Houston is no stranger to creative talent, and there are myriad Houstonian creatives who are making bold strides to keep the city on the national and international art world radar. And despite a natural disaster of epic proportions, 2017 was an eventful year within the city’s cultural community. After Harvey, many individuals stepped back up to the plate to continue their creative efforts. As the saying goes, “it takes a village,” and the collective efforts within the Houston art community continue to impress.
However, at the end of 2017 there were five Houstonian creatives that really stood out, individuals who pushed to create a solid foundation from which to build off of for the upcoming season. Not ones to sit idle or find complacency in their surroundings, these creatives promise to elevate the local art community through their collective artistic intentions for the new year.
Ashlyn Davis: Executive Director of Houston Center for Photography
Ashlyn Davis is the executive director of Houston Center for Photography and the editor of spot, HCP’s bi-annual magazine about photography that includes artist portfolios, exhibition and book reviews, and interviews. Davis earned her BA in art history from Pratt Institute and her MA in American studies, with a focus on the history of photography, from the University of Texas at Austin.
Davis is no art world green horn. She started at HCP as the director of development before being appointed to executive director at the beginning of the year in 2016. Having spearheaded and curated dozens of exhibitions, lectures and events, Davis has brought a lightning bolt of energy back into the non-profit institution. Her quick-on-her-feet tactics and sharp-as-a-knife curation has made her one of the most celebrated administrators within Houston’s art community. HCP’s inclusive curation and collaborative convictions have made the arts non-profit a top contender for the best programming and development award in the city. Throughout her tenure, Davis has worked hard to bring diverse and museum-quality exhibitions to the Houston public, such as Genevieve Gaignard’s 2017 solo exhibition In Passing.
In addition to her work at HCP, Davis also writes for photography publications GUP Magazine and Ain’t—Bad, contributes to artists’ monographs, and has co-edited Islands of the Blest, a conceptual book on 19th and 20th century American photography now in its second edition. Davis continues to strive forward, and she has a great number of power house exhibitions lined up for 2018, such as Chosen Family, a solo exhibition of the work of David Hilliard. Davis’s passion for the arts is apparent in all she does, and her upcoming projects for Houston this year are a testament to that.
Bret Shirley: Painter, Sculptor, Musician
Bret Shirley is a triple threat: painter, sculptor and musician. Born in San Jose and raised in Silicon Valley, Shirley received his BFA at Pratt Institute in 2004 and returned to Houston not long after where he has left no stone unturned. Shirley was one of the founding members of the psychedelic punk band Black Congress, which gained national recognition almost immediately after its inception. He later, along with Lucas Gorham and Chris Ryan, created Drone Bros, a sonic performance sound group.
Shirley, whose artistic talents have taken him across the globe, is certainly one of the most well-celebrated artists currently living and working in Houston. His paintings and sculptures have exhibited in institutions across the city, such as the Blaffer Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston and Diverse Works. Previously represented by Cardoza Fine Arts, he is one of the most widely collected local artists. Shirley’s paintings, with their lavish, hefty crystals and sculptural elements, are some of the most progressive works in the city. Complete with self-stirring beakers, canvases soaking in chemical baths, and piles of multicolored crystals, the artist’s Northside studio is as much as a laboratory as it is an art studio.
Shirley, whose newest projects are taking him even further internationally, is always thinking nine months into the future; the artist always has continuous projects and exhibitions at the ready. And with scheduled exhibitions this year in several parts of Mexico, including Mexico City, the artist is definitely being eyed more by foreign gallerists. In the upcoming months he’ll be departing for a soon-to-be-announced residency on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Lindsay Burleson: Bartender, Beverage Director, Organizational Artist
Within the local performance and arts administration community is the amazingly talented Lindsay Burleson. From cocktails to alternative theater, the new year is bringing in a slew of exciting projects for the local arts maven. An active artist in the local alternative theater scene and beverage community for over 11 years — often curating events that blend both subcultures — the Houston-based organizational artist is currently working with the Neo-Benshi collective in addition to working on a variety of puppetry projects.
Burleson, who works as a beverage consultant, is the beverage director for Grand Prize Bar. That being so, it’s hardly surprising that she is known to curate events across the city that cross-pollinate performance and cocktails. For her Metal Mermaid Cocktail Takeover and Doom Tiki events, Burleson merges together music with concepts that are often seen as abrasive to create a new bar experience. Whether its using infusions, strange pairings, installations or ambiance, the goal with these events is to push outside of traditional cocktail culture structures and create an overall enjoyable experience in a temporary atmosphere.
