Road trip

Houston lies at the widening crossroads of contemporary art

It's a good four-and-a-half-hour drive to Houston; kind of a haul just to see some art, but then a spontaneous road trip can do wonders for the Dallas-weary soul. And Houston presents this odd, looking-glass parallel to this city, with its jutting skyline and crawling traffic and damp heat. You're out of Dallas, but still in big-city mode, and while all the highways and buildings and suburban landscapes look creepily familiar, you can't name them, because they're not yours.

And there's an ongoing axiom in the Texas art community that goes like this: "Houston's got a really great art scene--much better than Dallas. It's far more supportive of artists." True or not, it seems that a Dallas artist would have to be nuts to chuck one Bible-belted city of glass for another, and to this day the only cities in the U.S. worth picking up and moving to for the sake of an art career are New York and Los Angeles. Houston may well embrace its art scene more warmly than Dallas does its own, but not by so many degrees that it makes a difference in an artist's paycheck or profile. And even if Houston is the lesser of two evils, there's still that pesky mosquito problem.

Nonetheless, right now in Houston there are two art shows worth a tank of gas, and last Thursday, a host of Dallas art-mongers called in sick and headed south for the opening of the Ultralounge show at DiverseWorks and then checked out the Rauschenberg retrospective the next day. First things first: Dave Hickey, art critic extraordinaire and hero of the cutting edge, has curated a show of works by emerging artists--not just any artists, but rather a handful of kids from Las Vegas, of all kitschy places. Hickey teaches art theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and in between jet-setting and shoulder-rubbing, he's mentored a slew of grad students who have garnered critical acclaim from critics in other cities. So Hickey, who has spent several stints in Texas over the years, decided that Houston's alternative power-space (read: warehouse) DiverseWorks could be the perfect venue for his ducklings. Remember: "Houston's got a really great art scene."

Those desert kids really know how to fill the space which, as an "Ultralounge," is loaded with all the slick fakeness of the Vegas strip. Even Hickey should be re-labeled "artist" here, because he re-shaped and re-designed the interior of DiverseWorks with an amazing instinct for atmosphere. Walk into this dim, cavernous zone, grab a martini from the wet bar, and just dig that kooky art. For such thematic cohesion, the range is impressive: pieces that evoke air-brushed Ocean Pacific graphics, bright fluorescent panels of pure color, and clusters of waxy, gilded fruit--these and more provide a nearly ambient backdrop for the feel of the room--a seduction usually associated with really great nightclubs. It's an exhibit with new rules; at Ultralounge, you don't feel guilty for paying more attention to the patrons or the room than the art. That's part of the show.

Hickey's "lounge" aesthetic isn't the "swing" kind that's brainwashing America's youth these days, with all its zoot suits and squirrel nuts and fling-the-girl-over-your-head moves; this lounge is all about timeless smarm. Like casinos and the Mafia, red velvet drapes and bad cocktails that go down smoothly after one too many. Think Martin Scorsese meets John Waters meets a zebra-stripe chaise, and you get the idea; it's not purely tacky, but it damn sure ain't tasteful. And it's not meant to diminish the artists' work either. For the most part, the individual pieces are strong; taken together, they form a balm that coats the eyes like melted candy.

For a taste of this work without leaving Dallas, check out the Angstrom gallery here. Two of the Ultralounge artists, Jack Hallberg and Yek Wong--known collectively as "Jack and Yek"--are showcasing their brand of dayglow-in-the-blacklight paintings. Hallberg's work, clusters and lines of bright, raised paint that practically jumps off the flat patterns behind, is a nice counterpoint to Wong's curved wood wall reliefs of intense and fading color fields. This is minimalism gone lowbrow: Lichtenstein on acid, Rothko on crystal meth. The Angstrom obliges with the right lighting, hanging ferns, and a kidney-shaped carpet. Go at night, when the paintings buzz and glow with cheerful abandon.

Meanwhile, back on the road, a few miles southwest of DiverseWorks, an altogether different kind of art fills prime space at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Contemporary Arts Museum; and the Menil Collection. A retrospective of monumental size and meaning, the real issue here is perspective: the artwork showcased in Ultralounge wouldn't exist without the pioneering efforts of Robert Rauschenberg, whose five-decade career (thus far) deserves no less than the three large public buildings and the reverent admiration of all the young art freaks who had filled DiverseWorks the night before.

Port Arthur-born, New York-based, and globally influential, Rauschenberg has never nosedived in all these years: In the '50s and '60s, he sucked up the avant-garde notions of a Dadaist like Duchamp and spat out a thoroughly fresh, eroticized, and controversial form of his own. (Remember "Monogram," the big stuffed goat encircled by an old rubber tire?) Alongside Jasper Johns and Warhol, he spearheaded pop art; in the '60s and '70s, he brought conceptual and performance art its first climax with his theater, dance, and installation pieces; in the '80s and '90s, he has continued to break barriers, push envelopes, and generally embrace "art as everyday occurrence" in his wise, warm gush of painting and sculpture.

The downstairs galleries of the MFAH hold his most current work--his photo-transfers and silk-screens on gigantic brass panels. Upstairs you'll find his notoriously difficult and exhilarating quarter-mile-long piece snaking along the walls, consisting of mysterious timeline structures starring, among others, JFK, the space shuttle, cardboard boxes, a wheelbarrow of growing cactus, and even an old snow sled encased in Plexiglas. Across the street, the CAM showcases his older and interactive works--his radio-transmitting oracles and remote-controlled, spinning glass discs, and photos and films of his early performance pieces, as well as a truly awesome bed of mud. As big as a back-yard swimming pool, it spits and wiggles and vibrates its pabulum goo in a playful, scary way. Get too close and it may vomit on you, but you have to lean in to fully enjoy its gurgling noises and glistening nuances.

While no contemporary art genre can claim Rauschenberg as its own, every genre can claim Rauschenberg as its favorite godfather, and taken together, Ultralounge and the Rauschenberg retrospective make Houston the current hotspot for a solid cross-section of contemporary art. Since this is its last weekend, anyone hoping to view the retrospective had better hurry. And don't forget to get your oil changed and your freon checked--and pack some insect repellant. After all, we're talkin' Houston here.

Ultralounge is at DiverseWorks through June 20; (713) 223-8346. Rauschenberg: A Retrospective is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, (713) 639-7300; the Contemporary Arts Museum (713) 284-8250; the Menil Collection (713) 525-9400 through May 17. Jack and Yek is at Angstrom Gallery, Dallas, through May 30. (214)-823-6456.

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