In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: December 17, 2006
ON a strangely balmy late autumn afternoon, while the art world busied itself in Miami with beachfront reservations and limo drivers, Rick Lowe was, as he generally is, on Holman Street in southeast Houston’s predominantly black Third Ward, greeting another out-of-towner.
In the gloaming, decrepit houses and weedy lots dotted some surrounding blocks, on the edges of which were new double-garage brick homes — signs of encroaching gentrification, an unwanted side effect of Mr. Lowe’s work.
Although it’s hard to tell at a glance, this stretch of Holman may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country — a project that is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from Chelsea and Art Basel and the whole money-besotted paper-thin art scene.
Mr. Lowe, a lanky, amiable, remarkably youthful-looking 45-year-old artist from Alabama, moved to Houston 21 years ago and lives here in the Third Ward, where he founded Project Row Houses. In 1990, “a group of high school students came over to my studio,” he recalled. “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”
He tried to think afresh what it meant to be a truly political artist, beyond devising the familiar agitprop, gallery decoration and plop-art-style public sculpture. He considered what the German artist Joseph Beuys once described as “the enlarged conception of Art,” which includes, as Beuys put it, “every human action.” Life itself might be a work of art, Mr. Lowe realized: art can be the way people live.
And the Third Ward could be his canvas. He was inspired by John Biggers, the late African-American muralist who painted black neighborhoods of shotgun houses like the ones on Holman Street and showed them to be places of pride and community, not poverty and crime. “It hit me,” Mr. Lowe recalled, “that we should find an area like the one that Biggers painted that was historically significant and bring it to life.”
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