Hard by the freeway, a warehouse of creativity
by MIMI CROSSLEY Post Art Writer , Houston Post Nov. 1980
"JUST OVER A YEAR ago, sculptor James Surls opened Houston's first alternative gallery in an old warehouse off the Gulf Freeway, The day before the inaugural exhibition called POIV- WOW, water still covered the floor from a leak in the roof. Lighting could be adjusted only by, climbing up a ladder and screwing or unscrewing light bulbs. There was no air conditioning and no one wanted to put the uncertain wiring to the test anyhow.
Now, a year later, the Lawndale Annex has housed a dozen exhibitions of ' paintings and sculpture, and a series of video events. The art's quality has sometimes been uneven and ragged, but the gallery has also shown exciting discoveries. 'All the pieces in the shows have come from Houston artists, or from artist in surrounding states, presenting some of the best work being produced in the region though their art rarely appears in commercial galleries or local museums.
The shows, too, have become more professional, with track lighting, freshly painted gallery walls and even - for the recent exhibition of living Texas folk artist The Eyes of Texas- a catalog.
But most importantly, Lawndale has become the focal point for Houston artists who hope to someday establish the city’s first public arts center for painting, sculpture, dance, theater and photography being created here and now.
“We need someplace to take chances," Surls said in a recent interview, "The museums can't do it. The fine arts museums are historical, and the contemporary museum in Houston has a 10 year range of art, showing basically safe art with some controversy, but not much. It’s all art that has gone through the filtering process, and that’s all right. But we need some place for grass roots art, so it can rise, too.”
Surls, 33, has been the major force in launching the Lawndale Annex s an alternative to the museums and commercial art sales houses. His role as ad hoc art gallery director, friend, guru and father confessor to young artists in town is usual because Surls is now beginning to achieve his own success on the national art scene.
A one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Museum here in 1975 showed his carved - almost chopped - sculptures
made from rough-hewn logs. In Surls', work, totems and symbols are put together with a forceful but playful energy.
Many have to do with a kind of personal story-telling with a universal message. While Surls' work goes against the grain
of mainstream art being produced in, New York in the past decade, it has affinities with a lot of contemporary
image-makers: the work of Red Grooms and H.C. Westermann comes to mind.
In 1977, Surls’ sculpture was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and he received a federal commission
from the General Services Administration to do a piece for New Bedford, Mass, In 1979, his work was included in the
Whitney Museum Biennial, and he now has work in galleries in Manhattan, Dallas, New Orleans and the West Coast.
Currently, Surls and his wife, sculptor Charmaine Locke, are exhibiting work at an alternative art space in Dallas
"There have been times as I swept water out of the Lawndale Gallery that I asked myself what I was doing there," Surls admitted, "But it just has to be done."
The idea of an alternative space for art in Houston was born out of the large, regional exhibition titled Fire, organized by Surls for the Contemporary Arts Museum in 1979. For that effort, Suds chose 100 artists to produce 100 works. The sculptor promoted the idea of a kind of romantic, image-making revival from the Texas and "Southern Rim" region.
But the CAM was between directors and direction; the energy produced by, the Fire show had no place to go. At first, Lawndale seemed an unlikely alternative. The warehouse out on the Gulf Freeway was an old wire and rope plant donated to the University of Houston 101' storage space, After a fire on the central campus destroyed the UH Art Annex,' the art department temporarily moved its painting and sculpture studios to the empty side of the Lawndale
worker, artist Frank Fajardo, who was curator for Loz Bizzsrros, one of the most challenging of the group shows hung in the space.
The current exhibition of works by four graduate students, Jeff Delude" Kelly Alison, Jim Poag and Judy Long, was chosen because their strong imagist painting has close relationships.
Lawndale has also put on theme shows that include works from Houston, Galveston and Austin artists and even the Great Gator Croup from Shreveport. One of the major discoveries coming out of the Lawndale Annex has been the
sculpture and wall hangings of Clyde Connell, a Louisiana artist virtually unknown outside, a circle of friends until she was given an exhibition by the Tyler Museum last year. "If there is a flower in the South, it is Clyde Connell," Surls
said of the works done by the 80-year-old sculptor, who calls many of her works "Swamp songs."
The Lawndale Annex resolutely refuses to get involved in selling work, and does not take a commission for any sales the artist might have as a result of an exhibition. "I'm not against the gallery system," Surls said. "It helped me a lot.
But we need to have a place where shows can be seen outside a commercial con text. Most of these works wouldn't be
seen at all if sales were the most Important thing."
The openness of the program, its lack I of ties to any specific political art group and it removal from gallery sales are
what marks Lawndale as a true alternative space. . Another major influence has been the recent rise of other open artist- run spaces around the country: the P.S. One space in New York, an artists' center in Little Rock, Ark., and the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans are all prototypes for a fledgling Houston effort.
"Every time two or three artists see each other in Houston today, they talk about an arts center for Houston. If we all got together, we could do it by next "Friday," Surls predicts.
THE LAWNDALE ANNEX may be a focal point for what can emerge in an arts center, but it probably will not be the final place, Surls said. "Right now, it's too out of the way." Instead, the sculptor is working on a, five-year development plan to get the Lawndale gallery running smoothly so he can step aside. "We need to establish an advisory board, gather some financial" support, fix-up a few physical things, and make contact with a lot of other departments at the university to share projects, such as making the building more energy efficient. "
Currently, Lawndale is a place "where" artists from all over can traffic through" here. Everybody benefits," said Surls.
The Lawndale Annex is located at 5600 Hillman at Dismuke. Exit the Gulf Free- way at Telephone Road, proceed on the service road to Lawndale, turn under the freeway and immediately veer right up Dismuke. The gallery is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from .noon to 5 p.m.