Close your eyes and picture something delicately subversive, femininely masculine, perplexing and just plain sweet. Now don't open your eyes until you get to the 'loin and head into White Walls Gallery to see the work of artist Jim Houser. You'll see what I'm getting at.
On election eve, I went to see Richard Colman and Jim Houser's duo show, Awful Mountain in hopes of diverting my nervous attention toward rainbows. I'd missed Colman's previous show at White Walls and looked forward to an up-close inspection of his massive paintings. His characters and compositions, while contemporary, are also reminiscent of art from the Middle Ages. Loaded with tiled rainbow patterns, the pieces were the perfect introduction to the pot of gold in the back gallery space -- Houser's incredible installation of paintings and objects.
The installation's palette was both warm and cool, shades of turquoise and reddish brown abounded. Walls were painted right down to the outlet coverings with big characters, including one that was sculptural -- a sad but peaceful blue figure with his arms in the air and three-dimensional handmade arrows puncturing his chest. A stack of small amps sat in a corner with painted ropes acting as electrical cords, connecting them to handcrafted plants. There were candles on the floor throughout the installation, some with little notes tucked underneath.
Houser considered every corner of the space and there was a sense that he'd also been thoughtful of each potential viewer. Each piece was made with care and attention to detail. Simple stringed instruments hung on the walls, and tiny cubes, painted to look like bricks, had paper sprouts growing from them. And then there were the words. Everywhere I turned, there was something painted in a fragile script that must've been done with a single-hair brush. Every object had something to say. Like calculated, obsessive notes, phrases were related but rarely repeated. My favorite lines were about subtlety. "Subtle like the jargon of criminals." "Subtle like the air around a bird's wing." "Subtle like a rare book." "Subtle like a hand not being held." Phrases like these were scattered throughout the paintings, linking each piece to one another. When I came across a nickel-sized image of a hand painted directly on the wall and labeled "hold," I felt I'd discovered some intimate meaning in this seemingly nonsensical puzzle. Jim Houser likes to hold hands.
Other subjects addressed: ghosts, teeth, machines, pills, and animals. Houser is prolific: photos can be found online of equally complex installations at galleries coast to coast. He designs skateboards, and he's a musician, which could explain the lyrical nature of the text in his art. He is not the product of a fancy art school, though he did work as a parking attendant at RISD. I learned this in a 2007 interview (at fecalface.com), where I also read an excellent piece of advice from the artist -- "Give away your first 100 paintings." I'm up to number 86.
Awful Mountain is on view through December 7, 2008 at White Walls Gallery in San Francisco.