The Final Four

The artists up for the first Arthouse Texas Prize talk about their work

In just two weeks, Arthouse will hand out its first-ever Texas Prize, a historic award that, thanks to the $30,000 check attached, makes it the largest regional art award in the country. Since Sept. 9, Arthouse has been exhibiting works by the four finalists for the 2005 prize: Eileen Maxson, Robyn O'Neil, and Robert A. Pruitt, all of Houston; and Ludwig Schwarz of Dallas. In anticipation of the announcement of the prize winner on Nov. 4, the Chronicle spoke with the finalists about their work and the creation of it.

"Arthouse Texas Prize 2005: Eileen Maxson, Robyn O'Neil, Robert A. Pruitt, Ludwig Schwarz" is on view through Nov. 14 at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, 700 Congress.

The recipient of the prize will be announced at the Arthouse Texas Prize Party 2005: Texas Excess on Friday, Nov. 4. For more info, call 453-5312 or visit

<i>Grand Opening</i>
Grand Opening

Eileen Maxson

"I got an e-mail from [Arthouse director] Sue Graze asking me to call her, and I knew that I had been nominated, but when I called I thought that it was a mistake or something," recalls the 25-year-old Houston artist. "So I called her back, and she told me I was one of the finalists, and I was really surprised. And happy." Maxson works primarily in video, using images to challenge viewers' perceptions of the media. For the Arthouse exhibition, she developed a new video installation titled Grand Opening.

The Final Four

"My original idea was something similar to an amusement park ride, having to do with movement of a line and the controlled experience of a ride. The things that I was interested in were theatrical design, like set design. When you go to Disney World or Disneyland, it's all kind of a set: fabricated and all the scaling is wrong – I think it's seven-eighths scale. So that's something I incorporated into the piece.

"The other thing that really influenced this work is the grand opening of the Texas-sized IKEA in Houston the first week of August 2004. When thinking about the idea of the Texas Prize, I started to think about what that means and also to incorporate how I see the landscape of Texas, which in Houston even more so than in Austin is strip malls. Where I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, every single building looks exactly like the building that I made in the gallery. With the IKEA opening, I saw some people camping by the side of the freeway, and what was interesting to me was what the setting is when you're between I-10 and a furniture store, but these people had real experiences, like a church service. They had a community that came out of this commercial experience. There are all these different dynamics that went into it, like the woman who won had camped out on the side of IKEA in August in Houston for eight days. And IKEA was really humane about it. They pumped power to people, so people had air conditioning and televisions and PlayStations and stuff like that. It wasn't like Hands on a Hard Body, where it was all about how much you could endure. A lot of these kids were from high school and didn't go anywhere for their summer vacation, so this was kind of their vacation, their way of doing something out of the ordinary.

"Two things that I was thinking a lot about in the design process were the collapsing of three dimensions to two dimensions, like when you're looking at the front of the piece there's actual depth to it, you can walk into it, but on the sides it collapses into the wall, and if you stand on the side of the piece, you can't discern where the art ends and the wall begins. Also, I was thinking a lot about dream sequences and acceptance speeches, because, going back to the IKEA grand opening, the woman who won ended up giving this kind of impromptu acceptance speech for a television camera, thanking her family, and something about it seemed surreal, like it wasn't really happening, it was this dream she was having, so that's something I tried to achieve with the way you walk into the piece and the way it collapses is very dreamlike. When you walk into the window, though, you have to deal with this combination of a dream world, which is the piece, and the real world, which is outside the window.

"Ultimately, it was the way that I envisioned it, but it was much more complicated than I thought it would be. I've done one other installation, but I don't have any building experience. I had a lot of help from the crew at Arthouse. A friend of mine was helping me the day we decided to use sheetrock. I had no idea how to do it. So that was kind of the process for the whole piece, coming up with an idea and not really knowing how to do it and solving the problems as you go."

<i>As darkness falls ...</i>
As darkness falls ...

Robyn O'Neil

"I was stunned," says Robyn O'Neil of the moment she learned she was a Texas Prize finalist. "I immediately told myself to not get my hopes up because this is a tough competition and could be a little stressful if I focus on what the end result would be. I just decided to enjoy the ride." The 28-year-old is known for her large-scale drawings of mysterious snowy landscapes populated by tiny figures, one of which was selected for the Whitney's "2004 Biennial." Her work in the Arthouse exhibition includes two works that have not been exhibited in Texas.

