Texas Oil: Painting and Money at Texas Contemporary Art Fair

As the Houston Fine Art Fair is in full swing, one can’t help but think of her younger, hotter sister, Texas Contemporary Art Fair, which finished its three day run last week. Here’s an overview of the state of painting at this year’s Texas Contemporary. Seth Orion Schwaiger, Austin Contributor

Donnie Molls | 
Oil Field 1, 2014, mixed media and oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Edward Cella Art + Architecture

There’s not much of an argument for saying that either fair is reflective of art making in Texas. HFAF is a bit more upfront about this getting right down to the point, “aspiring to reflect Houston’s sophisticated collecting practices.” That’s just to say, like most art fairs, this is about buying and selling more than curatorial integrity or artistic merit. There are still some great work to see, and fortunately much of that is coming from Texas artists. That's against the odds when you take a look at the list of exhibiting partners from each fair. New York and LA easily outnumber Texas galleries, and San Antonio and Austin have close to zero representation.

Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to see what folks believe will find a collector here in the Lone Star State. As might be expected, painting plays a dominant role followed by anything else that hangs neatly over a sofa. Within that category, polite formalism seems to be the most common. As tasteless as they are, terms like “zombie formalism” or “crapstraction” may be close to the mark for some of these works. I even heard a dealer say to a buyer, “sure, you can hang that sideways if you want, after you buy it you can do whatever you’d like with it.”

Rising above that lot while still working in the realm of abstraction are artists like Owen Falco Drysdale, Dan Sutherland, and Darren Waterson.

Dan Sutherland | Parfait, 2014, oil on aluminum, 10 x 8.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dutton

Dan Sutherland | Night, 2012, oil on aluminum, 10 x 8.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dutton

Austin based artist Dan Sutherland was represented by two galleries at the fair (Sonia Dutton of New York, and Betty Moody of Houston) despite the fact that no commercial Austin galleries participated. Dan's works have a quality to them that's based in observation even though the results are clearly not representational. He builds tension between illusory three dimensional space and flatness, and between believable texture and even-toned graphic elements. At Dutton's, that tension was strong enough to maintain a viewer's interest, even when displayed close to this attention-grabbing mechanical sculpture.

Juan Fontanive | Ornithology A., 2014, CMYK 4-color screen print on Bristol delrin, aluminum, motor and electronics, 4 x 4 x 5 inches.

Back to painting –

At Barbara Davis Gallery newcomer Owen Falco Drysdale's abstract works have Sutherland's same grounded quality rooted in observation. Unlike Sutherland, whose additional strengths largely exist in solid forms, textures and unpredictable palette, Drysdale excels in atmosphere and restraint. Empty Room is typical of Drysdale's approach, conjuring up a mysterious haze and containing it in a dimensional rendering through the use of deft perspective marks, like a brief architectural notation clarifying the unclarifiable.

Owen Falco Drysdale | Empty Room, 2014, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Barbara Davis Gallery

Owen Falco Drysdale | untitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Barbara Davis Gallery

The more established Darren Waterston was also showing work at the fair through Inman Gallery. Waterston's doing some interesting installation work lately using Whistler's Peacock Room as inspiration. In Waterston's version, now open at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Whistler's lavish Peacock Room is shown in a state of disrepair, shelves collapsing, mantle's decaying, and priceless pottery smashed on the floor. That sort of actorless violence and the drama of decay can also be found in his paintings, boiled down to simple shape and color.

Darren Waterston | Uncertain Beauty, 2014, mixed media installation.

Darren Waterston | Ecstatic State, 2013, oil on panel, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Inman Gallery

Representational work has a place at the fair as well with interesting works by Patti Oleon, Alejandro Diaz Ayala, Karim Hamid, Donnie Molls (title image), and Vincent Valdez.

Gallerists Cris Worley put all her bets on painter Patti Oleon, which turned out to be a pretty good idea. Worley's doubled down on that bet with an upcoming solo show scheduled for the artist opening November 22nd in Dallas. I won't say that Oleon's works are hyperrealistic, but they are very photo-like. They include the type of blurring and sliding exposure native to traditional film, a motif Oleon capatilizes on to invoke nostalgia. In the paintings at Texas Contemporary Oleon focused on symmetrical luxury interiors. Interestingly, it wasn't readily clear whether the symmetry was a product of post-production image manipulation, or the original state of the pristine environment. For my own tastes, I valued the works that broke out of the formula and demonstrated an approximate symmetry or an unusual angle over those that seemed kaleidoscopicly perfect.