Burelson has recently formed the Neo-Benshi Collective, a collaborative group that will expand on the already existing monthly — now in its third year — initially produced by BooTown. The new format will be a multimedia, video-centric monthly event that lives within a show universe but is also is a platform for new artists to engage with the Benshi format. The show will be touring, creating online content, and creating small publications. The Neo-Benshi collective team is composed of John Wayne Communale, Austin Havican, Andrew Love and Burleson.
You could say Lindsay is a workaholic — she is always moving with her projects and can often be seen at two of her bartending locations, Grand Prize and Poison Girl, juggling a hundred and one events and spectacles — but she is always collected and has a smile on her face. A one woman powerhouse, Burleson has about triple on her plate than the average arts administrator. Headstrong and devoted, Burleson is a proactive spirit and one of the most attuned arts leaders in Houston.
Nathaniel Donnett: Artist
Next on our artists list is the incomparable Nathaniel Donnett. The celebrated artist, who lives and works in Houston and studied at Texas Southern University, is the founder of the website blog “Not That But This.” Donnett, who has played key roles for institutions across the city, leads projects as fast as he begins to create them. The artist’s works have been exhibited across the city at institutions like Diverse Works, Art League Houston, Project Row Houses and The Contemporary Art Museum Houston. A progressive artist with a big vision, he always presents thought-provoking exhibitions at any gallery or institution he turns into a temporary home for his work.
Donnett recently organized The Homeplace Aesthetic: Finding Black Pasts and Seeking Black Futures in Bottom Land, a lecture by Dr. Andrea Roberts in conjunction with the his exhibition In One Form or Another; Verse One, which is currently on view at Art League Houston. Within the American landscape, black vernacular place-making manifests as spatial self-determination, intentional design, self-making and protest. Dr. Andrea Roberts’ research documents and assesses the relevance of rural exodus and return to black Texas settlements called “freedom colonies.” She partners with grassroots preservationists — the descendants of freedom colony founders — who simultaneously call Houston and rural East Texas settlements their home. Of specific concern to Dr. Roberts are descendant communities’ unique approaches to homestead preservation, which she calls “the homeplace aesthetic” — the practice of preserving place, reproducing identity, and fostering belonging through commemoration, interior design, and land-based heritage.
The exhibition is yet another well-orchestrated show from the artist, who proves his ability time and time again to organize and curate splendid exhibitions with the museums or institutions he is presenting with. The current exhibition at Art League is solid and presented with quality and dedication. It’s one of those exhibitions that you should revisit multiple times to catch all the information you can. Donnett and Art League have presented many panels, lectures and discussions throughout the exhibition’s run, as it continues to tie together community, arts, culture and history for its viewers and participants.
Donnett is currently working on a print publication in conjunction with Project Row Houses, a two-person show at the Carnegie Center, and a group exhibition at the McColl Center in North Carolina. Keep an eye out for his upcoming printed publication and events, which are certain to impress.
Lynn Lane: Photographer, Composer, Performer
Last but not least on our list is photographer, composer and performer Lynn Lane. Lane has been producing events with venues and institutions across the city and state for years. A key player in the sound scene in Houston, Lynn has made a name for himself through the performances — which bring together musicians and artists — that he throws in the small and intimate private event space he facilitates himself. Upon climbing a series of stairs through winding hallways inside the artist’s own living quarters, you end up in a beautiful and tranquil large attic room glowing with projections and unique lighting.
The room only holds a dozen or so people, who are specially invited to each Transitory Sound and Movement Collective performance. The collective, his newest and biggest project, brings musicians, sound artists, dance artists, and visual artists together to collaboratively create immersive and experiential evenings of sound, movement and visual art through a guided improvisational process. Each performance is a unique and spontaneous composition that is created by the process of consideration and response of each artist to the overall whole and concept; it truly becomes an unspoken conversation through structured improvisation. The core members of the collective are Lynn Lane (Founder/Artistic Director), Jennifer Mabus (Dance Artist) and Ingrid Gerling (Violinist).
On Feb. 20, Lane will be bringing his talents to the Rothko Chapel where he will be performing a large piece with dance artists Jennifer Mabus and Erica Gionfriddo, powerful soprano Julia Fox, and a larger ensemble of musicians. Then in March he’ll be taking the show to Dallas where he will perform a new work at the Arts Mission Oak Cliff. This summer Lynn is also excited to present a large ensemble of musicians, featuring a half dozen dancers, at the CAMH.