Thereby Hangs a Tale-Siren’s Song at Ruben Center

And the word went forth throughout the land-there shall be no more narrative. And so the Clement Greenberg preached, and so the people listened. And they did sorely beat Robert Matta about the head and shoulders, for though he taught of what was to become action painting, he still wanted narrative and this was anathema and so he was exiled. And so begat action painting, and abstract expressionism and color field theory and all such manner of art. And there arose Jacques Derrida who said-well, no one is really sure what Derrida said-something along the lines of the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts; the whole is the sum of its parts, and let us explore those parts and see what else we can make of them. Thus was deconstructionism born. And the people heard and listened and so it was for many years until finally the people chafed and slowly the people began to complain and they asked and where is the narrative style we once found so pleasing and the winds began to shift and a new spirit began to be found upon the land.
The Siren’s Song-contemporary narrative painting- currently on view at the Ruben Center is a superb show as much for what it makes us think about as for the individual works. This is narrative forged from decades of deconstructionist thought, and while one might question some of the choices in terms of the show’s themes, it merely points to the difficulty of finding one’s way along a new path.
If there is any sort of common thread here, it might be said to be the use of individual elements put in the service of story telling through symbol or stand-in. We have works which are part of a larger story; we have works which invoke symbols to create narrative; we have narrative as obscure background and we have narrative simply prompted by reminders.
Ali Fitzgerald has two enormous painted pieces of canvas hanging from the ceiling. In the first, we are in an airplane, and the second is simply blue sky. On the first canvas, we see the cockpit of the airplane as well as the passenger area. The passengers are composed of clothed individuals with no heads and the protagonist whole but naked. Entitled “A Trenchcoat and its Body Stall out at the Gates. This comes from a book called The Phantom and the Traveling Trenchcoat which follows a traveling trenchcoat in all sorts of situations around the world. The book, unsuitable for children, marvelous for adults, is on a nearby shelf.
So this is narrative as we are perhaps more accustomed to it. There are situations portrayed which prove to be part of a longer narrative and elements such as an empty trenchcoat which simply by their presence help tell a story. I couldn’t help thinking of the old Sabine and Griffin books, which although totally different in style and tone nevertheless told a story in a similar manner.
Next to this is Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Sesom’s Mission”. This too is drawn from a world Hancock has created involving two groups-the Vegans, who are here considered nasty. bad and eschewing all forms of pleasure including color. music etc., and the Mounds-who are delightful and wonderful eaters of dead animals. Sesom, whose name you will note is Moses spelled backwards, here is shown hearing the voice of The Painter, who reveals to him the world of color and and meat eating and Sesom goes on to bridge the two worlds. This canvas is covered with words as well as an image of Sesom hearing the voice of Painter.
So these two paintings are fairly straight forward narrative paintings-part of a series which tells a tale and creates a world. Across from them is a different type of work altogether, and, in fact, one which though fascinating, might not actually belong here. Entitled “Good Government”, it is David McGee’s take on recent political disasters invoking the spirit of Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. This is essentially a series of large pieces of paper each carrying one image which stands for a political leader or a concept. There is the name Rumsfeld underneath the drawing of a child’s hobby horse; there is a black raven portraying Cheney. There is a portrait of Bush under which is written Ahab. This is just above a picture of a whale, invoking Moby Dick, which has the name Nasrani. Apparently this is an Islamic word meaning Christian. There is a rifle called Pequod pointing at a picture of Frederick Douglas.
This is a powerful piece necessitating reflection and study, but I am not sure if it can be called narrative as much as commentary. Dr Kelly Baum, who curated the show, would undoubtedly say both, but I am unsure if invoking a long narrative (Moby Dick) makes the piece itself properly a narrative. This is simply, I think part of the problem inherent in picking one’s way through something of a new construct.
Similarly there are two works by Kirk Hayes-”Only a Flesh Wound” and Existential Penguin” which are delightful trompe l’oeil pieces, but whose inclusion is questionable from the standpoint of theme. Hayes has made what look to be assemblages of cardboard and found objects, but which in reality is exclusively paint. There is simply one object in each painting, and it would appear that something has happened to it. In both cases they look wounded so some sort of event has occurred, hence their inclusion in the show. Indeed at the opening several people voiced the opinion that these were their favorite works.
Hillary Wilder’s site installation piece “A Castle Dark, Sunset” might be construed as narrative as background. This is a dark brooding piece, the sky taking up the majority of the painting. Outside of the canvas along the walls of the gallery is design and several long stripes. The painting references Cathy Smith, who had been the inspiration for Gordon Lightfoot’s song Sundown, and who had been alone in the room at Chateau Marmont with John Belushi when he died. None of this is readily apparent-the references include the fact that the stripes were from Lightfoot’s touring bus, as well as some design taken from Smith’s wallpaper, and the castle references Chateau Marmont, but one has to read the labels to know any of this so this is narrative running underneath the surface rather than out front as is customary.
There is no room here to mention many of the other excellent pieces in this show. This originally showed at the Arthouse as well as the Galveston Art center before its final stop here. We are lucky to have this show, and Dr. Kelly Baum, who is assistant curator at the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin is to be commended for her work. She is curating something we have not seen for awhile. And yet, it occurred to me as I was leaving this show that we have seen this before-this use of elements in service of a narrative. Medieval paintings of martyred Saints used precisely this technique. St. Catherine with her wheel, for instance, was designed to remind of the story as were other similar pictures. the representation, the colors, symbolic, helped tell a story. And William Villalongo’s painting on velvet called Earth, Wind and Fire and a tribute to the those who suffered through Hurricane Katrina, invokes not only what he has termed African-American Kitsch but through his colors and forms-heads surrounded by fire- a more ancient reference, that of the Tibetan Thanka.
A great show, providing proof of the resurgent interest in narrative and the importance of the curator who like the storyteller is charged with the responsibility of creating order and pattern from raw material.-David Sokolec


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