South Texas Sweet Funk

St. Edward’s University, Austin

“South Texas Sweet Funk,” affably inconclusive as a title but for its pithy connotations and desultory open-ended nature, is an art of eloquent content among other things: armadillos out of that gentle Austin congregation, Wonder Wart Hog, mama plants, the waggish not-so-dumb regard of vermicular noodles and weenies, a plucky flying machine consigned never to be wafted away—all as indigenous and as popular with a numerically indifferent, but esthetically demanding, clientele as the chili contest at Terlingua or the Huntsville Rodeo, though not as institutionalized. An assortment of some of its more picaresque topics appeared at St. Edward’s in an alert and erudite probe into a genuinely vital taproots/earthy art in Texas worth the probing.

As in much earlier identified funk art, this too may be securely regarded as ideologically private, typified by a built-in collective detachment from the public in general. Some of the work happens to be by artists of perhaps, in this context, lamentably wide repute, such as Luis Jimenez, or, more honorably, with alternative society credentials of long-standing, such as Gilbert Shelton and Jim Franklin, or, less accountably, of possible regional acceptance: the making of South Texas funk, being so entirely of personal motivation after all, seems a deliberate rejection merely of the most immediate and specific audience—but this only in the most candidly hostile communities where detachment itself is sometimes an effort, and the result is less sweet. In any case, the works hardly seethe with anarchy or tingle with shock. And you would search hard for serious tampering with occult mystiques: nobody’s taking time to consult the I Ching along Terry Allen’s Mexican border.

As usual, when considering a group, the concern is with a number of particulars, which here are extremely diversified, the stylistic differences being far more visibly apparent and esthetically significant than any similarities. But the genotype of funk has never seemed so much a unilateral manner as multiple manifestations of an attitude—accommodatingly spacious and porous and also exceedingly persistent. At the business end of the South Texas species, it may be college humor at its grittiest concentrated through generous experience into some native hard-core hedonism, understudied always with an astonishing degree of intellect. More common ground lies in the implication of a story-telling line, a puckish continuity in which each of the works might present some ongoing predicament, urgent or irrelevant, peopled by congenially assorted randy and quixotic subjects discovered askew in miscast materials.

A welcome relief is that the exhibition is not a trumped-up find: there is a skepticism about accepting out of hand the credibility of a contemporary collection that purports to be uniquely endemic. Besides those named, the artists are Barry Buxkamper, Mel Casas, Tom Cooney, Steve Gosnell, George T. Green, Frank Hein, Bobbie Moore, Jim Morris, June Robinson, Jim Roche, Robert Wade, Fred Whitehead and Glenn Whitehead. That constitutes some range, but still not a smidgen of doubt as to the authenticity, or about the qualitative representation of what the exhibit’s curator, Dave Hickey, intended: that “the show does define, in an embryonic way, a regional sensibility.” His selective nibbling at this sensibility, the very looseness and pervasiveness of which make it an elusive enterprise in any number of categories, is remarkable both for the singularity of the individual varieties and for the inclusive succinctness of the proof of the species. However complex the sources and even regardless of the good ones who got away, it seems unlikely that exposing it in plain sight in Austin has affected it very much one way or another.

Martha Utterback