The Old, Weird America

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston

Hills Snyder

Eric Beltz, Good Luck Assholes, 2007; graphite on Bristol board; 28 x 22 inches; courtesy the artist; collection Jeffrey and Elana Rose, Los Angeles

David Cheskin, Untitled, 2004; courtesy Associated Press

I drove to Houston with all the messianic curmudgeonly fervor of Robert Crumb forcibly led to a Grateful Dead concert on the back of a donkey. I had Dock Boggs on the iPod, restraint on the gas pedal and one eye on the fuzz through Katy. Let’s just say I was not lead-foot-enthusiastic. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the concept of the show—if anything I believed in it too much—and that was the problem: I was really ready to be disappointed. Not that I go about cursing fig trees or anything, but I felt entitled. I was into it. I was sure it couldn’t possibly live up to its promise—you know, kind of like America itself—the new, weird-less one anyway.

So, let me tell all you good-time people: I was wrong—not so much about the nation, but about the show—it’s really good and gave me a certain kind of hope I don’t usually count on museums to provide. The Old, Weird America is senior curator Toby Kamps’ inaugural exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, and it’s quite strong—strong enough to make Hillary wish she’d quit back in February.

Mr. Kamps, born in 1964, grew up in Wisconsin, corn-fed on punk, and later found Bob Dylan (who opened many a door) by way of the Greil Marcus book that gives the show its title. Another book fueling ideas for the project was What’s the Matter with Kansas? in which Thomas Frank details how the current crop of American neo-conservatives have used “victim psychology” to paint themselves as the country’s true patriots up against all those nasty nabobs out there who just won’t quit nattering. Additionally, the curator cites stories he heard from his pre-suburbia father and grandfather as providing spark—tales of seeing Gypsies on the way to school and scheme-dreams of making a living as a “pig slop middleman.”

Kara Walker’s work also figured in as a key element around which the exhibition was built. The most well-known artist in the show, she’s been mining the folklore of the Antebellum South since the mid-nineties. Her violent cut-paper shadow plays are accompanied in the show’s catalogue by this telling quotation: “I want people to respond and to be aware that if a goody-two-shoes like me can have all this going on in her head, then nobody’s safe.”

The Epcot Center effect that first greets you via the work of Sam Durant (two sides to every story) and Margaret Kilgallen (Gary Sweeney crossbred with Fantagraphics) soon gives way to the smaller scale incisions of Eric Beltz, whose three drawings are among the best work in the show and signal the ”“Everything You Know Is Wrong” sensibility that pervades the project. Indeed, Firesign Theatre’s Ben Franklin, “the only president of the United States, who was never president of the United States,” walks with you throughout the exhibition, whispering “I betook me to the Hashfire Inn…” Or perhaps I’m hearing the great American illustrator Robert Lawson’s Amos, the mouse/narrator, who, with Bugs Bunny, is among the first fur-bound creatures to irreverently suggest a post-modern critique of our history… But getting back to humankind, Beltz’ Thomas Jefferson gives us a realistic send-off—Good Luck Assholes—given where we’ve been lately and the road ahead yet to be taken. (BTW, did you hear that Robert Frost’s home was recently ripped up by partying teenagers who are subsequently being forced to learn the man’s poetry?)

The 1860’s War Between the States is the watershed ridge we’ve been stumbling down as a nation ever since. Its aftermath supplied jazz with musical instruments and the old, weird America with more than one fruit jar of ordnance. From Bob Dylan’s samples of Henry Timrod to Allison Smith’s Zouaves, which cleverly tread sexual lines like a transgendered Aubrey Filmore, there is plenty in the exhibition here to recon.

Barnaby Furnas’ blue vs. gray vignettes, reminiscent of the stick-figure battle scenes by which many an American boy has made his way through the tedium of grade school, also indicate the way we are fed history with a tendency toward flattening and simplification: we all just drew the same thing over and over regardless of context, whether it was Pirates, Vikings, Cowboys and Indians or the Battle of The Alamo. But Furnas’ watercolors are skilled, made with more than elementary care, and the chaos is elegantly composed. The pale bullet trails, which slash latterly through the paintings, pin the action in stopped time and are also eerily reminiscent of those CNN-green bomb tracers we watched on our screens, glittering over Baghdad in 1991.

