Houston

“Ultralounge”

DiverseWorks

In his essay for “Ultralounge: The Return of Social Space (with Cocktails),” critic Dave Hickey, who curated this exhibit of eleven young artists based largely in Las Vegas and on the West Coast, dubbed his show a “piece of concrete journalism” that would document a shift in attitude among the participants, away from the exalted realm of museum-sanctioned high culture and toward an aesthetic that affirms the casual social environment of the artists. With the idea that a retro-hip lounge is much more their milieu than the sterile white cube of a museum, Hickey extensively redecorated Diverse-Works’s warehouse space, installing a big parabolic drop ceiling over the entrance, painting the walls taupe, and setting out a black boomerang-shaped Astroturf throw rug. Projections of schematic palm trees lit two of the room’s corners. Even the labels identifying the artists, placed at waist level in large, looping script on the walls near their works, had an offbeat feel.

The light level was generally low, which both contributed to the club atmosphere and allowed fluorescent paintings by Jack Hallberg and Yek to glow under ultraviolet tubes. Yek’s concave panels consist of a single crisply linear element on a shifting airbrushed ground. Each line begins as straight as a Newman zip and terminates in a looping flourish of curves, calling to mind an imaginary Arabic calligraphy. Hallberg’s bulbous organic shape evoke plastic plankton or lysergic mandalas made of dollops of fluorescent paint, which he has arranged like beads on a neutral ground. The images don’t seem to be at home on the canvas; they are always intersecting the edges of the picture plane as though the painting has been arbitrarily cropped from a much larger field.

Sun Porch Cha-Cha-Cha, 1998, a computer-generated video projection by Jennifer Steinkamp and Andrew Bucksbarg, with its wide-angle array of swaying vertical aqua bands and yellow horizontal waves that resembled liquefied AM bands on an oscilloscope, dominated the center of the room. Appropriate to the imagery and to the ambience of the show, the sound track could have come from a ’60s submarine sci-fi fantasy flick or the B side of a single from a space-age bachelor pad.

Of course, neither lighting, nor sound tracks, nor any amount of adjustments to the atmosphere can turn an art gallery into a cocktail lounge. There was no bar, no smoking, no jukebox playing Stan Getz, not even any chairs. Diverseworks is one of those alternative spaces Hickey has so aggressively and cogently criticized in his recent writings, and his curatorial intentions here abraded as much as they transformed the gallery. Yet his mise-en-scène did reflect an argument for what might be called an impure, nontranscendent aesthetic.

In this context, Jane Callister’s Loungescape #I, 1998, was a standout. A symmetrical triptych of shaped panels made of light brown padded vinyl connected by brass rings, it resembled an oddball trophy plaque or an anamorphic riff on a complicated ’70s-style seat cushion. A cerulean and magenta sunset skyscape, embellished with a filigree of spackle frosting, floated on the surface. Like Matisse’s famous armchair (and fitting for a lounge), the piece is a site of generous visual pleasure. Although one could easily find degrees of resistance to the institutionalization of art in “Ultralounge,” pleasure, not cultural critique or spiritual transcendence, was the principle.

Michael Odom