Donald Moffett at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston

Donald Moffett’s show at the CAMH isn’t amazing, but it left me baffled, wondering if it’s at all possible to reconcile an artist’s activist and formalist practice. In The Extravagant VeinMoffett’s paintings, in comparison to his overtly political works, aspire to completely different goals. Simply put, the two have nothing in common. It’s a depressing claim for the state of the political in art and I feel uneasy writing about it.

Moffett’s paintings are by-and-by formalist. Lot 051408 (X), 2008, pictured above, plays with the limitations of painting’s physical structure, paying particular attention to the relationship of canvas and paint to the gallery walls. The canvas opens up to the wall through Moffett’s addition of zippers. Lot‘s painted surface follows this similar trajectory where the wall, like the physical canvas, has been painted in blocks of gray and white. Yawn. Moffett’s tactics belong to a course on Greenberg 101.

An example of Moffett’s work that has nothing to do with formalism is Mr. Gay in the U.S.A., 2001. Ronald Gay had been taunted all his life for his last name and one day, due to a lethal cocktail of mental illness and homophobia, he decided to “waste some faggots” by opening fire on a gay bar. This happened in 2000. Moffett went to the court proceedings and sketched out the trial. His line-drawings are expressionistic and, as the wall labels state, the drawings focus heavily on the faces of Gay and the others involved in the proceedings.

I’m hard-pressed to find any similarities between Mr. Gay in the U.S.A. and Lot 051408 (X). Moffett’s political and formalist works are on completely different streets, like two cul-de-sacs in two different suburbs in two different states.

The problem with attempting to reconcile Moffett’s activist and formalist work comes down to aspirations.  How can you tell if a political work is successful? It’s easier to gauge the success of a painting that’s concerned specifically with the rules of painting. There’s a formal history that’s given to us, whether or not we agree with all of formalism’s rules, secrets, and codes. Formalism and activism have two have different ambitions. It’s disappointing that Moffett’s two extravagant veins can’t be reconciled, giving little hope for an art that can be both.

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