Sofa kingdom

The Contemporary British Painters exhibit soothes the critic's savage breast

Sometimes contemporary art can get so damn abrasive and antagonistic and pretentious that, after about two dozen of these "happenin'" gallery openings, you just wanna hurl your controversy-weakened body through the next gallery's plate-glass window. What's happening to me? I'm becoming one of the Chapman brothers' mutated children!

So it's anodyne time. Time for dense and brilliant landscapes, sparkling vistas, and velvety still-lifes. Sofa art? Forget it. I'd rather kiss Chris Burden's scars than look at that banal stuff.

For the jaded, bereft legions of contemporary-art fans, the works of the British landscape painters on display at the ever-noble Valley House Gallery can be interpreted two ways: as a gentle, calming drug, like a modest dose of morphine after a long night of crank; or, as nothing more than glorified sofa art. It's easy to dismiss these artists as not contemporary--though they are--because they're so steeped in tradition. These are the painters honored by their homeland's Royal Academy for their talents and given the queen mother's nod for their achievements. These are the painters upheld by the conservative contingent, the sphere that screamed bloody murder when Damien Hurst was asked to join that venerable Academy. No wonder we young'uns tend to think of it as "us" against "them," and for some of "us," the Valley House exhibition is like walking out of a HYsker DY show straight into a string quartet playing Bach. It takes a moment to adjust, but it's worth it.

Believe it: Renoir, Monet, and Degas were, to the 19th-century French establishment, rebels. Now their pervasive aesthetic draws sighs of ecstasy from unsophisticated suburbanites and sighs of crippling boredom from every fan of every new art movement since then. I know about a dozen or so conceptual artists who would rather pour Tabasco sauce in their eyes (not a bad performance piece, come to think of it) than contemplate the works of British landscape painters. On the other hand, I know about a dozen or so artists who couldn't capture light and movement in oil paint to save their ironic souls. But then, neither can those Hundreds of starving artists! Selling their artwork in bulk! at a steal! this weekend at the Holiday Inn North!

The gallery's 15 exhibited painters hunt and peck their mid- to late-1800s styles in both oil and watercolor, turning traditional means to their current ends. Over here, elements of realism; over there, impressionism and poetic romanticism. Claude Lorraine meets J.M.W. Turner meets Thomas Cole at the same salon party to compare notes on Venice, the English coastline, what have you. Peter Kuhfeld's "The Salome Grande, Palazzo Babaro" has the thickened, satisfying shapes and dark jewel tones of its subject and oil medium, while Jane Corsellis' sun-baked "Central Park Triptych" might float away on its misty atmosphere. Both are stunning, both could have been painted a century ago, and both boast a timelessness that holds the gaze far longer than you might expect. These works soothe the eyes.

Which makes you curse your own Aunt Rhetta and her acrylic bluebonnet fields. She gives the good artists--the real-deal painters like those at Valley House--a bad name. Because there's far more work by hack amateurs like Rhetta out there than there is work by the truly gifted, and the hacks' insistence on copying the good guys' impressionism-realism hybrid results in horrific guilt-by-association. To the uninvested eye, Ken Howard's northern beach, "Windy Day, Shinnecock," looks a lot like Rhetta's version of Galveston, thanks to her by-the-book (albeit earnest) tricks.

But when it's done very well--these fields and beaches and flowers--then we're onto something potentially powerful. Narcotic. Looking at Richard Pikesley's oil-on-canvas harbor scene, "Weymouth Quay"--windy, cool, and buzzing with marine activity--is about as satisfying as looking out a real window at the real thing. And while Pikesley's personal poetics make it into the mix (hence, the term "art" instead of "copy"), this ups the visceral quotient. And for those who use such views to meditate and escape, that kind of window, however interpretive, can make quite an impact. How can we dismiss traditional forms when they still carry that soulful power?

That said, even this eye couldn't find any redemptive qualities in Jacqueline Williams' vapid scenes; take the shallow sentiment of Hallmark, add some Mary Cassatt fem focus, and end up with frothy, sappy nods to gardens and waking maidens and the color pink. Williams doesn't have nearly the aptitude for light and color as her fellow academics on display here; though, again, unless you pay attention, you may miss that point.

