December 3rd, 2009

Lawndale Art Center: Interactions of the Artistic Kind

In 6 Words: Stenographer, Petri-art, Geode, Tents, Interactive, Stalactite

The art world has been a mystery to me for ages. I have always imagined a sub-culture of artists actively rejecting the world of squares to live their right-brained life in secret. Well, the secret is that it’s not much of a hidden world at all, you just have to be willing to open your eyes and look for it. It’s easy to gravitate toward the museums and their classics by the masters. But, I’ve always failed to recognize the art that’s all around. From the work of the graffiti artists in town to the private galleries with their doors always open, I’ve just kept driving or walking without a passing glance. All that was needed was a metaphorical fist to the proverbial jaw to knock my eyes open. Lawndale Art Center was very much willing to deliver the blow to my cranium, but instead of seeing stars, it opened up my entire cosmos.

By the time I pull up to the Lawndale Art Center at 4912 Main Street in Houston’s museum district, I’ve missed the artists’ talks. These probably would have been a good thing to catch, considering that my education in the artistic realm doesn’t go much further than “color inside the lines.” Then again, the idea of going to this opening with an uninfluenced palate may be for the best. It’s something of a cultural study. Can the untrained eye see the artist’s intentions?

I pull into the lot to the left of Lawndale and find a spot in the mostly empty lot. Stage one complete, I’m in the right place. Stage two will be finding the correct door. I walk North along Main, hoping for the best, and find an open glass door that shows people roaming within. They look like people that are looking at art. This must be the right place.

I step through the doorway and walk in to a room with a vaulted ceiling, barely partitioned by an “L” close to the front door. Rounding the corner, around the point of the elbow, is a patchwork, half-circle tent propped up in the center of the room. Rectangular sections of different colors are sewn together over a frame, giving it it’s distinct half-Cheerio shape. I bypass the big-top for now, opting instead, to find the bar which Afrodet has told me she’ll be working for the night.

The “bar” (nothing more than a folding table, draped in linen, with a bucket of wine and a keg of St. Arnold’s beer to its side) is in the corner of the room, next to a staircase that seems to lead to nowhere in particular. Greeting my fellow loopscoop author, she introduces me to her cohorts behind the bar, who are serving the gallery’s guests. There are many more people in attendance than I had anticipated, though Lawndale has secured enough red and white to sate a small army. Afrodet gives me a quick rundown of the happenings: in the main room is Monica Vidal’s Blow Up Heart, the next room holds the Moonlight Towers by Andy Mattern, up the elevator is Grotto created by Kia Neill and Jasmyne Graybill’s Negotiation is upstairs along with Vicious Venue by Shawn Smith. Many more installations than I ever expected. Volunteering to write about the opening may have been a bite more than I can chew.

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I grab a plastic pint glass and have it filled up with St. Arnolds Amber and decide that my best course of action will be starting at the top and trickling back down through the exhibits. I walk by the large tent in the middle of the expanse of the main exhibit and take a right into a smaller room that leads to the elevator. We rise to the second floor, and I exit into a womb of rock and plastic gems – this must be Grotto by Kia Knell. It’s as if I’ve been shrunk and placed inside the center of an amethyst geode that were so popular when I was a kid. The space is dark and it’s difficult to make out most of the details, but I’m alert enough to avoid a stalactite hanging in the middle of the walkway at eye-level.

There are too many people trying to walk through the cramped space and it seems awkward for me to stop and stare when the elevator is the only access back downstairs. As a couple of people pause to take a picture within the Grotto, I scoot by them and head for the stairs. I hold the rail as I ascend up the steps and I’m greeted by the tickle of something on the underside of the the black metal. Please tell me that someone hasn’t disgraced Lawndale by disposing over their gum like an immature adolescent. I quickly find that that’s not the case at all.

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Within the stairwell exists art. It is here at every turn. I begin to wonder if the fire alarms are for use or admiration as I become aware of Jasmyne Graybill’s Negotiation, neatly exhibited between the second and third floor. The rubbery growth beneath the railing is part of her series of petri-dish artistic experiments. This one managed to escape its plastic confines and found a home on the cold steel from the bottom to the top step. It lacks the color of some of the other pieces she’s provided, but being able to interact with the art allows an interesting change in perspective.

