June 21, 2021

Three in Houston: Nicole Awai, Robert Ruello, and Jamey Hart

At Barbara Davis Gallery, Awai’s layered media combine with complex historical and personal references to invite repeated exploration

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Since the world shuttered, I’ve had the luxury of working from home alone but leaving the house recently and merging onto Hwy. 71 felt exhilarating. With stars in my eyes, I headed to Houston to see what a few artists have been up to for the past year.

Seeing Nicole Awai’s work in person at Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston was sensational. Awai is faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, though her internationally-reaching career means her art is rarely exhibited in Texas.

Three of the pieces on view — “Invincible” (2019), “All the White Stuff” (2019), and “Specimen from Local Ephemera: Go Go Green Compression with Black Ooze” (2008) — include what Awai refers to as a “sensation code”: along the edge of the paper is a column of blocks of colors that lists the names and brands of each nail polish hue with which Awai painted. They have a double effect; relative to Awai’s fantastic imagery, the words feel absurd — e.g., “Skin Tight Denim,” “Phallic,” and “Drama Queen.” On the other hand, the names speak to the grotesque and calculated language of marketing campaigns, which reinforce cultural narratives about color relationships. “White Whip,” from “All the White Stuff,” was a particularly disturbing example and speaks to the ways in which such endemic perceptions of color manifest in material culture.

Nicole Awai, “Specimen from Local Ephemera: Go Go Green Compression with Black Ooze,” 2008, graphite, acrylic paint, nail polish and glitter on paper, 38 x 50 in.
Nicole Awai, “Specimen from Local Ephemera: Go Go Green Compression with Black Ooze,” 2008, graphite, acrylic paint, nail polish and glitter on paper, 38 x 50 in. Courtesy Barbara Davis Gallery

One aspect of the show that struck me was how different her work looks in reproduction. Photographs don’t do it justice; they flatten and mute the spectacular puzzle Awai presents.



The artist’s play on language coupled with explosive imagery around the central figures has a powerful effect that transcends easy description and classification. The sheer variety of materials at work creates an expansive sense of depth through text, transfer rubbings, and collaged elements that range from feathers and paintings to a reverse print of a wall drawing Awai made in 2013. The dynamic transitions between collage, graphic patterns, painting, and drawing embodied in the work kept me looking as I slowly circled the gallery, trying to take it all in. Even if you have seen Awai’s work before, the layered media and complex historical and personal references invite repeated examination and exploration; it’s worth a trip to Houston.

P.S. There are two killer works on paper by Agnes Bourely in the group show on view at Barbara Davis until July 3.

Next stop: Robert Ruello at Inman Gallery. The exhibition, “Angry Garden Salad,” includes six tall paintings, each between five and seven feet high.

Ruello draws his source material from his computer desktop and works off of digital collages of screenshots he converted into bit maps. While the digital process pixelates the image, the chemical reaction between the Flashe ground and acrylic figures further distorts the imagery producing an effect analogous to a wax-resist dyeing process. In some passages, the forms appear broken; in others, they look stretched or warped across the canvas as they gradually change from recognizable symbols into amorphous shapes. This sense of change, like the waxing phases of the moon, came through most clearly in “Artifact #1” (2020), “Artifact: Troy and 3D Modeling” (2021), “Artifact: Capitol Hill Storm” (2021).

Robert Ruello, “Artifact: Capitol Hill Storm,” 2021, Flashe and acrylic on canvas, 72 5/8 x 48 in. Courtesy of Inman Gallery.
Robert Ruello, “Artifact: Capitol Hill Storm,” 2021, Flashe and acrylic on canvas, 72 5/8 x 48 in. Courtesy of Inman Gallery.

Betsy Huete’s essay for the exhibition draws thoughtful parallels between Ruello’s painterly interpretation of digital media and the artist’s experience living through the pandemic. “The work,” she writes, “refers to Ruello’s internal life and website search history.” Indeed, the reshaping of formal elements are evocative of (what was) a strange sense of time in which days blend into weeks and months suddenly turn into a year and a half.

Jamey Hart, “Location Services,” 2021, Gloria’s knitted dishcloths, glues, nails, dark blue sheet from a tree, wood, cardboard, other things, Approx: 12 x 17.5 x 3 in. Courtesy of Gray Contemporary.
Jamey Hart, “Location Services,” 2021, Gloria’s knitted dishcloths, glues, nails, dark blue sheet from a tree, wood, cardboard, other things, Approx: 12 x 17.5 x 3 in. Courtesy of Gray Contemporary.

I ended the day at Gray Contemporary to see Jamey Hart’s mixed-media exhibition “MERE.” Standing before the dark blue upholstered dropped-pin and listening to the humming motor inside the cardboard airship felt like a welcomed escape. I’m curious, though, what difference it might have made if the curators had installed “MERE” in the second smaller `gallery. In the main gallery, the distance between the seven works is palpable. It magnifies the detached preciousness of the presentation. There were sparks of play between the surfaces and pops of color — concrete gray, traffic orange, dusty purple — that made me wonder what “MERE” would have felt like in a more intimate space.

  • “Nicole Awai: Sensation Code” continues through June 26 at Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston, barbaradavisgallery.com.
  • “Robert Ruello: Angry Garden Salad” continues through July 2 at Inman Gallery in Houston, inmangallery.com
  • “MERE: Jamey Hart” continues through June 26 at Gray Contemporary in Houston, graycontemporary.com

Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley is an art historian based in Austin. Bradley specializes in modern and contemporary art with a focus on the history of photography and conceptual art. She received her BA in Art History with distinction from Boston University (2008) and earned her MA (2012) and PhD (2019) from The University of Texas at Austin.

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