David Rathman, Guilty As Hell! Free As a Bird!, 2001; ink on paper; 12 x 11 inches; collection Lio Malca, New York

McDermott & McGough, Sacred Love and Pain, 1960, 2006; oil on wood; 48 x 12 x 16 inches; courtesy the artists and Cheim & Read, New York

The paintings of Brad Kahlhamer and Aaron Morse signal the violence and chaos inherent in our manifest destinies, while David Rathman’s figures, lifted from Westerns, sing and drawl one-liner tells on masculinity. Kahlhamer’s swirling kitsch and kindred montages contradict the left-to-right readings of “history paintings” and reach back from the Bowery to pre-Columbian times...and meanwhile, working our way west, Morse’s Early American piles and compressions simultaneously suggest abundance and excess. Rathman’s posturing characters are perfectly suited to the specific captions they support—a rifleman whip-turns to draw on someone—WHY MUST I ALWAYS EXPLAIN? Another character, wide stance, hands on hips, states I'M THE LAW HERE. ALL THE LAW, while a barely visible horse gently grazes in the background. Rendered in transparent and subtly nuanced shades of brown ink, they call up the like-minded paintings of Montana artist Gordon McConnell and also lean into The Man in Burnt Umber, Johnny Cash.

Greta Pratt’s Nineteen Lincolns, like John Strand’s play Lincolnesque, gets at a core human behavior: mimicry. They say it’s the sincerest form of flattery, but “mimetic desire” is also ground for serious philosophical inquiry, as evidenced in the work of RenÈ Girard and others. And Neil Corcoran, professor of English at St. Andrews University in Scotland, had this to say at the ceremony granting Dylan an honorary doctorate in 2004: “Many members of my generation can’t separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics.” Ultimately, who we really are is what Pratt’s Lincoln presenters are all about as they attempt to latch on to who we really was. And yes, all this earnest self-discovery is accompanied by a good ole American sense of humor: "Whenever Mary asked Abe for money, do you know what he said? Get a Grant." Like Elvis impersonators and Lebowski Fest attendees, we Americans are full of ourselves (abundance and excess again).

Dario Robleto delivers with the kind of astounding excess that many of us have come to expect from of him. His Lamb of Man/Atom and Eve/Americana Materia Medica channels Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which in turn funneled The Basement Tapes and consequently Greil Marcus’ book. Robleto’s multi-layered work, somehow studiously somber and light-foot wry, is simply a delight to delve into deeply. If you don’t have time for it, it’s your fault.

Perhaps the only misstep in the show is the inclusion of Cynthia Norton—not because of the work itself, but for the space it consumes. Charlie White’s 1957 and the Kahlhamer doll cabinet are unnecessarily crowded with Allison Smith’s Zouaves to accommodate Norton’s Dancing Squared. The piece does have a sort of silly associative relationship to Dylan’s Clothesline Saga and is apparently a popular piece with the museum’s visitors. Norton is also the only artist in the show mentioned in Marcus’ book, but the meanings her work adds to the overall picture might better be found in the work of Justin Boyd, whose rigged-up folk threads are surely a natural for this context.

Marcus’ book was originally published in 1997 as Invisible Republic. I like the implication that this place surrounds us unseen, like a funky Mount Analogue, because it puts the burden to find it on us. I mean, if it is a revolution, it certainly will not be televised. And like the hand made FRETFRAYPLINGPLOYs that Margaret Kilgallen once found forgotten in The Mission, it’s waiting.

Winchester, Jeremy Blake’s looping treatment of Sarah Winchester’s gradually constructed architectural madness, is a sort of brain tectonics read-out of sublime activity fed by TMI. It features stunning, discomfiting color—iris and veil, filigree and fern— accompanied by the familiar flicker of projected film and the ominous swell of more fugitive sounds. You might wake up drunk on the lawn of the Winchester Mystery House, your low-angle viewpoint buttressed by blades of grass, one eye on a certain window. This aperture darkens gradually, like so many Victorian windows do—how the hell did Mother get out of the fruit cellar again?—but it’s no one, just a black smear forming a bullet hole with dripping stain, then relinquishing point of entry to an angry red glare folding into the first of hundreds of synesthetic flowers. Spectral gunshot victims glide through, too weightless to limp. Gun-club clusters overlap, sprouting cootie legs. Batwings, simian faces, feather skulls—a vertical blur takes the window trim all the way to slits in the screen, now a canvas backdrop in some kind of super-stretched-out set from The Magnificent Amberson’s. Fearful Symmetry. At one point in the churning tide, Old Glory appears in the “sky” like the voice of Daniel Webster, as John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever lurches from the drone like a driverless ice cream truck. The flicker returns. It’s comforting that these intentional anachronisms send postcards to Morris Louis and Guy Maddin, but this place, broken doorknob and all, is truly a House on the Borderland, and like Harry Smith himself, has no fixed address.

Hills Snyder occasionally writes about art.

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