Arts / Galleries

Mysterious Marfa Inspires an Important Texas Painter

A Pilgrimage to West Texas

BY // 12.03.15

Painter Howard Sherman is no stranger to Texas art audiences.

In Houston, he’s a staple at every opening, emerging from his Summer Street studio to support fellow artists, especially those in the unofficial club of abstract painters; he and pal Marcelyn McNeil are the Ozzie and Harriet of the hometown visual scene.

In Dallas, Sherman is known for being a UNT grad who was represented by the Pan American Art Gallery, which has now shuttered its Design District digs — where Cris Worley began her ascent as a gallerist — to concentrate solely on Miami.

Sherman’s staunch Houston dealer, McMurtrey Gallery, recently closed. After decades in the art biz, Roni McMurtrey stepped away from Colquitt Gallery Row to concentrate on private projects. Thanks to McMurtrey and former Houston Chronicle scribe Devon Britt-Darby, Sherman’s dynamic gestural abstract canvases landed on our radar, thus the inclusion of the artist in Texas Artists Today (2010, Marquand Books).

Recently he’s also been on the cover of Texas Abstract: Modern/Contemporary, co-authored by Jim Edwards. The well-received volume (FrescoBooks, 2014) has resulted in Sherman’s courtship by a number of Texas gallerists, but he has yet to tie the knot.

So to ramp up the energy, Sherman ventured way out west this fall, bound for Marfa, a place that’s often impacted and inspired art-makers. (One especially thinks of Jeff Elrod, whose time in Marfa was pivotal for his career.) Timing his opening to coincide with the always epic Chinati Open House weekend, Sherman mounted a compelling, albeit concise solo at Roaster’s Gallery, a former showroom for Pierce Motors for more than half a century, now converted into a mixed-use space perfect for the art community — home of Big Bend Coffee Roasters in the back and a white-cube space up front. At night, the illuminated gallery emits a surreal vibe against the West Texas skies.

Also stepping up to support Sherman was the micro creative hub Yellow Marfa, a design showroom for local makers, where the artist’s intimate, intense suite of recent works on paper commanded the walls. Nearby, and also part of Marfa’s main drag, the fabled Marfa Book Company stocked copies of Texas Abstract. Talk about a trifecta.

Reached via email, Sherman commented on his impressions of the exhibition, the profoundness of a show in Judd Land and what sparked the thought of Marfa.

“There’s a piece in the exhibition titled Feeding off the land like an animal. I thought it would be a great title for this show,” Sherman said. “It’s based on something I read in a Cormac McCarthy novel and seemed to fit the open desert landscape of far West Texas perfectly. The title, as well as Marfa, are not urban. I’ve been there a dozen times in the last 40 or so months, and the expansiveness of the clear night sky and the desert surrounding this small town are unforgettable. In comparison to Houston, you have a sense as if you’re closer to the Earth, like an animal.”

Sherman also noted the role of the omnipresent terrain in the canvases; it almost becomes a character. “The far West Texas landscape of Marfa lends itself to the sort of ruggedness and physicality presented in this current body of work,” he said. “While my work still retains that highly charged vibe from Houston’s concrete jungle, I can’t think of a better venue for this new rough-and-tumble body of work than Marfa.”

In many ways, the Roaster’s Gallery solo show represented the epitome of a new chapter for the painter. “Everything’s more palpable. More tactile. Pieces of old paintings are now cut, torn and shredded,” Sherman said. “These ripped bits of canvas are now collaged onto the new work. They’re slapped onto the surface with a loud ‘Thud’ and pushed into the fast lane of my already high-octane paintings.”

Sherman also admitted to a subliminal John Chamberlain influence, again connected to Marfa, where he’s often visited the Chamberlain installation at Chinati. (Sherman was tapped by The Menil Collection in 2011 to speak as part of the “Artist’s Eye” lectures, on a piece of his choosing. Natch, he selected a Chamberlain sculpture in the Menil’s permanent installation.)

What’s next for this action painter? Watch for appearances at art fairs east and west, via his CalIfornia dealer, Gallery Sam. However, we’re really hoping he can get scooped up by an L.A. and Manhattan gallerist. Also, we wonder if a Chinati residency is in order?

In parting, check out this recent short documenting Sherman’s practice, which was filmed by Houston creative Jose Figueroa; the video serves up a perfect mirror, depicting the energy patterns that scratch and cavort across the artist’s very frenetic picture planes — all exemplified by this fall’s show in the wilds of West Texas.

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