Round 33: The Seventh House
Project Row Houses
David A. Feil
Charles Gaines, String Theory: Rewriting Fanon, 2010; installation at Project Row Houses, Houston; photo by Eric Hester
Rodney McMillian, portal: (a state of kemmering in the Council era of corrosion), 2010; installation at Project Row Houses, Houston; photo by Eric Hester
Round 33: The Seventh House is the latest exhibition in Project Row Houses’ ongoing series of four-month-long “artist rounds,” in which curators invite artists to engage with Houston’s Third Ward community. For this rotation, co-curators and contributors Edgar Arceneaux, artist and director of PRH’s kindred Watts House Project in Los Angeles, and artist Nery Gabriel Lemus collaborated with fellow LA-based artists Andrea Bowers, Charles Gaines, Olga Koumoundouros and Rodney McMillian. Working within a few set themes, such as “making material the immaterial,” each of the artists transformed one of six consecutive shotgun-style houses into its own stand-alone installation. The titular seventh house, serving the series’ goal of promoting dialogue and interaction with the surrounding neighborhood, is filled with books and artifacts that speak to the discourse that has grown between the visiting artists and functions as a community reading room for the Third Ward.
The necessary division of the exhibition into separate buildings and the come-and-go between the interior spaces and the quiet neighborhood street creates a rewarding dynamic. The Seventh House builds in an evenhanded way, its layered political messages tempered by the immediate reality waiting outside, namely, one of Houston’s oldest and historically impoverished black communities. Koumoundouros’ Accumulation of Mondays, occupying the westernmost house, sets the tone nicely for the exhibition as a whole. Inside, red and blue power cords reminiscent of arteries and veins run from the center of the ceiling to a bevy of hanging, organ-like forms made from empty food and drink containers, each encasing a light bulb and papered over with supermarket circulars. The visual pun is on circulation, pairing the constant exertion of human bodies to replenish themselves with the daily struggle to find necessary nourishment in a world of inequitably distributed goods. Remaining lit at all hours of the day, the house becomes a shrine to the unceasing search for sustenance.
McMillian’s portal: a state of kemmering in the Council-era of corrosion is more opaque, denying the visitor access to the house’s original rooms and creating instead a tunnel-like passage of hand-sewn black vinyl between the front and back doors. The complete absence of an interior space, leaving the viewer with only an ambivalent route between two exits, is meant to present a choice of self-identification. McMillian’s titling of the installation as a “state of kemmering,” a word used in Ursula K. Le Guin's classic sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness to describe a time when alien beings’ normally androgynous forms become gendered, turns his “portal” into a symbol of transformation. The idea resonates strongly with Bowers’ installation, Hope in Hindsight, which presents a collection of moments in Barack Obama’s rise to the U.S. presidency. Featuring a billboard-like façade that quotes an early fund-raising slogan and, on the interior back wall, a projection of handheld footage of his inauguration, the house space initially appears as a kind of museum celebrating the positivity of Obama’s campaign. At the front of the room, however, a looped video of a September 2010 public forum shows a woman asking the President whether her exhaustion at defending his administration is her “new reality.” Having chosen Obama’s campaign as a political identity, is she forever beholden to it as “reality,” or was it only ever, as McMillian might pose, a “state of kemmering,” a temporary coalescence of hope?
Nery Gabriel Lemus, Until the Day Breaks and Shadows Flee, 2010; installation at Project Row Houses, Houston; photo by Eric Hester
Andrea Bowers, Hope in Hindsight, 2010; installation at Project Row Houses, Houston; photo by Eric Hester
Lemus’ Until the Day Breaks and Shadows Flee similarly gathers its power by spanning different levels of artistic mediation. Inspired by images of domestic abuse in the sort of graphic novellas sold on newsstands in the LA neighborhood where he grew up, Lemus confronts the viewer with enlarged replicas of these fictitious images painted on the walls of the house, along with T-shirts emblazoned with true-life anti-abuse messages suspended from the room’s support column. This combination of appropriated graphics and firsthand creations by survivors of domestic violence breaks down the inherent solitude of the exhibition space and highlights the immediate relevance of the house setting, grounding the viewer once again in the neighborhood at large.
Presenting a literally sugar-coated representation of urban decay, Arceneaux contributes The Human Sugar Factory (one), a work that aims for aesthetic dissonance but ultimately feels unsuccessful. Half-destroyed cardboard boxes arranged on metal shelves and limned with blooms of crystallized sugar evoke the snow-laden ruins of former industrial centers like Detroit. Arceneaux’s concept and materials are promising. But for a work about social neglect, the purposefully neglectful presentation (i.e., dim lighting and stockroom milieu) undercuts the message’s strength and dispels any of the same human and domestic qualities that the other house spaces productively lend to the exhibition.
More tightly executed is Charles Gaines’ String Theory: Rewriting Fanon. Using self-imposed rules for word selection, Gaines has resequenced text from Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalytic study of race, Black Skin, White Masks (trans. from French, 1967). Gaines renders the new arrangements as wall-mounted drawings featuring perfectly lettered messages amid hazy smears of graphite. The works read as viable, grammatical expressions, and yet their inability to attain an ultimate argumentative clarity raises questions concerning the integrity of thought and critical discourse, and the amount of stress either can endure in being transformed from the immaterial to the material.
The seventh house serves as a locus for the sources, inspirations and remnants of the artists’ collaborations and conversations with each other and with the Project Row Houses community. This exchange is manifested in shelves of books and leaflets and in quotes from members of PRH’s Young Mothers program printed on the walls. Just as the movement between the houses allows viewers to reorient themselves physically in the full environment of the world, the seventh house provides a mental “outside” allowing for the fluctuation of thoughts and intentions beyond the scope of the discrete installations. With a feeling of final symmetry, the seventh house looks back to the first, showing a progression from the circulating sustenance of the body to that of the mind. As the viewer exits on the same neighborhood street that serves as the exhibition’s main corridor, a transformative power lingers.
David A. Feil is a writer and educator living in Houston and cofounder of the Andrus Studios Archive.