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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE HONKY TONK VISIONS, the small but engaging exhibition currently appearing at Austin’s Laguna Gloria Art Museum, is something of an innovation. Think of it as the curatorial equivalent of a music video, a sustained performance in which the music is represented by images on museum walls instead of on a television screen. Understand that this show, which originated at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is not about art as all; rather it is a demonstration of how one art form can become the after-effect of another. The paintings, photographs and posters that make up Honky Tonk Visions form a collective response to West Texas music, and the show succeeds precisely as a celebration of the invention and re-invention of a classic groove. I should clarify that the show succeeds only as a celebration of that music; it is too limited and uneven to stand on its own, and I understand that the Laguna Gloria staff had to scramble for works to fill out the original exhibition. Nevertheless, if one’s senses are awake to the remarkable achievements of the Lubbock minstrelry Bob Wills and Buddy Holly years ago; Butch Hancock and Joe Ely today then this show can be appreciated both as an unrefined delight, and as a sober expression of faith in the power of music to make a difference in people’s lives. Despite the artists’ obvious devotion to West Texas music, however, ambiguities linger at the edges of this work, disrupting the continuity between aural and visual genres, preventing the exhibition from descending to the level of fan memorabilia. Since this art is about music, the music’s themes .the shabby glamour of road-house performance, the emptiness of Western space, the effects Of isolation on the psyche enter the art second-hand; the art’s Richard Ryan is the Washington correspondent of the Observer who occasionally corresponds from Texas. relationship to people and places that produced the music is unclear. For example, in Luis Jimenez’s freestanding mural, “Honky Tonk,” working-class characters lounge on a seedy backdrop, while cut-out ,figures whirl around the dance floor into the midst of the viewers. The “Honky Tonk” patrons, as depicted by Jimenez, verge on caricature: a biker mama rides the thigh of a greasy mechanic, a knobbykneed waitress hustles longnecks; a scruffy dog rolls on the floor. The beefy figures are bended and swayed by an energy that sustains the entire tableau, a scene that is lively without being particularly attractive. This is no advertisement for the Lubbock way of life, and Jimenez must know he is walking a thin line between homage and parody. He takes some sting out of his unflinching observation by making one figure into a self-portrait: a lean fellow wearing a shirt reading Jimenez Signs stands at one side of the piece, watching the dancers with a look of alert detachment. Still, the artist’s unmistakeable involvement with his subjects does not prevent us from feeling that the people we are looking at are truly down-and-out. What’s missing from the piece is what the figures hear and we don’t; the music that makes the scene live. Jimenez’s piece portrays music by portraying people responding to it. One can’t help believing that without the tunes the inhabitants of “Honky Tonk” wouldn’t have much of anything. The other two large works presented in the show are, rather curiously, both triptychs. Paul Milosevich, a New Mexico resident who at one point ran a gallery in Lubbock, offers “Honky Tonk Visions,” the painting from which the exhibit takes its name. In the Hopper-esque central panel, a honky tonk sits in the bleak Sunday morning light, virtually deserted. On either of the side panels a musician in western wear plays an instrument against a void blue background. The players’ shadows are projected on the emptiness behind them by the same stark light that falls on the beer joint in the central panel, and the overwhelming sense of distance and neutrality the painting conveys contrasts sharply with the sloppy vigor of Jimenez’s piece. And yet there are similarities between the works. Again, we are asked to synthesize the visual information contained in Milosevich’s work with our own memories and affection for the honky tonk sounds; it’s as if the male fiddler and female guitarist who face each other from opposite sides of the painting are invisibly connected by the melody that surrounds them and which is embodied and situated in the honky tonk depicted in the central panel. The artist lets the unforgiving light washing through all three canvases take the place of sound; the painting is a depiction of light as sound. This is an elegant work, but as before, the artist’s regard for the West Texas scene in the absence of music which is the art’s raison d’etre is elusive. This irony and nostalgia \(in Texs that out the show emerges most explicitly in_Ed Blackburn’s. “Tapestry Still Life.” Blackburn’s piece, created especially for the exhibit, lacks the technical mastery of Milosevich’s rich oils or Jimenez’s cut-out lithographs, but is to my mind the most interesting work in the galleries, if only because it tackles head on the issue of art as cultural criticism. On either side of a long rectangle of canvas, Blackburn has painted ghostly images that flicker out of old western movies. In the center looms a naive version of the seascapes one finds hanging over sofas in furniture stores. \(Blackburn says he put the coastal scene into the work because honky tonks always have a seascape up somewhere. I think it has something to do with the unconscious, portion of the painting is a white table with a white pitcher and a white, porcelain apple and pear sitting on it. There is a gentle tension between the the lushly rendered ocean \(an image out pears, in turn, to generate B-movie spectres that people either side of the tapestry; it seems we are being asked to believe that the early pop culture which 50 years ago gave birth to the honky tonks those roadside responses to the lifting of Prohibition and the persistence of the Depression somehow became a natural phenomenon in .the West Texas psyche. Interestingly enough, the only works in the show with little obvious connection to the West Texas music scene are Lubbock Comes Alive By Richard Ryan 18 FEBRUARY 20, 1987