Critics’ Picks

Donald Moffett, Untitled (The Public), 2002, video projection, oil and enamel on linen, 45 x 60".

Donald Moffett, Untitled (The Public), 2002, video projection, oil and enamel on linen, 45 x 60".


Donald Moffett

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
5216 Montrose Boulevard
October 1, 2011–January 8, 2012

What Barbara Jordan wore was pink, a glorious fuschia, when she intoned her famous words at Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing in 1972: “My faith in the constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.” A lawyer, congresswoman, and black woman from Texas, Barbara Jordan’s pink suit, and indeed her entire countenance, remains an important contra to the pale male club of politics. Video of her speech, asynchronously looped, is thrown onto three golden-hued paintings in What Barbara Jordan Wore, 2002, one of two works regarding impeachment that anchor and bookend Donald Moffett’s current retrospective, “The Extravagant Vein.” In the year of the Arab Spring, and in light of the rising unrest here at home, Moffett’s gesture toward the messiness of insurrection and deposition is a poetic reminder to the viewer of their own latent power. Whether Moffett is undercutting power—by reproducing lithographs of military figures with colorful pornostats added, calling one stoic officer a FIERCE BOTTOM, for example—or elegizing grassroots activism, as he does in the starkly lit installation of his aluminum “Hippie Shit” paintings (complete with schmaltzy harmonica music), the artist proves himself to be keenly aware of the slow-build and static-filled hum of revolutionary moments.

For those who don’t want to think about such things, there’s another intriguing connective thread in “The Extravagant Vein,” which is the formal way Moffett uses paint: It is extruded, woven, tangled, layered in ribbons or fashioned into shag carpets of spikes. But even these can become diagrammatic ways of thinking about social power. Formal elements, such as the positions of the speakers of IMPEACH, 2006, arranged circularly in a claustrophobic triangular space, facilitate an activated politics. In this sound work, the voice of Representative John Lewis gives a brief and affecting testimony in regard to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, comparing America to his own family bracing for an apocalyptic storm. The presiding gavel comes down in thunderous rhythms, moving like a poltergeist across the room alternately buried in and resonating from speakers. The man is shouting at the top of his lungs, wholly, completely and totally, in the most hallowed of halls. If the word impeach is an epic poem, as Donald Moffett has said, the sonic and visual reverberations of that strange word found in “The Extravagant Vein” are dissertations on elegance, novels on power.