Jason Villegas

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Garland Fielder

Jason Villegas, Lacoste Brand All-Terrain Coffin, 2009; mixed media; installation view, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Third World Textile Spirit, 2009; mixed media; installation view, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Jason Villegas is far too young to have been seriously marred by the death of John Hughes, the quintessential teen flick auteur of the eighties. Born in 1977, Villegas may have relished his Izod T-shirts, but only the way a child can. His damaging pubescent years were yet to come when the popularity of the artist’s favorite material to appropriate was in full swing. That’s okay, though. His inventive and wacky use of the iconic wardrobe of an era makes his first solo museum show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston an unmitigated success. In fact, his comparative youth generates a certain insouciance that can only be attained by distance.

What makes Villegas’ work so appealing is his liberal sampling of references. Third World cultures dominated by over-the-top color palettes are juxtaposed with references to all things preppy. The artist transforms the basement of CAMH into a colorful bazaar, evoking the streets of Jaipur or the alleyways of Katmandu siphoned through a Midwestern shopping mall. With Third World Textile Spirit, a larger-than-life, dragonlike apparition composed of found polo shirts and other knitted symbols of bygone status, Villegas sustains a nostalgic reverence for the value Americans place on certain garb while also referencing the throwaway condition of their places of origin. In the artist’s aesthetic, there exists as much maquiladoras as couture—maybe not in equal parts, but a pent-up appreciation of each resonates. The attention to detail and love of craft the artist employs in each construction implies an understanding of—even sympathy with—such consumption, the perversion of basic necessity. The works are fantastically lowbrow yet fabulous.

Several self-portraits are also presented in the show. Villegas makes brand logos into his likeness. For instance, the image of his mug is both literally and figuratively morphed out of a smug alligator in Self Portrait as Lacoste Brand. This canny use of material sustains other works in the show, especially the oddly regal mural Polo Pile. In this work, the artist references an ancient ziggurat and a mundane shelf in a Lord & Taylor department store. Strips of fabric form an ascending grid that reaches a pinnacle. Loose strips and threads hang about, taunting any would-be veneration of the structure.

Two animated videos are equally imbued with Villegas’ lowbrow sensibility. One of the monitors is embedded in a Land Rover caricature entitled Lacoste Brand All-Terrain Coffin—an oversized Tonka toy conceived by an obvious Pee-wee’s Playhouse devotee. The video is less accessible than more traditionally displayed works in the exhibition, but it does heighten the surreal quality of the show’s overall temper. The animation is clunky yet somehow poignant, emblematic of Villegas’ strangely touching sentimentality.

Garland Fielder is an artist and writer living in Houston.

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