George Greanias and Lillian Warren
We all are familiar with Houston’s no-zoning tradition and have been cautioned not to romanticize or over-estimate its beneficent influence on our chockablock city. Perhaps, though, we can successfully practice no-zoning for conversations and confrontations that otherwise languish in isolated “discourse communities.” That model seemed to be the impetus behind a series of three conversations hosted at Rudolph Blume Fine Art/ArtScan Gallery which had as their background an exhibit of paintings by Lillian Warren called “Urban Landscapes” (April 30 through June 4, 2011; 1836 Richmond Avenue).
Last Thursday, May 12, about a dozen people gathered to participate in the second of these discussions, called “At the Intersection of Art & Traffic.” Houston METRO President and CEO George Greanias and Warren led the dialogue. We ranged across topics as various as artistic practice, cognitive science, public safety, the accidents of history in the emergence of the oil economy, and possibility for rational responses to public and individual needs in the free market or under the auspices of our government.
In the show, Warren’s paintings fall into two categories. The first is sort of an instructive nightmare scenario: freeway traffic as seen from the street-level, long lines of cars in lane after lane stretching off to a provisional sort of horizon. The second group comprises unpopulated Houston off-the-freeway streetscapes featuring empty sidewalks, cheap advertisement banners, fire hydrants, traffic barrels and traffic lights, power lines, sorry hedges, and concrete barricades.
The conversation proceeded casually. Greanias had arrived just 20 minutes earlier to view the works for the first time. He held onto his to-go coffee cup and stood in a doorway as we sat down for the talk. He and Warren stood before us and chatted together, pointing at the works around us to make their observations. Greanias asked some excellent questions about Warren’s artistic practice. We learned that she works from photographs, that she has to persuade friends to drive her into traffic jams so she can wield the camera. We learned about her process of selecting the images to work with, her decision to use acrylic on mylar (it makes the best mark for this sort of subject), her subsequent need to paint on a perfectly horizontal surface, as well as the practical consequences of painting within the scale of her own arm-reach.
Greanias was comfortable in the artistic context. As an undergraduate at Rice, he wrote two successful plays, one produced at the Alley Theater, before going on to earn his law degree and then entering city politics in the 1980s. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1997 and left public life soon after to start a behavioral management firm.
Then in September 2010, Greanias was appointed METRO’s interim chief, replacing scandal-prone Frank Wilson. He was charged with overhauling the agency’s damaged reputation and restoring its access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to expand the rail system. About a year ago, the METRO board voted to make his position permanent. In his time at METRO, he has made a point of attending dozens of community meetings as a sort of ambassador. His conversation with Warren must have marked a significant departure from his regular talking points, though he was sure to work in a few of them anyway.
As we focused on the paintings, we discussed the role and responsibility of the individual in the observation of the world, specifically with regard to the individual driver, as compared with someone who is contemplating a work of art. It was suggested by some that Warren’s paintings renew our perspective on the world, an especially necessary task given the way we often fail to see very much at all from behind the wheel.
Ever had the experience of arriving at your destination without any clear memory of how you got there?
One of Greanias’s top priorities at METRO is to attend to the experiences of actual individual users of public transit. To trim METRO’s budget, he took car-allowances from top executives and ordered them to make regular use of trains or buses.
Still the focus on individual experience does not shed much light on the realities of our social exchanges.
Referring to the popular 2008 book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, Greanias described how civic engineers attempt to account for human error and the inborn limitations in our cognitive abilities to see and respond to the world around us when we travel at speeds no human is evolutionarily adapted to reach. The unanticipated result of strategies to make roads safer, Vanderbilt argues, is that drivers will pay even less attention and drive more recklessly.
In the gallery, we were given ample time to contemplate the front grills of heavy trucks that seem to be staring us down. We noted the anthropological qualities of the vehicles: their headlamp-eyes and rear-view-ears. We recounted our own experiences sitting in traffic. We recalled the debacle of our evacuation before Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Renata Karlin, who wrote the catalogue for the show, described the paintings as dreamscapes, as a way to draw out “the memory of feelings.” The traffic paintings are imbued with dimension and movement, but they are stripped of other clues and contexts.
Warren describes her painting practice as emergent and process-oriented. Early in this series, she had completed painting the vehicles in one of the paintings. As she was about to start on the background—the roadway, concrete barriers, road signs, billboards, trees and sky—she stopped in her tracks, satisfied with the sense of anxiety and dislocation the work produced without those way-markings. Warren also chose to obscure the human figures behind the windshields of the cars, the others who are with us on the road. Some of us in the discussion found this quite fitting, given our collective isolation in traffic. At the same time, the position of the viewer on the road is uncertain, unprotected, exposed, and vulnerable.
Still, there was some disagreement about whether the traffic paintings made any explicit claim about the wisdom of these arrangements. One visitor described the images as totally irrational. Perhaps he was thinking about the deployment of our natural resources, the unintended effects of urban sprawl, or the frustrations of crawling through rush hour. Another visitor countered that what we saw was in fact evidence of astonishing rationality. A central motif of these paintings is the orderly arrangements of the vehicles, lined up in their lanes and reaching off to a foreshortened vanishing point. Each of these hundreds of drivers has agreed to cooperate in a very complex system of allowance and accommodation. The paintings imply that thousands of anonymous individuals, who don’t know one another, daily work together to things done.
These are the very concepts—individual agency, social cooperation, the husbanding of our resources—that should inform our understanding of the role of government. According to Greanias, the debate about this role is fundamental to whether the city or METRO can plan to make long-term improvements in public transit in the region.
He noted the cultural cache of the automobile in the 20th century, its symbolism of independence and freedom. His own first car was a hand-me-down without floorboards, but he still treasured it.
What seems to set us free, said Greanias, actually accrues unanticipated costs. Unlike with METRO, whose budgets and ridership numbers are published regularly, the costs of our freeway system are expansive and nearly impossible to measure. Our individual selves have cooperated in this case to jack up the cost of police patrol, added time spent in transit, ongoing road maintenance, environmental degradation, troubled international relations resulting from our oil dependence, not to mention the thousands of deaths and injuries caused by traffic accidents.
Warren’s traffic paintings seem to disrupt this neat division between thinking in terms of “my car” and “our cars.” The viewer is placed in a different position entirely. Houston’s freeway system may be unaccountable, but Lillian Warren has brought us much closer to understanding it in terms of our own selves and the world we struggle to share.