.
Curating the Texas Biennial has offered the opportunity to access the connectivity that we have as an arts community in the state and evaluate the many ways that we are all connected despite the expansive geography of Texas that makes it seem like we are disconnected. Arriving in Houston was yet another homecoming, and the third up to that point. Up to this point on my journey I still didn’t have a clear definition on place. I wasn’t sure why North Texas was Dallas/Fort Worth and not the Panhandle, what made north north, and south south. While I was on the road to Houston I was reflecting on my time in Huntsville, and realized that for the first time I was given a real answer to define what is East. Michael explained to me that everything East of I45 is considered west, and as I drove into Houston, less than an hour away from Huntsville, it seemed strange that two places could be so close yet so geographically distinct.
From the beginning this road trip was an exciting albeit daunting task. There were many times in my career that I’ve spent weeks at a time on the road, but nearly seven consecutive weeks will wear anyone out, and I had worked hard to plan for that fatigue. Houston was stop number five, and I felt like I was returning after a long trip away. The density of the cities on the first leg of the trip had made for long, packed days, but returning home at the end of the day to a familiar place was the difference between exhaustion and normal fatigue. It was thanks to Chris Tomlinson that I was able to stay in Houston with such a feeling of being grounded, and after taking a well-deserved day off I jumped back into visits with a renewed energy.
My first stop was to the University of Houston Campus to meet with Sierra Forrester, a young painter who had just finished her BFA and was preparing to move to Fort Worth to attend Texas Christian University in the fall. Sierra’s paintings on wood panel pulled content from newspapers that had covered the recent tension and clashes of race in the states. While she is still a young artist, her talent and technical skill as a painter sets her far ahead of the curve and I am interested to see where graduate school takes her.
My next destination was nearby in the Third Ward, one of Houston’s most famous neighborhoods partly due to the work of Rick Lowe with Project Row Houses (Also a Biennial Partner Organization) which has evolved into a team of strong voices and thinkers including Ryan Dennis whose curatorial work I had been following via Project Row Houses for a number of years. I walked into the office to bump right into Rick Lowe, which offered a rare opportunity to give hugs and say hello before walking to the studios to talk with artist Robert Hodge.
I had just met Hodge only a few weeks or even months before. He was a resident artist at Artpace in San Antonio at the time, and I was passing through the city to visit, something I try to do regularly since I have such a close professional family in the city. Robert Hodge goes by his last name of Hodge, and has an energy that lights up a room whenever he walks into it. I was lucky enough to get a bit of his time when I was in San Antonio, and I saw his work in progress as he was preparing for the final exhibition of his residency. Visiting Hodge requires having music in the background, and in the first few minutes of our visit in Houston I couldn’t understand why things seems so off, until Hodge threw on a record when I wasn’t paying attention, and all of a sudden everything felt like home. Visiting Hodge and viewing his work without music in the background feels unbalanced, and once the music is playing his choice of sound enlightens his choices in the work as well. Hodge works primarily in collaging album covers so thick and nuanced that the history of Black American history in pop culture is illuminated as one that is powerfully subversive. Once Hodge flips on the record player the music mixed with the visual create a powerful experience of power.
Indeed, power seemed to be the theme of the day, and even more so power and subversion. I was still processing my visit with Hodge when I walked into the studio of Luisa Duarte. Originally from Venezuela, Luisa had spent decades in the states, but it was clear that the references of modernist Venezuela hadn’t left her. Her monotypes and digital drawings are reminiscent of the kinetic work and geometric abstraction that shaped the history of art history when Luisa was a child in Caracas. We talked about color theory, kinetic work, and the history of subversion of geometric abstraction in Latin America, but specifically in Venezuela. Luisa’s work brings that history into a digital age, playing with technique, definitions of space, and manipulations of color to translate into a contemporary world.
Luisa sent me off with cheek kisses, hugs, and the best coffee I ever had in Houston, and for the third visit in a row I went on to talk more about power and politics of a very different nature with Emilie Duval whose large scale works tell a story of corruption and industrialization. Emilie obsessively reads corporate policy and legislation, and the loopholes in both become fodder for her large scale mixed media painting and installations. The work reflects Emilie’s obsessiveness, and her visual decisions are carefully considered.
I made my way to say hello to Wayne Gilbert, and artist who has been working with the remains of cremated bodies for a number of years. While the ethics of the work is a topic worth considering, I wanted to view the paintings with my own eyes. As we talked about his medium, Wayne explained that every corpse has its own chemical makeup that determines the color of the ashes, and these colors differ from body to body. Wayne’s space was filled with his own work, and the work that had been given to him from artists all over the world. It was clear he is prolific in the Houston arts community, and I was grateful to get some of his time before heading off to visit partner organization Diverseworks.
I had made a plan to visit with Rachel Cook that evening over a few beers. Rachel and I have been friends for a long time and she was a voice of support during a difficult time professionally a few years ago before she went off to graduate school and I went off to Mexico City once again. Diverseworks has changed significantly over the years, and I’ve watched with incredible respect as Rachel has put together creative and innovative programming for their space. Rachel gave me a full tour of the space and the exhibition by Regina Agu, ruby onyinyechi amaze, and Wura-Natasha Ogunji, then we closed up shop and walked across the street to Double Trouble, officially ending the day over beers and margaritas.
