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Trucks Put Artist On The Road

December 17, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Bruce Houston has been truckin' along with art for 25 years or so, but he never thought he would be delivered by miniature trucks with Mondrian trailers.

"Mondrian saved me, and I feel very grateful," he said, standing amid his show of improbable truck sculptures at the Jan Baum Gallery. "I'd been so down. I hadn't really worked for a year and a half, but I didn't tell anyone. I had lost my passion really, and I was devastated by it."

An assemblagist with a rare gift for constructing epiphanies of plastic toys and cake decorations, Houston decided he needed a rest from the struggles of making a living as an artist. What he really needed was to open his eyes to the organized chaos of his pack-rat's studio.

As a poet of plastic, a teller of large truths based on small throwaways, he had accumulated mounds of raw materials. Among the tiny brides and grooms, flamingos, soldiers, cigarette lighters and colored candies awaiting marriages with other foundlings in some yet-to-be-created assemblage, was a batch of toy truck cabs.

Houston had used some of them with outlandish trailers he made of wood, creating long trucks that turned sharp corners, plunged down precipices and cut zigzag courses. But now there was a new idea, no farther away than a post card bearing a reproduction of a pristine painting by Piet Mondrian, a luminary of the early 20th-Century De Stijl movement in the Netherlands and a seminal figure in reductive abstraction.

"I don't think Mondrian meant to be funny, but I guess he is now," Houston smiled, looking at three wall-mounted trucks with miniature Mondrian paintings as trailers. "I love his work, and I think he'd enjoy this if he knew."

Houston, a gray-haired, soft-spoken man with an indelible light touch, grew up in Omaha and came to Los Angeles to study graphic design at Art Center and UCLA. He landed a teaching post at the University of Arkansas, later returning to graduate school at the University of Iowa. His motivation was to become a painter and he turned out constructivist works in the tradition of Mondrian, but he finally came to the realization that he didn't like canvas. He was drawn to unconventional materials, primarily found objects that underwent strange and wonderful transformations when they were pulled out of their usual context and put with other objects.

His current exhibition is his first to be composed completely of constructed sculptures rather than pure assemblage. Accompanying the humorous paintings-as-vehicles are other inventive carriers: a truck with a twinkling skyline on its trailer, one with a few bars of music delicately printed on its white body, a deep-green "introverted" truck that turns in on itself like a formally trimmed hedge as it sits perfectly balanced on a pedestal.

While Houston's more familiar assemblages are always inspired by existing objects themselves, his trucks have to be constructed--sometimes from remembered experience. The green hedge-truck, for example, recalls a frightening night when an enormous rig was bearing down on a car driven by Houston's friend and carpenter-consultant Will Riegel. The truck kept thundering behind them as they turned one corner after another and finally pulled into a driveway to avoid being flattened.

A purple truck with a perfect loop in its trailer is the creation of pure fancy. "When I got the idea for that, Will said, 'Oh, Bruce, that's impossible.' But I said, 'If I can draw it, we can make it.' " They did, and the purple flip-truck fits right into a show that would turn the toughest Teamster into an art-loving pussycat.

Trucks, ex-depressions and exhibitions considered, it's been a very good year for Houston. He has had a solo exhibition at the University of Washington and participated in several group presentations around the country. Currently, in addition to his show at Jan Baum's (in which he is paired with Ed Quoss, through Dec. 28), he has an exhibition (through Sunday) at Gracie Mansion--a hot gallery in New York's East Village, run by a woman who also calls herself Gracie Mansion.

As Mansion tells it, Manhattan has finally discovered Bruce Houston. Reached by phone at the gallery, Mansion said, "The response to Bruce's work has been incredible." His show is a "Pick of the Week" in the Village Voice, and she has been assured by other dealers that "everybody is talking about Bruce Houston's work."

Having seen one of his assemblages brought to New York by an enthusiastic collector, Mansion booked his show on the spot a few months ago when the artist wandered into the gallery and introduced himself. She accounts for his appeal in terms of "sensitivity to scale," "meticulous production" and "a sense of humor that hits something universal."

In Los Angeles, Houston's pure eye and gentle wit is taken for granted. In New York, Mansion said, "It's very unusual to find serious art that gives you such positive feelings."

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