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It’s louder up here, on the third floor, than it was in any of the four areas I’ve been in so far. This is definitely not the hushed museums that I’ve been to before. For one, there’s booze. Secondly, nobody here seems to think that their conversation will detract from anyone else’s experience. They are correct. Even though I’m by myself throughout my journey through Lawndale, I feel like I’m part of a community, instead of a solitary viewer.

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As I cross the threshold into Viscious Venues, more than anything else, I’m hit by the smell. I’m transported back to my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Even more specific than that, I’m in their basement. The musty scent of the 50’s is all around me, invasive. A quick glance around at the furniture set up in the room offers no help in snapping me out of me day-dream. Everything laid out is of the same era that my brain insists I’m residing in now. Vultures, made of lego-sized blocks, roam throughout the room. They are everywhere, wreaking havoc on the surroundings. They’re in the vents, on top of desks, pulling a volume of Frankenstein from the bookcase and, worst of all, two have destroyed an antique typewriter and hover over their new kill like, well, vultures. I pause for a moment to eulogize the contraption that I revere.

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The chaos of Shawn Smith’s exhibit is behind me as I exit through the door with my sights set on descending downstairs for the final leg of my artistic tour de force. I take the elevator back down to the first floor and start walking around a room with equal-sized pictures of steel-framed lighting structures. Not knowing what I’m viewing, I grab a pamphlet and start reading. This is Andy Mattern’s inclusion in the opening; a set of photographs of an obsolete Austin lighting system bought in 1895 from the city of Detroit.

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My rounds taking in Mattern’s work lead me back to the gallery into which I entered. Finally, I take in Monica Vidal’s work in all it’s fluorescent-lit glory. The aforementioned tent is the obvious centerpiece of the exhibit. It stands proud, rectangular panels sewn together and draped over a circular frame. It seems to grow out from the center, a feather-shape in the middle that extends out in in larger concentric variations in different colors. I have to ask Afrodet what the inspiration for the piece is. Apparently, Vidal was inspired by a tumor that she had to have removed. The intentions of this are clear as I make the association between the base of the tent and the tendrils extending from a tumor into its prey. I think back to my own surgery of a few years back. I’m still not sure if I’ve found any inspiration from that experience other than resolving never to enter a hospital again.

There are other, smaller pieces along the walls, but none really have the glory, or luster, of the tent. They look more like preliminary studies of what the masterpiece would end up as than anything else, though the recurring theme is a person dressed in a outfit covered in colorful scales. It’s now blatantly obvious who the artist is, as Vidal has taken this theme and brought it to life. She’s standing near me as I walk back to the bar for a final draught of St. Arnold’s, dressed in the same scaled outfit. I still might not have a total grasp of the intentions of art, but I now realize that art and life are one in the same. Maybe it took the costume to realize that, but I think I knew it all along.

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HINTS and TIPS

- The current exhibits will be available for viewing through January 9th, 2010
- Hypnopomp Opened on December 2nd
- Lawndale’s Parking Lot is BEHIND the building, not where I mistakenly parked.
- Bring your camera. I could have taken pictures if I hadn’t thought there were “museum-type” rules.
- Lawndale Art Center is on Flickr and you can get a good idea of the exhibits and other performances they have there by checking it out regularly.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes with the homeless man that comes inside for a free cup of wine. He might ask you to “get crunk” with him in your car for a price. I’m reserving the rest of this story for a more adequate forum… Maybe a “Inside the Loop, Outside Reality” series.
- Next exhibit opening will be January 22nd, 2010 (everyone deserves a little advance notice).

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Where – 4912 Main Street, Houston, TX 77002 (View Map)
What – Art, Everywhere, Even on the Stair
Wear – Follow the Artist’s Lead and Think Outside the Box
How Much – Free (plus free drinks on opening night)
When – Mon-Fri: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, Sat: 12:00 am – 5:00 pm
WebWebsite; Facebook; Twitter; Flickr; Blogger

— Paul

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