The Final Four

"My drawings simply take so long to make that we all knew there would be no way for me to create anything new for this show in the time frame allowed. These large-scale drawings take up to about six months. I was thankful to Arthouse for allowing me to show work that I had already made.

"[Exhibition curator] Regine Basha and I talked it over and found two large drawings that had never had a place in Texas. One drawing had only been shown briefly in Palm Beach, Fla., and the other was a drawing I was working on while we were developing the Arthouse show. This drawing, As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand, was about to be shown in my solo show in New York, and we knew not many people from Texas would see it, so we decided that after the show closed in New York, we would bring it home for a while. The timing was perfect.

"[As darkness falls ...] definitely was a new direction [for me] conceptually. My work has a tendency to be melancholy and downcast. It is usually about isolation and an inability to connect. This piece is a diversion in that it is a celebration of goodness, kindness. The drawing is about forming relationships with others. You see men listening attentively and shaking hands, hugging. Everyone in the drawing is forming bonds and being appreciated for doing so. This was a big break for me in that I never felt comfortable showing the good side of life without showing the bad side next to it. This time, it just felt right to make the entire drawing, all 500 men, happy and connected.

"I studied many different approaches to altarpiece painting, especially that of the Italian Renaissance. Many of them were triptychs, and some had up to nine panels. I just made hundreds of sketches of all of my options for making a multipaneled piece and slowly came up with what I thought of as a perfect size and shape. So, even though it originated with an art-historical reference, it ended up being based on my instincts of what makes an engaging shape. I wanted to make sure that the eye ended up in the upper portion of the center panel; I wanted the whole drawing to point to the part where the two trees are embracing. The shape I made up ended up doing exactly that. I will say it was the most time-consuming of anything I have ever made. Towards the end of the process I felt like I was close to both a physical and mental breakdown. It was definitely a love-hate relationship.

"The inclusion of the smaller piece, And he shall leave his brethren to love that which is flawed and harmless, was a group decision as well. At first we figured the big ones would be fine on their own, but I am always making these smaller drawings as I make the big ones, so it seemed appropriate to show what the smaller size has to offer. They are almost like excerpted vignettes from the large work and have a way of pinpointing one small act rather than showing the multistoried narrative. It is important to see both approaches."

<i>Do This in Remembrance of Me</i>
Do This in Remembrance of Me

Robert A. Pruitt

Robert A. Pruitt is very surprised that his work has garnered the attention that it has, but he's happy about it. "Making art is what allows me to exist in my neighborhood as a historian or something like that." From his studio in Houston's Third Ward, Pruitt creates objects and images that expound on the black condition in America. For the Arthouse exhibition, he developed a new installation titled Do This in Remembrance of Me.

The Final Four

"It's a communion table/DJ table. There are a couple of iPod minis back there, so people are invited to go back and mix and play the music that's on it. And the music that's on it is all music by dead rappers, so it's an altarpiece.

"I do a lot with music, but this piece came out of a different situation, I guess. The Wu-Tang Clan member Ol' Dirty Bastard, when he passed away, I was really disappointed with some of the media coverage. People just treated him as a joke. I understand he was sort of a ridiculous character in the news and stuff like that, but at least allow the person respect when they die. I felt like there was no respect. And I was thinking about all these rappers that they do that to, and I wanted to have sort of a sufficient memorial for them. The first thing I thought of was the whole idea of communion, partaking of that person, so playing their music as partaking of what they left behind.

"The altar is meant to reference Yoruban and Santerian altars, the sort of mix of Catholicism and African religions, but I'm no expert on any of that stuff. I just wanted to give the feel of that. A lot of the work I do makes references to African culture, and I always try to make that connection between African culture and African-American culture, even if it's indirect. I basically just picked stuff that I liked and that felt right, things that had some spiritual or reverential iconography to them, like the lamb. Cotton. Mud from the Mississippi. Wine. Hair. Recently I went to Tanzania, and I bought some of the sculptures there – the mask, the headdress.

