Whitehot Magazine

Otis Houston Jr.’s Outside, In at Gordon Robichaux

Courtesy of the author.

By JOHN DRURY April 21, 2024

It certainly isn’t easy, negotiating that transition from the street to the art gallery; a space deemed sacred – the white-washed and sacrosanct arcade too often exclusive, to the pedigreed show-dog. And very few have been successful at mediating the change; Curtis Cuffie, here in the city (posthumously; it’s easier when you don’t have to deal with the living) and Lonnie Holley, serve as rare examples, that the product of open-air and found materials weather beaten and de-edged; anal creative procedures, prefer a hard and perfect edge - something shiny. And while I imagine it not that dissimilar, the street corner busker – the avenue’s juggler, or musician - performing behind some mouthy top hat or open guitar case, in search of a few satiating greenbacks, finding themselves suddenly playing at Carnegie Hall - the old adage applies here, too, as regards the “how”, to make the transition…you “practice, practice, practice”. 

Otis Houston Jr. (2022) “You can kill Me but you can’t kill My Spirit”, spray paint on towel; 24 x 48 inches

And for decades, Otis Houston Jr. constructed his ephemeral arrangements of found junk and fruit, about his body and the Triborough Bridge underpass in search his audience; a sort of off, off, way (the hell) off-Broadway theater performed impromptu, to a crowd of passing vehicles and unsuspecting passengers whizzing by. Best known for the spray-painted signage – that unceremoniously attached to a chain link fence and posted there along the FDR – works best and quickly absorbed, at a furious pass – his texts inform also, the casual gallery visitor. Here he works on the backside of canvases, the stretcher strips repurposed to allow a make-do framing device (the self-taught Otis has done his homework, and knows a frame might denote a sort of completion endearing); or atop a found image, perhaps the discarded expression some painting hobbiest, or advertisement. Towels too, hung banner-like and from the corners - to droop at their centers - serve often, as support his message. You can take the maker from the street, but you can’t take the street from the maker. 

Otis Houston Jr. (2022) “Mother Nature”, found objects, Sharpie, spray paint, Velcro and twine; 55 x 26 x 28 inches.

There is an endearing nonchalance about the work of Otis, a transient nature in support his concerns; a hurried relay, the near-desperate sharing of the artist’s philosophies. Although walled, the space is approached as a single entity – only a rabbit-hole – a portion of a larger life; the building, the street out front, the neighborhood. A peppering of coconuts worship at the feet of each work, to anchor what might threaten the month-long exhibition from the fly-away possibilities, an inattentive viewership. In urgency often, is impermanence. You don’t know what you got, till it’s gone. WM 

John Drury

John Drury is a multi-media artist, published author, independent curator and instructor. Drury holds a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design (1983) and a Master of Fine Art Degree in sculpture (1985; including a minor in painting), from Ohio State University. John is the father of two teenagers, living in New York City since 1989 and has received the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award for his work in sculpture.

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