Visiting Houston is always a walk down art history lane. The city is so full of organizations and galleries that are actively contributing to contemporary art and supporting artists in a variety of ways, and many that supported us as a Biennial within their communities.
The morning started with a visit to Art League, an organization that I have often felt deserved much more recognition than it seems to receive. I saw work by Benjamin Terry, a show by Shane Allbritton and Peter Bernick-Allbritton, and Edward Kelley. Each of the three exhibitions was thoughtful, considerate, and well installed. I popped over to Fotofest’s exhibition space in the halls of Silver Street studios that looked at issues of immigration and the faces that are affected by it.
I went down the street to see the show by Gwladys Alonzo at Enrique Guerrero Gallery of Mexico City, gave hugs and spent time to my dear friend David Shelton and talked about the collaboration between Austin Eddy and Benjamin Edmiston, and had a chance to catch up with Alecia Harris at Barbara Davis Gallery who had work by Donna Moylan. I made my way to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, sat in every chair made by Annie Evelyn, talked with executive director Perry Allen Price and introduced myself to Mary Headrick, who had scheduled visits with the resident artists months before.
I made my way to Aurora Picture show to meet with curator Mary Magsamen, and learn about the organization and their programming and was blown away by their facilities and public programs that involve cross collaboration between multiple organizations around the state, and after I took a much needed pizza break to rest my brain and get ready for the community potluck organized by Jessica Phillips of ClayHouston.
I was accompanied by Sean Gaulager once again who jumped into document our time in Houston. Sean and I walked into a room full of people who started off as strangers but with whom we very quickly became friends. Jessica had generously offered her home and everyone provided food to generously feed us, welcome us to Houston, and talk to us about all things Texas Biennial. All 20 of us sat around the dining room table like one big family, and I answered every question anyone could think of about the Biennial. We talked about our recently announced NEA grant, and how the scrappiness of our organization also fosters incredible creativity. We talked about the closeness of our team, a necessary element for a project like a Biennial which has a reach across the entire state of Texas, and we talked about the commitment we have to support artists in their careers which also functions to set a standard.
We talked for about half an hour as I answered all the questions and clarified the doubts in the room, but even as I did so I had to remind myself that there is still a window of unknowns and flexibility that have to exist in order for this road trip to be a success, and while we are all working to a common goal, the plan to get there would fluctuate and bend as all wonderful things do. As I was standing there with the group I remembered my goal for the Biennial was to explore our cultures, and shift the curatorial process to one of learning through the experience. In that moment with ClayHouston I also learned that the Biennial can be a connector, and act as a conduit for organizations and artists across the state, and this road trip is the first major step to making that happen.
I had only one more full day left in Houston. Somehow time seemed to be speeding up even though summer is usually when everything hits the brakes in Texas. The humidity and heat sat thick and heavy over the city and word started to circulate of growing Tropical Storm Cindy which was expected to make landfall in Galveston in the early hours of the following morning. While a tropical storm isn’t necessarily an uncommon occurrence in a Texas summer, the flooding that Houston and Galveston experience during any storm is enough to take into consideration while traveling between the two. At this point my Galveston arrival time was subject to change depending on the storm trajectory, and until further notice I would just sit tight in Houston as recommended by everyone on the Galveston side.
My morning started with visits to the CORE fellows Shana Hoehn, Adam Crosson, and Yue Nakayama. I hadn’t been to the CORE studios before, but I was interested to talk with all three artists about their work. Shana and I had a Mexico City connection, I had seen Yue’s video installation at Lawndale in the spring, and Adam and I had tried to connect two years prior with no luck. Shana met me in the parking lot and walked me through the winding halls of the building. We sat down at Shana’s computer to watch some of her more recent videos. Both the camera work and the saturation of color in Shana’s videos collapse the dimensionality of the space. It’s a surprise trick that makes the eye grasp for a steady place to watch the narrative unfold.
Shana walked us to Adam Crosson’s studio down the hall and we walked into an almost completely dark space. Adam explained that he was transitioning to a new home in New Orleans and had accepted a teaching position that would take him out of Houston only days after our visit. Adam’s studio was filled with remnants of projects and most things very much in process. Adam works with the vernacular of signs of various states of function, forgottenness, and form. He recreates the signs in situ then turns them into a pinhole cameras, shifting their function into large scale sculptural cameras that capture and translate the light they receive. Adam’s work played with the fine line of capturing light and emitting light, especially when he showed some of his older work that made the visual connection between decaying store front signs which were further reminiscent of Flavin light sculptures. We talked about how information and specifically signage is changing how we read place, how light pollution and how artists have worked with it.