"In using the music, I could have done it with just turntables, but I wanted to use technology that was really of the moment, because I feel like black folks have always existed in that in-between space, like holding on to really old beliefs and values and also being forced into the future and using new technology. Like hip-hop came from kids reinventing turntables. Creating new things has always been a part of our culture and also maintaining that link with the past. Or trying to.

"Ol' Dirty Bastard was part of the Five Percent Nation. It's an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, and his music and Wu-Tang Clan were about that kind of spirituality, and if you listen to a lot of rap music, religion and spirituality are never very far from it. Black culture in general has always relied very heavily on spirituality, so for me the connection is sort of obvious. It's such a platform on which we exist. I do pieces that are sort of one-liners or jokes, they're pretty easy to decipher. But what's behind those are serious issues. To me, the way his death was treated is for me a serious issue about race and class. But I want people who come in to be able to read it and then go into the other levels of it. I've always stayed away from making work that was too thick or too heady, and I don't mean that it's not intellectual, because I think all the references and all the things that I'm talking about are very smart as issues and interesting. A lot of artists say this, but I want my mother to be able to come in and get the point of this. And if she doesn't get the point that I'm making, to find an opening into it."

<i>Family Portrait</i>
Family Portrait

Ludwig Schwarz

"I expected it," says Ludwig Schwarz about making the Texas Prize final four. The deadpan assertion is quickly followed by a joker's laugh, but the 41-year-old East Dallas conceptual artist insists that he "put a lot of work into the application process," making a video and writing music specifically for the jury. "I gave it my best shot, and my best shot was good enough. I'm thrilled." Schwarz's work is a theatrical blend of videos, music, paintings he has made himself and paintings of photographs, collages, and computer drawings that he has sent to a factory of academically trained artists in China.

The Final Four

"They basically make paintings, a lot of copied paintings, you know, mostly masterworks from the 20th century, for hotels and whatnot. [I give them] an image and size specifications. The first time, [I got] four paintings just because I wanted to see what they looked like. And one was really great, it was the best gift I've ever received. It was a picture of a computer collage I made of a found photograph from the Fifties, a woman in high school, and it had a Photoshop smear on it, just a play on bad, formless trickery and for my own amusement, and some text and a mark on it, and it came back bang-on perfect. Weird, very weird.

"Once I saw them, I decided to do a couple of large-scale paintings, and then I decided that I wanted to do a show in four places simultaneously and make an edition of four. I only found one space to do it, but I wanted them to exist, because I could tell that they're made by hand. It's kind of a play on the photographic process, the print process. They're not really the same. I have an edition here, and they look different. There are minor variations, yet they're all fairly accurate. It's kind of remarkable. When I got the four editions from this, I could barely afford to make small-size [versions], but I decided I'm going to do this project, because now is a good opportunity and I owe it to myself with this Arthouse thing, and why not?

"[When I put it up originally] it was accompanied by this rock & roll stuff, a piece of music I wrote to match an odd time signature from the B-side, first song on a Yes album called Relayer, and the song is called "Sound Chaser." The whole piece is based on originality and interpretation. I come from an arts high school, and all my buddies are musicians, a lot of them really brilliant. I just recently discovered the beauty that is Yes, the weirdness of Yes, and I found Alan White to be a fantastic drummer, even though every drummer will say Bill Bruford is better. So I had my friend, who is a great drummer for a band called Spin Doctors and is a brilliant musician, interpret that whole drum section, and I wrote a different piece of music to it. So that became the backdrop to the opening. There was also a variation on the Law and Order theme, and a double loop of John Cage's 4'33" – nine minutes, six seconds of silence. That's sort of when you go back to the paintings and realize that this is theatre, and then you back into this really loud ...

"It's a kinetic space, it's theatre, so it's not like a pull-up-a-chair kind of an activity, unless you're in a museum show and you really enforce that. I always hated that when I go to a museum. I need quick hits and quick fixes and sweet and tender moments.

"I love to paint, but painting is dead. Again. And you have to keep reminding yourself that it's dead again. And it's dead again. So I've never exhibited paintings, unless it's a group show. But showing paintings and having another element has always been fun. So the sweet moment would be it's only another object and it happens within real time, and that's the beauty of the activity. It's just another temporary state, and you go through it, and hopefully you have fun."

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