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Art Lies, Volume 2, May-June 1994

The calligraphic cacophony of Annette
Lawrence's wall installation literally invokes
Babel. Although forbidding at first, the title
(John 3:16) would indicate that there is
something familiar buried within these
eastern European, Middle Eastern, and
Asian texts. Yet, as an investigation of the
subtle nuances of language, of translation
and cultural transference, how much does
Lawrence's piece contribute to questions,
such as the debate over multiculturalism,
already at the forefront of contemporary
intellectual and popular inquiry? Do these
sheets of paper glued to the wall, however
attractive we may find them, deepen the
existing discussion? This solution simplifies
a complex issue.

circumstance. In Absolute Baroque, Allen
combines the high drama of a Caravaggist
painting with the slick advertising of
Absolut vodka and Guess jeans to offer
another kind of product: "Guilt free
pleasure (except where prohibited by law)."
Allen points out that the two are not as
dissimilar as they might seem: a painting of
the god Mars' sadistic pleasure in punishing
the submissive, nubile Cupid might well
have served the same purpose for a 17th c.
Italian nobleman as 900 numbers serve for
us today. Both the high art status of the
allegorical painting and the high profile
advertising style serve to legitimize
otherwise taboo tastes. And what of the
American fascination with European

SRE SHOW

Simple and tired solutions daunt the work
of Mi Lu as well. In Bomb Tree, a plant
resides in a Plexiglas box while a time-
bomb menacingly counts the passing
seconds. Squint your eyes and a mushroom
cloud emerges from the bank of lights criss-
crossing the wall: a discourse on
environmental armageddon? Another
piece, Warm and Cozy, uses stuffed animals
and kitschy homemade rugs (squint again
and the lights become a house) in a way
that seems derivative of Mike Kelly. Any
implications of the dysfunctional home
seem tired re-runs of old Oprah and
Donahue episodes. These works read like
dull, mathematical equations (Teddy-bear
plus Snoopy rug equals idyllic living) and
lack the subtlety, both visual and
intellectual, that has characterized much of
this artist's previous work.
Subtlety of expression continues to be the
hallmark of Martha Bush's work. Composed
of two or three, usually disparate and
tonally limited elements, her three untitled
sculptures demonstrate a sense of humor
while conveying more ominous possibilities.
A tambourine sewn into the center of a
pristine, white pillow seems to imply
troubled or restless sleep. A desiccated red
pepper sewn prominently into a clean,
white sheet suggests wedding-night
evidence of lost virginity. A small, dead frog
laid out on a miniature mattress recalls
romantic and sexual disappointment. The
strength of Bush's work is its openness to
interpretation, its suggestive power, and its
refusal to be easily digested.
Joe Allen's work concerns the gulf between
historical artworks and contemporary

culture? In the museum/mausoleum of
today, the objects of European culture that
the robber barons of the industrial age
imported by the shipload are bereft of their
original context and generally sanitized of
any historical nastiness. In Last Chance for
Romance, Allen puts some of the nastiness
back in: a hot pink swastika cradled in the
over-abundance of a Dutch baroque flower
arrangement. Despite the fact that the
swastika does not look that bad at all
amongst those pretty flowers, we cannot
escape its historical baggage.
"What could be better than heaven?";
"True love never dies"; "Only heaven can
be sure of final results" Welcome to the
"home" of Amber Eagle's Bed/Pillow,
Chair, and Couch, a world of encouraging
pillows and slip-covered furniture, sewn in
the cheery fabrics our grandmothers might
have used. Yet in recent years these
materials have become familiar to us in
another way: through their use in
contemporary art. Conditioned as we are to
interpret their use as ironic commentary on
societal values, their unfettered optimism
probably seems overtly cynical, or simply
naive, but nonetheless sincere. In our age
of both sacred and secular faithlessness,
this kind of sincerity is refreshing.
Opposite these furnishings, Don Carroll
proposes marriage to Eagle. The artist's
intimate feelings are scrawled in chalk on
the gallery floor. Unprotected from the
shoes of passing viewers, the words are
usually somewhat obscured. Carroll renews
his proposal each morning, re-writing it in
chalk and adding rice to emphasize his
intentions. As each day passes, his words

artl i e s

become increasingly desperate. What is
interesting here is the interaction of the two
bodies of work. Eagle has created a
fictitious character, while Carroll denies that
personality and attempts to communicate
with the artist directly. Eagle's affirmations
begin to read like aloof responses to his
pleading and coaxing. In this way, Carroll
confronts the barrier separating artists and
their work from each other within the
context of a group exhibition. What at first
seemed rather clumsy, if not lazy in
execution, succeeds because an actual
dialogue occurs.
In Mark Allen's Rec Room, four purple frogs
rudely extend their middle fingers at the
viewer. By now we have grown accustomed
to this kind of confrontation, not only in
contemporary art but in our surroundings in
general. By comparison these obnoxious
amphibians might even seem a little tame.
A smirk or a snicker at their empty bravado
perhaps but before long we're bored,
sleepy as the "You are getting very sleepy"
buttons the frogs wear suggest. A quick
perusal of the formal elements of the
installation, the high-keyed color, the
dramatic lighting, the crackle finish on the
walls, and we'll probably move on. But their
empty gestures are in fact the point: the
futility of rebellion and the supremacy of
decoration and entertainment, ideas that
won't sit comfortably with those who
maintain a distinction between high and low
culture.
Art today is often criticized for being over-
burdened with intellectual meditations
while it seemingly ignores, or worse, mocks
aesthetic concerns. If art is a visual medium,
these detractors argue, then aesthetic
considerations are of the utmost
importance. For several years now, this kind
of criticism has been directed at many
artists in the Core program. In response,
many have argued against the idea of the
beautiful, well-crafted object, believing
instead that the intellectual basis of an art
object is the artist's true concern. The
difficulty of this position, however, is how
to present an idea without resorting to
facile or didactic solutions on the one hand,
or cryptic ones on the other. Visual art is
primarily static; its appearance is pre-
determined; there is no room for
elaboration. With few exceptions, any
intended dialogue will, by definition, begin
in the visual realm. How does an artist
express a complex idea within this static
format and not resort to reductive formats
that only simplify and thereby trivialize any
importance or relevance it might have? As
elsewhere, the most successful works in this
show are those that lie somewhere
between these poles. =

Chandler, Wade & Schwab, Eric Jonah. Art Lies, Volume 2, May-June 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228035/. Accessed September 30, 2014.