Arts Too much already

A new Artpace trio hits and misses in a crowded field of dreams

You could walk into “Alchemy of Comedy ... Stupid,” Edgar Arcenaux’s Artpace installation, eight successive times and each time notice something new. The dark room is crowded with screens: a 3-D triangle, a corner filled with TVs, a larger-than-life wall projection. A photo transfer of a wheelchair filled with burning embers takes over one corner; on another wall, bare-bones graffiti; on a third, a geometric drawing.

A portion of Edgar Arcenaux’s “Alchemy of Comedy ... Stupid.” (Photos by Kimberly Aubuchon)

The video loops are various edits of three tapes of comedian David Alan Grier working the same routine in different settings, including an empty theater in the round and a glitter-hung stage. In one his audience consists of a quiet heckler — a projection, says the artist, of the inner critic; in another he appears to be almost swallowed by an appreciative crowd. Because even an attentive viewer might take a lifetime to cull all of the associations Arcenaux has crammed into his room, I’ll list a few that he mentioned: Grier’s skit deals with his relationship with his father, who once told him, “fatherhood is purely biological,” and who spent time in a wheelchair ... like Grier’s comedic father, Richard Pryor. But an accompanying piece, a series of photographs of flames, titled, “Do you remember that joke? When you hold up a match and you go like this and say, ‘What’s this?’ ‘Richard Pryor running down the street,’” raises the spectre of racism and the larger question of African-American fatherhood.

New works: 06.1

Noon-5pm Wed-Sun;
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& by appt.
Through May 7

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Yet Arcenaux talks of ancient alchemical principles, the four elements, the eight-pointed star of the Greeks, and destabilizing the narrative with a third character. While he is successful in creating an enveloping experience, the effect is of a cluttered consciousness, or an illustrated journal come to life. This sensation was enhanced when I met with Arcenaux the day of the opening. He wandered somewhat distractedly between DVD players, inserting newly burned versions of the projections into slots and frowning at the images, as if consumed physically by his thoughts.

The seeming lack of editing in Arcenaux’s installation is countered radically by San Antonian Augusto Di Stefano’s series of drawings and paintings. Outlined and partially bricked buttresses fade into ghostly grid lines on sheets of paper. Large color-field paintings anchor the walls; at their best they distill a dialogue between minimalism and the gestural or abstract expressionism, but the extreme reserve of the work permeates the room. The most arresting pieces look at first like simple architectural footprints rendered in graphite. They echo Donald Judd’s metal boxes, but with ambivalence, perhaps because, as the artist pointed out, they could also stand for relationships, rigid and hierarchical.

A view of Ranjani Shettar’s installation, “I’m no one to tell you, what not to do.” The artists’ work is on view at Artpace through May 7 along with paintings, drawings, and prints by Augusto Di Stefano.

The contrast is again stark between Di Stefano’s installation and the neighboring “I’m no one to tell you, what not to do,” by Bangalore, India, resident Ranjani Shettar. Shettar was inspired by mesquite, Texas’s favorite “trash” tree, and the nature of human conflict to create an installation about the relationship between so-called “hosts” and “parasites.” A veil of translucent green silicone sculptures are suspended from the ceiling like primordial ferns. They arc toward a wall from which sanded and polished tongues of mesquite protrude. These disparate elements are meant to encounter and interact with one another in an intriguing way, but it doesn’t quite work — in part because the strings used to suspend the silicone are too distracting.

I wished instead for more of the gorgeous five-color woodcut print, which showed the natural grain of the wood in light green, gorgeously marred by irregular scarlet, brown, and pink patterns. In its intricacy, it illustrates perfectly how factions that imagine themselves implacable foes unwittingly make an integral whole.

By Elaine Wolff

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