Patti Oleon | Mirrors & Lights, 2010, oil on panel, 2010, 48 x 34 inches. Courtesy of Cris Worley Fine Arts

Patti Oleon | Plant, 2009, oil on panel, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Cris Worley Fine Arts

Kirk Hopper Fine Art exhibited compelling works by Alejandro Diaz Ayala. These paintings exist in that neo-Bacon style championed by Adrian Ghenie that's becoming increasingly fashionable. Diaz puts a lighthearted spin on this brooding style with the incorporation of pop elements, youth culture and collage-based thinking.

Alejandro Diaz Ayala | That's a Shitload of BalloonsI, 2012, mixed media on canvas, 49 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Kirk Hopper Fine Art

Alejandro Diaz Ayala | untitled, 2014, mixed media on paper, 30 x 25 inches. Courtesy of Kirk Hopper Fine Art

Karim Hamid's works, shown at Aureus Contemporary's booth, are cousin to Ayala's. Hamid's practice references the historical male gaze and objectification of women in art – but the works chosen for Texas Contemporary seem to be taking part in that objectification just as much as critiquing it. The portrait obliteration implemented by Hamid (a lá Bacon and Ghenie) serves to wipeout male identity in the work, leaving only the flirtatious female protagonist left as subject. It certainly is referencing a problem throughout art history with how women are represented, but I can't find how it's any different. Hamid's a skilled and informed painter, and the bulk of his works are more nuanced. Given the paintings chosen however, and the context of the fair, the gallery looks like they are banking on the concept of sex sells – deeply ironic given the artist's apparent objective.

Karim Hamid | Double Portrait (det), 2009, oil on board, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Aureus Contemporary

David Shelton dedicated one entire booth to Vincent Valdez's colossal Requiem 1 and Black Flag which may be the most overtly political works at the fair – refreshing in itself. It is a bit of a ham fisted approach in concept (war is bad, dead American dream, etc. etc.) but the technique and ambition of the work can't be denied. Still, I'm much more a fan of his graphite series The Strangest Fruit which were also on exhibition. These are just as technically proficient as Requiem 1, but the concepts behind The Strangest Fruit match that complexity, delving into issues of religion, Latino stereotypes, machismo, cultural synthesis, and the complex relationship between these and closeted sexuality.

Vincent Valdez | installation view of Requiem 1, 2014, oil on canvas, 136 x 85 inches, and Black Flag, 2012, lithographic crayon on canvas, 11.5 x 22 inches.

Vincent Valdez | The Strangest Fruit 1, 2014, graphite on paper, 40 x 26 inches.

Vincent Valdez | The Strangest Fruit 3, 2014, graphite on paper, 40 x 26 inches.

Vincent Valdez | The Strangest Fruit 5, 2014, graphite on paper, 40 x 26 inches.

Others don't fall so neatly into those categories of abstract and representative approaches. Marjorie Schwarz seems to be neither (or both). Her paintings in Sonia Dutton's booth at a distance feel like pure shape, but on approach crystalize into recognizable objects, each with their own ghostly aura. After 50 laps around the fair, Schwarz's work were some of the few that I could still enjoyably sink into.

Marjorie Schwarz | untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dutton

Marjorie Schwarz | untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dutton

The works at The Public Trust's booth by Ryan Humphrey also defy easy categorization. Humphrey uses the aesthetic of utilitarian things, in this instance police tape, and the geometry of caution signs, and places them into a new context as paintings, a place where the viewer can evaluate and respond to them as aesthetic and conceptual forms. Two of these at the fair were of an oblong shape with skateboard trucks mounted to their birch ply surfaces, though the artist assures me they aren't meant to be seen as skateboards, rather, "paintings that you can ride".

Ryan Humphrey | installation view of works at The Public Trust's booth.

The key to having a good time at these sorts of things is to take them for what they are, a bunch of galleries who just spent thousands for a 100 square feet all vying with each other to make their investment back amongst a crowd of folks who are looking for something to decorate their home or office. There’s usually some interesting work to see if your willing to find it – there certainly was this time around. Should that fail just do what I do; give yourself $30 to blow on breakfast at the nicest hotel close to the convention center, then, eavesdrop on conversation. There’s something so delightfully base about talk that oscillates between the qualities of such and such painting, and the projected price per barrel of oil – like watching a Texas soap opera. With that setting the tone for the day, any piece of compelling art seen in route is just a bonus.



Seth Orion Schwaiger is a critic, curator, and artist based in Austin, Texas, and Glasgow, Scotland. His research interests include the development of arts systems with particular focus on the growth and direction of urban and regional art scenes in relation to larger national and international trends. He is a frequent contributor to many publications including Arts+Culture, The Austin Chronicle, Glasstire, and Sculpture Magazine. 


Follow him on twitter @sethschwaiger, and visit his website


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