Otis Houston Jr.
On ViewGordon Robichaux
Otis Houston Jr.
March 14 – April 25, 2021
Urban streets have been championing relational art long before Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term. Performance artist Otis Houston Jr.’s work is based on an intimate understanding of and synchronicity with this reality. Houston Jr.—who also calls himself Black Cherokee—is best known for his performances alongside the FDR Drive at 122nd street, where he has regularly held court since 1997.1 These performances—which often combine irreverent humor with incisive critiques of race, class, and power—have become part and parcel of the highway’s landscape, where he can be seen riffing poetry or spoken word, spray painting on cardboard or towels, creating sculptural assemblages from found objects, or simply sitting quietly, perhaps while waving at passing cars.
In a new exhibition at Gordon Robichaux, the textures of sociality that charge Houston Jr.’s street performances take up new dwelling in a gallery space. Though this is not the first time Houston Jr. has shown at a gallery, encountering his work in this setting begs a vital question: how do we contend with an artist whose practice is deeply site specific and embodied when it is seemingly ruptured from that locality and corporeality? The found objects that Houston Jr. works with offer a resolute response to this inquiry. Not only do they embody distinct material histories, but they also invite us to imagine them as sites of performativity. The objects in the gallery seem to wink at the street, beckoning to the outdoors and its unbridled expanse of interaction, movement, and anima. The artist is not physically present, yet one can readily feel the deep clarity and sensitivity with which he attends to found objects and their symbolic languages.
With an unmistakable sense of immediacy, the objects seemed to enact a continual commitment to liveliness, spilling over with their own dialogic rhythms and uncontainable secrets. From their various positionings on the wall and the floor, they mingle and rap with one another, sharing jokes and stories. Resembling a shrine, the work occupying the center of the gallery, I Remember (Evers) (2021) is an assemblage of dolls, toys, and other found objects that can be likened to a tableau vivant in its narrative capacity: a Minnie Mouse doll sitting in a miniature lawn chair assumes the position of an awed child gazing up in mourning at a memorial, and flowers suggest offerings from the bereaved. Intimating that this assemblage represents an autobiographical memory, an epigraph on this tragic pillar reads “Jackson Mississippi/Medgar Evers/1963/I was 9.”
Nearby, a work titled Acceleration (2020) echoes I Remember in its totem-like architecture. Here, a stack of mostly encyclopedic books stretches up from the floor of the gallery, crowned by a comically self-assured E.T. figurine. With an iconoclastic flourish, Houston Jr. has positioned the toy alien atop a Holy Bible, instigating a peculiar hierarchy that scrambles normative taxonomies of value. Similar re-orderings surface in much of Houston Jr.’s work. In Watermelon Man (2018), for example, Houston Jr. flips the script on an age-old racial stereotype: borrowing its title from Melvin Van Peeble’s 1970 Blaxploitation film about a white salesman suddenly turned Black, the work features of a found photograph of three young white boys happily eating watermelon slices. With an amazingly simple economy of means, the artist accomplishes multiply layered satirical criticism, staging a Duchampian comedy in which object and title jointly perform as symbol.
Through a direct, crisp lexicon, spray painted works that Houston Jr. created in highway performances acquaint viewers with the artist’s poetics. CAN I LIVE (2020), in which the titular inquiry is spray painted on one of the artist’s trademark towels, simultaneously contemplates the possibility of sentience for the object and of survival for its creator—confronting the essential concern of Black existence under racial capitalism. In the question it asks, the work resounds with the possibility of animation and life force. ME/WE (Muhammad Ali) (2020), which is based on a poem that the boxing legend spontaneously recited during a Harvard commencement address,2 reiterates the centrality of the social in Houston Jr.’s practice. Scrawled on a mirror, the singular and plural forms of the first person rub up against one another, collapsing individual and collective consciousness. Gazing in the mirror, it is impossible to resist feeling a glint of the artist’s presence.
On the Friday following the opening of his show, the artist performed live from the gallery on YouTube, CAN I LIVE and Acceleration setting the atmosphere behind him. Donning a striped prison uniform, Houston Jr. began the performance in silence, a strip of duct tape covering his mouth. Then, in a gesture of determined emancipation loaded with allegorical meaning, Houston Jr. ripped the proverbial symbol of repression from his mouth and sang a third person account of his time in prison. Mourning his confinement and exulting his freedom, Houston Jr. sang with a slow but unwavering cadence that seemed to quietly resound with the haunting beauty of the Black oral tradition, calling to mind its histories of collectivity and sharing. In a moment of rapt clarity at the middle of the song, the artist paused and, as if breaking the fourth wall, stated simply, “Talking about me. Otis Houston is my name.” In this moment of almost shockingly understated candor, the artist calls us into a deep communion. Though this performance was ephemeral, Houston Jr.’s commitment to mutuality pervades even when the objects perform on their own, perennially animating the space they occupy with new relational possibilities.
- Andrew Russeth, “'We Are the Canvas': Storied New York Highway Performer Otis Houston Jr. on His New Work,” ARTnews.com, December 14, 2018, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/canvas-storied-new-york-highway-performer-otis-houston-jr-new-work-11534/.
- Dan Piepenbring, “George Plimpton on Muhammad Ali, the Poet,” The Paris Review, June 6, 2016, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/06/06/george-plimpton-on-muhammad-ali-the-poet/.