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City Without Walls

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Somebody once said that the trouble with Austin is that it wants to be Berkeley, and the trouble with Dallas is that it wants to be Chicago, but the trouble with Houston is that it wants to be Houston. Pithy. But personally, I’m a big fan both of the Bayou City and its outsized civic pride. And so is Vernon Caldera—artist, aesthete and columnist for the Houston Press. He’s also the author of an irresistible blog with the insouciant name of Keep Houston Rich.

Caldera launched this online art gallery of sorts a couple of years back for two primary reasons: first, to respond to Austin’s fetish for weirdness; and second, to curate Houston’s oft-overlooked cultural wealth. Of course, the city has a string of sensational museums, notably the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel. But beyond them, Houston’s hugeness can sometimes deter the uninitiated from culture-browsing. (Hell, it can deter the initiated.) So I was grateful, a couple of weeks ago, when Caldera offered to take me on a tour of the less-trodden byways of Houston’s arts scene, both online and off.

I consider myself something of an expert on my hometown, but after a few minutes with Caldera, I felt like a foreigner. I’d never heard of half the places he considered unmissable: galleries like Art Palace, Box 13 and Peel (now exhibiting Libby Black’s “luxury goods sculptures,” such as faux Goyard roller-skates and Gucci fedoras made from working-class materials like hot glue and papier-mâché). To set the day’s scene, Caldera insisted we first visit an eyeglasses shop on Austin Street called Smith Opticians, which I’d also never heard of—a sort of Old Curiosity Shop rafter-packed with peculiar, fabulous frames that Phillip, the owner, has collected from auctions and estate sales around the globe.

I’ll admit to often wading beyond my cultural depth while exploring my hometown with Caldera. At the excellent Lawndale Arts Center, for instance, where I viewed some very fine photographs, there also seemed to be an exhibit of maniacal-looking stuffed animals being butchered to death, with fat wads of fluffy cotton entrails trailing from their torsos. (Well, why not? as Jack Benny would say.) But even this naif could appreciate the scenery at Smith Opticians, where beautiful and bizarre frames dripped off the walls. “Look,” said Caldera, taking a pair of spectacles in hand, “if you saw these on the street, they’d just be glasses, right? But here, they’re sculpture. Look around. This isn’t just a shop, it’s an installation. It’s a gallery.

“It’s what I’m trying to say with Keep Houston Rich. That what you see depends on where you are. Or, at least, where you think you are.” This proved an object lesson in Vernon’s Theory of the Picturesque—that context, a setting or site or venue, absolutely determines the way we see and experience art.

Earlier this year, Caldera attended a panel discussion where the venerable sculptor James Surls, who founded the Lawndale in 1979, was asked how he believed the Internet would change art galleries. “It won’t change art galleries,” Caldera recalls Surls saying. “He said, ‘Art is about feeling, and the internet can’t convey feeling.’ And I just remember sitting there, thinking, What are you talking about? The Internet can’t convey feeling?

“Art happens wherever we live,” Caldera went on. “For our generation, in particular, the Internet is where we see our friends and families. Many people feel freer to be themselves online than on the street. This isn’t a virtual existence. This is part of real life. Life is happening on the street and on the internet. Great artists like Evan Roth are creating pieces especially for the Internet. So of course that’s changing art galleries.”

A generation ago, artists like Surls created alternative institutions like Lawndale to challenge outmoded ideas of gallery space. But today, artists like Caldera aren’t just breaking down the walls of Houston’s arts community; they’re removing them altogether by creating online galleries like Keep Houston Rich, filled with found images and videos that (yes) movingly express the city’s life. As the final lap of the day’s tour, Caldera steered me through those images and videos—an interview with socialite Lynn Wyatt, for instance, juxtaposed with a virtual collage of quinceañeras.

“A city isn’t just geography,” he told me. “It’s also a concept. I’m driven by the question of where Houston happens. Of course, Houston is the Menil and Lawndale and Smith Opticians. But it’s also here, online.”

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.