Earlier this year as part of its multi-pronged "Houston Is Inspired" marketing campaign, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau unveiled its most prominent tangible creation: Houston Is, Aerosol Warfare Collective founder Gonzo247's vast (3,300 square feet) downtown mural.
I posted a picture of the work on my Facebook when it was nearing completion, and it was very well-recieved, garnering dozens of likes, exclamations like "Fantastic!" and "I Love it, love it, love it," and a request for directions, so that one admirer might gaze upon it person. (It's on the side of Treebeard's on Market Square.)
But apres Gonzo's voila, le deluge of derision, led by local arts blogger Harbeer Sandhu. In his post Houston is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind, Sandhu blasted the mural as vapid commercialism, far less a work of art than a mere billboard. (Albeit one that required 250 cans of spray paint, per Gonzo.) Sandhu blasts the mural as childish (like pre-k pudding paintings) and that it commits the mortal sin of telling all and showing nothing. Sandhu writes:
Frankly, I don’t know how to organize my thoughts around this one. I read those words and I wonder how they might have been represented visually, in a way that rings true for Houston. How is Houston 'funky?' Show me that. How is Houston 'hip?' Show me that, please. And what the f*** does 'savvy' mean, anyway? How is a city 'savvy?' Why isn’t the 'y' in 'savvy' a cute little spork? Could it be because of the glaring contradiction between the meaning of 'savvy' and turning a letter of the alphabet into a cutesy utensil, or did somebody run out of pudding?
Sandhu's disdain for Houston Is comes in spite of the fact that he even claims to admire "obnoxious ugly narcissistic tags with nothing but the writer’s name because those sing to me I AM // I EXIST // YOU DON’T SEE ME BUT I MATTER TOO."
Which seems to be precisely the GHCVB's point in commissioning this mural, but anyway...
Ultimately, Sandhu's other overarching point—that Houston Is seems utterly untethered to the place it purports to represent, is fairly convincing. (In contrast, he offers a series of murals from a San Francisco Whole Foods that showcase the array of wildlife in the Bay Area.) With the mere subtractions of the skyline, the city seal, and the word "Houston," Houston Is could as well adorn—or deface, as Sandhu would have it—a wall in Dallas, Tacoma or Bangor, Maine.
The comments section of Sandhu's post is well worth reading.
One commenter accused Gonzo of being nothing more than a "puppet for a dim marketing bureau" and that his work was nothing more than "inconsequential psychedelia" which makes it sound like the visual equivalent of Tripping Daisy or the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Swamplot blogger Allyn West said that Sandhu's slam knocked the scales from his eyes.
Look, I’m susceptible to garish colors and curlicues and 'inconsequential psychedelia,' as Manuel wonderfully calls it, and I’ve been one of those giddy Instagrammers posting images of this mural to his Facebook page. And I have to confess that I was fooled — or shocked, maybe — by the spectacle of it.
My reaction was 'Oh! Pretty!' And then I drove away.
But this essay talks me out of that. This point nails it: '[The Whole Foods] mural is tied to a place. It says something about the past AND the present of that place, which makes the viewer think of what the future might bring and how present choices will impact that possible future.'
Further down in the comments, there's a great if long-winded back-and-forth between Sandhu and local arts advocate Jenni-Beck, who defends the mural and the GHCVB.
So, what do you think? Is it sordid advertising or glorious work of art or some combiantion of the two? Does Houston Is show what Houston is, or is it merely visual Polyphonic Spree?