Contemporary British Painters is at the Valley House Gallery, 6616 Spring Valley Road, through April 24. Call (972) 239-2441.

On the road, again
The thrill is in the hunt. I've spent close to a decade with a Matthew Barney fixation, and I have to wonder whether it's because I never get to see his work. Like most good fixations, mine has been fed in fits and starts, through interviews and descriptions of his installations and films--his singular, psycho-sexual narratives with their own odd-but-fitting vocabulary. Weight benches made out of Vaseline, indoor obstacle courses traversed naked in a mountain-climbing harness, his obsessions with athleticism and Harry Houdini.

This young king of New York's conceptual art scene and his main rep in Manhattan, Barbara Gladstone, are mighty stingy with his pieces, unlike many artists who promote themselves toward a fast and final burnout. Barney, however, realizes the power and mystery of the unobtainable. Still, everything I've read and heard about him points to his tapping into universal questions of identity, gender, and the transcendence of these ideas via conflict. So when I received an invite to attend an official screening of one of his films in Austin--part of his ongoing Cremaster series--I jumped into my Civic and sped south.

Was it worth the tank of gas? Well, sure--in the same way that consummating a crush is sometimes the only way to get over it. Barney offers his viewers a sumptuous, gyrating thing of fairy tale proportions and Freudian pinpricks. While I drove south on Interstate 35 with anxious expectation, I started to wonder whether I'd leave his imaginary world somewhat disappointed.

Self-indulgent is a wonderful description for many artists, and in limited doses, can be a wonderful way to get out of your own head into someone else's, a way to tweak your stale perspective. Only, give that artist a massive budget, an hour's worth of 35-mm film, and open season on his own compulsions--and you've got a recipe for tedium. Think Peter Greenaway on a lonely weekend bender, and you've got the idea.

"Cremaster 5" (the cremaster is the body's interior muscle, which extends and contracts the testicles in relation to body temperature) was shot primarily in gothic-tinged Budapest in 1997. Its three-tier, zero-dialogue narrative intertwines the libretto of an opera-house diva, a Houdini-like magician, and a Neptune-like water giant with gonads for feet. The three spectacles play off one another: the diva is remembering her affair with the ill-fated escape artist, and underneath her baroque and swirling opera house unfolds a type of Turkish bath-sexual netherworld involving the sea giant and his harem of water sprites. The giant, like the magician and diva, finds final release, not through music or death, but through the sprites' capture of his, well, mutated genitalia. (This involves a flock of Jacobean doves and such, but let's not digress.) Underwater scenes, cavernous architecture, plenty of complex prosthetics and costumes, and a modern classical score by a friend of the artist lend the whole an intensely coded, dreamlike aura.

Fascinating, sure, but also repetitive and static (a semi-successful attempt to transfer the spirit of sculpture and painting to film), symbolically obtuse (a semi-successful way of forcing you, the attention-deficit viewer, to concentrate), and a clunky narrative (not surprising from an artist who isn't used to telling stories).

Sitting in the dark, three hours from home in the University of Texas Union Theater with a slew of other starving Barney followers, and I start wondering about whether I turned off my gas heater in my apartment, about whether I parked my car in a loading zone. When it ended, I didn't stick around for the group discussion--I couldn't stomach the idea of a bunch of college art students earnestly dissecting a film so dense and esoteric.

Barney is to be admired for finding a new way to use media, pushing film boundaries with assertive aplomb. Take away plot and add intimate meaning, take away conventional symbols and create new, unnerving ones. Barney's film didn't let me down, but it wasn't the soul-searching experience I was hoping for. Hunt the animal too long, and the kill is bound to be anti-climactic.

Probably not Barney's fault. When he makes a rare appearance in Houston this summer to lecture at the Glassell School and show more of his work, I'll be there. Hoping his stuff speaks to me the way the descriptions of his stuff have spoken to me for years--hoping that the second kill's the charm.

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