A Heavyweight Art Fight Grips Houston: It’s Picasso Versus Warhol — and It’s Time to Choose an All-Time Champion
Sculptural elements of "Weeping Woman," 2016, were recently created from materials — reclaimed tires and poured concrete — found on Smith's family estate, the famed Yturria Ranch in Raymondville, Texas.
One of the strangest and most hypnotic images by Travis K. Schwab is new work set for Cindy Lisica Gallery's late-April show. The claustrophobic image "Insulation," 2016, implies everything from a wedding veil to a communion headpiece to a body bag, while its subject evokes Lady Gaga, who surely would have been the ultimate Warhol cover girl were Andy still with us.
"Ray Smith: Unguernica" at McClain Gallery references Picasso's epic masterpiece, which exposed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. (Ray Smith artwork images and installation shots by Nash Baker)
Painted in the tradition of an "Exquisite Corpse" — a Surrealist parlor game for which each artist contributed a section to a drawing, with the final work revealed at the end — Ray Smith's "Unguernica-IV," 2010, exemplifies the power of this series both in terms of its stark imagery and the raw materiality of canvas, pigment and frame.
A view of the "Unguernica" installation, which combines generously scaled paintings and elements from those canvases, which have become free-standing works of sculpture.
Smith's "Unguernica II #25," 2009, channels all the energy and outrage of the original "Guernica," including its cast of characters: the horse in distress, the noble bull, a weeping woman.
Ray Smith's brooding "Unguernica VI, 2010, combines tropes from classic Picasso, like the woman's head inspired by African sculpture, paired with boots, which recall shoes worn by a cartoon character, introducing a Pop element.
Ray Smith's "Unguernica II #3," 2009, is among the most abstract Picasso-based images in the current show at McClain.
Travis K. Schwab's "Wig (III), "2015, also recently graced a show at the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Schwab's "Heroin Face," 2014, while not directly taken from one of the Pop star's films, is very Warholian in its subject matter — celebrity, tinseltown and media culture. In this case, the subject is a ringer for actress Jennifer Connelly.
Schwab's oil on canvas, "Film II [Sleep]," 2015, features an image sampled from the Warhol film of the same name. This painting was exhibited at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
On the contemporary end of the spectrum, newly minted Cindy Lisica Gallery mounted works by Pittsburgh artist Travis K. Schwab in her group show, "Our Time." Shown: "Bad Vibes," 2015.
In the gallery's current three-person exhibition, Schwab's "The Passenger," 2013, is sampled from a contemporary film still, although it could be from the Warhol cinematic endeavor "Sleep."
Also destined for Schwab's upcoming solo, "Plastics," at Cindy Liscia Gallery, "The Artifical Hand," 2016, recalls '40s film noir, the era that Warhol was raised upon. It's so Joan Crawford.
Two exhibitions, concurrently on view at McClain Gallery and newcomer Cindy Lisica Gallery, feature headliners who raid art history, appropriating specific images from the masters they emulate. Who’s coming out standing in the showdown? We’ll let the viewer decide.
In real life, Picasso’s favorite nemesis was Matisse, and each painter famously kept track of what the other was doing; Picasso outliving Matisse, to be declared the winner by default. Decades later, Warhol’s closest rival might have been the gentleman of the Benday dots, Pop comic painter Roy Lichtenstein. When Warhol discovered Lichtenstein had beat him to cartoon imagery, he immediately abandoned it to mine other, perhaps richer territory.
One wonders, what would it have been like if Picasso and Warhol had each been of the same generation? So it’s left for contemporary painters to riff on their legacy. Cue Ray Smith and Travis K. Schwab.
At McClain Gallery, the illustrious mid-career Smith, a veteran of the Whitney Biennial, stands in one corner of the ring with his series, “Unguernica.” His is a prodigious talent that straddles the tradition of Mexico’s magic realism and Surrealism, then adds a punch of political commentary. Smith takes as his point of departure for this exhibition Picasso’s most ambitious work of art — Guernica, 1937, an icon of 20th painting, which serves up a searing indictment of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, executed in somber shades of black, white, pale blue and gray on a grand scale. (The 11-feet-by-25-feet canvas, a national treasure, is now in the permanent collection of the Reina Sofia in Madrid.)
The fact the Smith succeeds — creating a body of work in Unguernica that comes off with power, married to a raw physicality of materials — is remarkable. He avoids a sense of parody, which would have been the province of a lesser painter. Smith, who grew up in a fabled family with multicultural roots spanning Texas and Mexico — the Yturria ranching dynasty of South Texas — conjures imagery that crackles with unrest and outcry. This series can be read as a contemporary critique of border politics and U.S. relations with Mexico, a topic that crackles throughout the fraught air of this election year.
Across town at Cindy Lisica Gallery, in the 4411 Montrose Building, self-taught Pittsburgh painter Travis K. Schwab is introduced to Houston audiences in a three-person show, “Over Time.” Schwab’s subject matter — film and photo media, celebrity culture and fandom — are all filtered through a very cool, even chilly, Pop culture of image-gathering. Watch for two riffs on scenes directly culled from stills in Warhol’s movies Sleep (1963) and Couch (1964). Both considered “anti-films” as well as brilliant forerunners of today’s video art, the former focuses on a pal of Andy snoozing for five-plus hours, while the latter records the often naughty antics on the Factory’s sofa. Both of Schwab’s takes on the original outtakes have been exhibited at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
You’ll also have an opportunity to see more of Schwab’s brooding realism-dissolving-into-abstractions sampled from media and moving images. Lisica mounts “Plastics,” opening next month, including a black-and-white head shot of Warhol fully wigged from behind that emits all the dispassionate glamour of the Pop master from Pittsburgh.
One is tempted to ask the CAMH or MFAH to stage a face-off, with artworks presented from both these shows, Smith versus Schwab ringside, side by side.
Until then, you’ll have to make due by visiting both galleries, back-to-back in one afternoon.
“Ray Smith: Unguernica,” at McClain Gallery, through Saturday, March 5, but most works in the exhibition will be held over, up through Saturday, April 30. Travis K. Schwab, in the group view “Over Time,” at Cindy Lisica Gallery, through Saturday, March 12; and in his solo, “Plastics,” at Cindy Lisica Gallery, April 22 through May 28