The Art Capades

International Artist-In-Residence 07.1
Noon-5pm Wed-Sun; noon-8pm Thu
Through May 13
445 N. Main
What works as art these days? I can’t go with “everything is art,” because then of course “nothing is art” would also be true, and while that’s probably an exhilarating proposition for 20-something philosophy students, I find it exhausting and more than a little depressing.

It’s an important question in a society that is saturated with visual media and almost entirely commodified — and in which artists often moonlight as designers or in some related commercial field. Journalism has a similar problem: Journalists frequently find better pay as copy writers for ad agencies or corporations. It’s a rare writer, and probably a rare artist, who can move easily and cleanly between two fields that use similar tools but require an entirely different mindset.

To complicate matters, in a stunning comeback beauty has been rescued from the charnel house where postmodernism tried to tear it into scraps of discredited biases, and almost everything is well-packaged nowadays, from a $9 Target toaster to Geico ads. It’s probably no coincidence that in the wake of a baroque-inspired design renaissance, purely conceptual pieces seem like leaden, still-born butterflies among the endless mist of bright shiny things our culture breathes out each second.

So the question — what is art these days? — which usually doesn’t trouble me, has been bumping around my caffeine-fueled brain since I saw Glenn Kaino’s Artpace installation. Kaino, one of the three current Artist-in-Residence fellows, created a show inspired by society’s need for speed and its appetite for the consequences, an equation postulated by French cultural critic Paul Virilio: speed and the accidents that are its byproduct increase in tandem. Technology, created by man, shapes society — often not for the better. The arms race, in short, pursues its own logic.

To pursue these themes, Kaino created a three-channel video in which a runner, a jazz man, and a race-car driver each cover a quarter-mile at their natural pace (the singer, Olu Dara, walks), which is then manipulated digitally. As you watch them you can ponder not-so-new topics such as cause and effect and what you miss when you rush through life. But you might also wonder if people who crave technologically enhanced speed aren’t the brave ones after all, willing to move beyond our current, comforting definitions of “human.”

Close by, and drawing attention to itself with grating noise, is a crude, motorized, chain-driven device that uses centrifugal force to keep the “sand” in three hourglasses from completing its mission (giving into gravity, its own historical inevitability): Middle-Eastern dirt, Texas soil, and silicon. According to the gallery notes, it’s a revolution that accomplishes a symbolic revolution — halting the progress of military conquest, rapacious capitalism, and technology. Although the title — “We will breathe later,” a rallying cry from the Paris student uprisings of May 1968 (in which Virilio was a participant) — and the concept are moving, without the written explanation it’s not that engaging. But it does provoke the chicken-egg question of aborted revolutions: If it fails, does it fail on its own terms or because we don’t commit to it?

Downstairs in Berliner Katja Strunz’s gallery, thin sheets of metal in solid colors rest on the floor like fallen paper airplanes and abstract origami, reminding us that the empty space around us is a three-dimensional field full of physical possibilities. Flat planes of color rest against the walls, calling to mind the March 8 artists’ dialogue, in which the artist and the curator discussed Strunz’s sculptures as painting. The installation is like a sparsely filled sculpture garden, with many entrancing pieces, that never quite gels into a landscaped whole.

In Knowing That We God-like, Houstonian Robert Pruitt pulls together a room of disparate elements around a theme: the power of enforced and adopted African-American identities. In staged black-and-white photographs, color portraits of Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali dolls, a spiraling column of basketball players, and drawings in which African tribal accessories becomes talismans and armor for modern life, Pruitt pushes back on the limited roles white society assigns black Americans, celebrating and questioning the possibilities of reclaiming an African legacy.

A ring of handcuffs, linked into a beautiful wreath that looks worthy of a chieftan of some urban tribe, makes this tension between self-empowerment and self-limitation poignant and jarring. Perhaps, as some of his images suggest — and some variations of the black-power movement pursued — it’s not ridiculous to wish for escape or ascension over revolution. Equally powerful physically and conceptually is Pruitt’s umbrella made from a leather coat — maybe of the style sported by Black Panther leaders and co-opted in blaxploitation flicks. It’s protective and alluring, but also opaque and would become impossibly heavy in a real downpour. It’s great provocative work that works on all levels.