Paul Horn

For his solo debut exhibition, “Death Metal 2000: Prehistoria,” Houston-based artist Paul Horn spray painted a child’s plastic playhouse in gold, dusting its roof with powdery glitter to create an air of fantasy and wonder. Inside the structure, which sat on an island of Astroturf, a golden skeleton lay sprawled on the floor, and a stack of gilded skulls filled the sink. Plastic Snoopys, robots, and other action figures lined the interior walls, and surrounding the playhouse were assemblages built from Power Wheels, plastic cars big enough for kids to sit in and “drive.” Elsewhere, cardboard boxes painted white served as pedestals for stacks of old suitcases filled with tiny skateboards, fake hamburgers, and other novelty items. Here was art ready to make a move.

Horn’s low-budget, carny-flavored sculptural hybrids embody a charming yet emotionally crossed-wire version of plastic’s afterlife. By scavenging garage sales, souvenir shops, and dollar stores, Horn disassembles, reconfigures, and breathes new life into the junk heap of youth culture. His creations are not afraid to entertain, hooking our curiosity through a seemingly endless list of synthetic byproducts, including Big Gulp cups, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags, and merchandising from virtually every Disney and Pixar film. Horn criticizes commodification by reveling in it—proposing the idea that in commercialism’s ceaseless now-time, everything is leveled and up for grabs.

On a more personal level, the show projected the chaos of a teenager’s cluttered bedroom, inducing the vertiginous sensation of a high-tension video game’s labyrinths, puzzles, and confrontations. Indeed, the show’s often warm-and-cuddly look was belied by aspects of the sculptures featuring the nightmare corners of childhood. In Zim Zalla Zim (all works 2002), Bart Simpson’s buddy Krusty the Clown is impaled on a speaker device used to take fast-food orders. Pull a string and the doll hisses insults at you, the macabre Stephen King tone setting your teeth on edge. Horn also hung clouds crafted from chicken wire and cotton batting from the ceiling; dozens of glittery white skeletons dangled among them like so many souls ascending from the earth. Most of the works served as reminders of transitory existence, getting at the childlike feelings of helplessness and grief in the face of death. (A spray-painted white four-wheeler with the remains of a crashed car thrusting outward and an Igloo “treasure chest” propped on his late father’s ottoman served here as Horn’s private memorials.) The entirety seemed an effort to balance conflicts between proliferation and decay; the artificial and the real; a gritty elation and the haunting childhood experiences that knock about in adult memories.

Horn is inspired by outsider art, but his work also echoes Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s glitter-encrusted shrines and Jessica Stockholder’s focus on material decision making and the poetics of seemingly displaying the mind in operation. However, Horn’s art ultimately presents an earnestness and clunky literalism that reflects its own psychic universe. Some of his work is still developing, some openly flirts with sentimentality. All of it is compelling for its willful eccentricity—the mark of a young artist risking failure, a good sign.

Susie Kalil