There's great local contemporary art on the walls, and it's not 100 degrees outside
"July should be Contemporary Air-conditioning Month," said one smart-ass during last summer's hot debate over whether to move Contemporary Art Month to October. It didn't happen, as you all know by now, because CAM's grass roots preferred to keep it as a lure to SA's otherwise deserted Dog Days streets. But if you somehow missed CAM (perhaps, shame on you, you spent the month in Wal-Mart's chilly isles) you're in luck. Cooler weather has arrived and this is a particularly good month to spend a weekend afternoon wandering among the galleries at the Blue Star Arts Complex. Four shows, at Three Walls, Cactus Bra, Joan Grona Gallery, and the UTSA Satellite Space, provide something for the intellectual, the sentimentalist, and the pure aesthete.
Michele Monseau, director of Three Walls, has never let her gallery's diminutive size limit her aspirations. This month she presents Drawings by four accomplished San Antonio artists: Hills Snyder (who also curates Sala Diaz), Nate Cassie, Leigh Ann Lester (who co-directs the adjacent Cactus Bra), and Karen Mahaffy. The show is a pleasant little treat because these are artists whose work we don't get to see enough of (with the recent exception of Cassie, thanks to Parchman Stremmel), and who are mostly known for other mediums.
Snyder is a heavily conceptual artist with a streak of wickedly funny humor. His mixed-media smiley face series dealt with doubles and the other, and here Monseau has included a witty graphite drawing, "Double Negative," of a pair of footprints treated like the yin-yang symbol. Adding to the play on opposites, the relatively rough drawing is professionally framed.
The delicate detail of "Foam/Pattern Study," which pairs a simplified turn-of-the-century floral pattern with a magnified view of the membranes and air pockets in foam and organic matter, is in keeping with Mahaffy's focus on detail and the repetition of small patterns - nowadays we might say code - that creates an integrated whole. In this sense it's of a piece with the knitting video she showed at the San Antonio Museum of Art in 2002, even though it's experientially very different.
Cassie, similarly, has based a series of abstract paintings on the Fibonacci Sequence, the infinite mathematical pattern that coincides with ratios in the organic world. Here he is represented by a large-scale drawing of an industrial-grade building and light pole against a Texas-size skyline comprised of repeated cursive letters. It's a visual transcription of the human ability to construct a world out of self-generated words and images that are simultaneously shaped by our common cultural feedback loop.
Lester's precise botanical drawings are a treat for the eye, and also supply the only color in the show. They are reminiscent of the illustrations that accompanied Victorian-era plant compendiums and scientific texts, but Lester's technique of layering drawings using transparent glassine allows her to graft curvaceous, tendril-like specimens onto spiky, statuesque succulents, a commentary on genetic modification.
The chthonic forces of the biomass are crystallized in Margaret Craig's Cactus Bra installation, which also fulfills Lester and co-curator Jayne Lawrence's desire that artists mar the physical walls. Craig has been modifying physical space with her painting for some time. In last year's RC Gallery show, Craig made alarming and alluring orifices in the wall, her signature high-gloss epoxy finishes both inviting touch and repelling penetration. In the current show, Craig has, as the title promises, pulled the uncontemplated Between to the surface, and it's beautiful: 3-D terrains and cratered eruptions and portals dominated by blues and greens bubbling, swirling, occasionally coalescing into patterns. "Mouth ... Anus ... Faucet ... Sewer," reads her artist's statement in part, and one of the most mesmerizing pieces, "Mt. Erebus," named after Earth's southernmost volcano, is arguably the bum end of the planet. "Well" sinks all the way through the wall, a reminder that the world's water supply is interconnected. Positioned as it is at the end of a visual sentence that begins with small craters containing images of buildings like melting negatives, it creates a web of possible narratives for our impact on the biosphere.
Buttressed by good feelings, it's time for social commentary at the young but assured hands of prolific UTSA grad Jason Stout, whose MFA Satellite Space show takes on southern stereotypes and the politicians who exploit them in Honky Tonk Angels (Redneck Apparitions and Decadent Heroes). Stout, who is from western Tennessee, says his mother was worried that viewers would misread the appearance of the Confederate flag in his wildly populated drawings and paintings, but the "Redneck" who encounters the Republican political machine in one panel after another carries a wand that symbolizes his unrealized potential as he clings to handicapping vestige of the past. "You would never see a wealthy guy who is really racist wearing that `Confederate flag-bearing baseball` hat," says Stout. In his paintings (where his palette is less accomplished), a ghoulish spectre of Davy Crockett in a coonskin cap leaves a troubled legacy in his wake; in one small scene a Casper-like Klan hood looms in the dark.
His pen, ink, and brush drawings are a fascinating feast for the eye - a kaleidoscopic fusion of '60s-era British psychedelia (our misguided Redneck protagonist often brandishes a bag of homegrown pot) à la Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Monty Python, and contemporary comics rendered in black against melon and sherbert tones, with occasional gilding of the political machine.
Stout grew up in a single-mother household in a culture that rejected the notion of government assistance even though, he says, so many people clearly need it. He is fascinated with the difference between the path he has taken and the less-golden opportunities symbolized by an uncle who, he says, became a meth cook. It's a lot of material to work with, and Stout seems determined to cram it all into each frame.
His black-and-white etchings provide some visual respite. The mostly bubble-headed figures parade like Christmas angels with mouths frozen in hosannas, their bodies seemingly outlined in lights. Again, Stout is drawing on illustration's more recent history, with elements of '60s deconstructive psychedelia, which in turn mined Victorian tropes and elements.
Honky Tonk Angels, which is developing a rich, if somewhat undisciplined, visual language of its own, makes a nice contrast with the Toyists, whose work is currently on view at the Robot Art Gallery, the Bijou Theatre, and Twin Sisters downtown. Their guiding manifesto is secret, but it seems a component of it must be a translation of painting into pictographs. The images, which move fluidly from satire to whimsy, are so disciplined that they feel like a text waiting to be deciphered; we just need the Rosetta Stone. •
By Elaine Wolff