We said goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and Adam walked me to Yue Nakayama’s studio. I had first seen Yue’s work in the CORE show at Lawndale just a few months prior, and I enjoyed taking the time to really enjoy the installation and video. It had a playful and naive quality to it that also touched on humanity and evolution. Yue talked to me about genetic memory, her believe that we retain the history and even trauma of ancestors, and how individual histories and stories are told. Yue spends time avidly writing, and these writings turn into the narrative through which she constructs her videos, and the visual language of the videos operates in the smartphone, tech dependent world we occupy.
Visiting artists in their studios always requires me to stay on my toes. Recalling each of the references in rapid fire and moderating the conversation to pull out the information I need to truly understand the work being made is always like a brain massage, but leaves me totally wiped in the best ways. I said goodbye to Yue and settled on an art break and some lunch before completely shifting gears and meeting with Rabea Ballin.
Sometimes taking a minute is the best decision to make, and once again I have to thank Sean Gaualger for pushing me to remember that. I walked into Rabea’s studio with a renewed mental energy that was energized even further with Rabea’s warm greeting. I knew instantly I was meeting an artist whose warmth and generosity would extend beyond this initial meeting. Rabea works in a variety of medium with identity as the point of departure. Specifically, Rabea has been exploring the role of hair in the construction or deconstruction of identity. Her series from 2013 exploring the Circassian beauty of Barnum circus side show in the early 19th century.
These Circassian women were considered the purest type of white person on earth, and therefore the most beautiful, however, it was often the women that were included in the circus side show, and their hair was exaggerated and teased into a massive afro, further exaggerating their identity and exoticizing their femininity. Rabea worked with the story by collaging antique images of the Circassian women and drawing in massive, overexaggerated afro’s, distancing the visual relationship of the hair and the identity of the woman, revealing the absurdity of identity and the fabricated hairstyle through which their identity relied upon.
Rabea and I chatted about bad reality tv, the collective Roux that she is a part of, and was happy to hear that we would be seeing each other again in Galveston… if Galveston didn’t get blown away by Tropical Storm Cindy.
There were two more stops left in the day, and as I reflected on the day it really started to sink in just how different each of the artists were but how genetics and identity were key in aspects of their work. The conversation started with video, moved to signs and signals, then back to video with the background in genetic history, and finally identity and the construction of it through appearance.
I was grateful to pull up into Rachelle Valzquez’s driveway to talk about her work, and specifically her medium which was the most unique of the day. Rachelle is an animal activist, but is not just interested in the traditional domesticated animals, but rather the ones that don’t enter the colloquial conversation on a regular basis like Gulf Coast toads, narwhals, or yeti crabs. Her main medium is crochet and the meticulousness at which she designs the individual works is beautiful as a drawing in its own right. Rachelle makes creatures that are intricate in their scale both large and small, and deserve time to be spent with them in order to see every minutiae of detail that she invests in them. The patterning is precise, and her hand is absolutely present in every inch of the work. The medium of crochet provides a familiar intimacy and familiarity with the work, which anthropomorphizes the crochet animals with life.
The day was scheduled to end with a six pack back at Silver Street Studios with artist Angelbert Metoyer. This visit was set up by Sean, who recommended that I get some time with Angelbert if he happened to be in town and have time. The recommendation was a deserved one, and when Angelbert opened the door to the studio it was like walking into a portal where the rest of the world just didn’t exist. Canvases on stretchers were stacked in piles in the middle of the floor, reused and repurposed doors lined the walls, more canvasses were thrown in piles from the beams and others rolled up in tubes. Not a single inch of the space was left untouched. Sean and Angelbert chatted while I wandered carefully through the space, lifting one drawing or painting from another, and generally allowing my curiosity to guide me through the work. I found a stack of canvasses draped over a pipe above me and started sifting through them until one caught my eye for its unique color palette and the brush strokes that Angelbert had used. There was something different about that one piece and I wanted to know about it, and once I asked I was invited into the rabbit hole of Angelbert’s history as an artist.
As I stood holding up the canvas I was interested in, Angelbert ran to grab a large tube. To explain one he needed to start with another, and I followed him out into the hallway as he unrolled a canvas at least 25 feet long. Angelbert explained that the piece was his transition into being an artist, and the moment in which he began to own his voice. We sat together on the floor examining the marks in the canvas, and talking about his history and trajectory as an artist, and where he plans on taking the work in the future, but even as Angelbert pulled out piece after piece I was aware of the vulnerability in the work, and I could sense that he was opening much more than work, but rather his own personal history. We talked openly and with a shared sense of mutual trust, and by the time it was time to leave it felt like we were old friends.
As the day came to a close I realized that I had actually made life-long friendships in many of the artists I had met that day. Time is always such a slippery concept for me, and I always feel like it’s falling too quickly between my fingers before I can even grasp it, and once again I felt like there just wasn’t enough time. It was in Houston that I realized once again that I had the support of an entire state and its arts communities behind me, and as I walked into each studio I was greeted by questions of my well being and energy. As the news of Cindy became more of a concern, I ended the day knowing that I was taken care of either way and that as professionals in this industry we have a concern for one another, which is what makes our place so great.