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Tuesday, August 20, 2019 — Houston, TX 82°

CAMH brings chaos, intrigue with Cheryl Donegans ‘’GRLZ + VEILS’

Courtesy Cheryl Donengan

By Moses Glickman     1/22/19 9:24pm

Cheryl Donegan’s first American painting exhibition, “GRLZ + VEILS,” is currently showing at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, and you don’t want to miss it. 

CAMH promotional materials describe her as “irreverent, subversive … widely acclaimed.” Her retrospective, “Cheryl Donegan,” describes her work as “continu[ing] to transgress traditional media.” Perhaps the most unexpectedly vivid phrasing comes from her Wikipedia page: “She is known for her video works, such as “Head (1993)” and “Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (1992).”

I arrived at the opening reception for “GRLZ + VEILS” when it began, but it was already bustling. 

“The artist is milling about here somewhere,” said the woman at the desk. “You can’t miss her. She’s in bright orange pants.”

Actually, I did miss her for a while, and not just because there were in fact several people in orange pants. It is very easy to get distracted at CAMH, and almost impossible to not get distracted at “GRLZ + VEILS.” CAMH has no permanent collection and remarkably few internal walls, allowing a great deal of flexibility in exhibition space and design. Donegan, never a minimalist, went all-in. The central walking space is dominated by an army of mannequins, each in dresses patterned entirely by blown-up photographs of air conditioning grates. The walls are bedecked in paintings, banners and weavings from almost a dozen series. (Maybe a little less than that, depending how you count; five paintings are from “Eyes Wide Shut,” a hoax exhibition created by Donegan and fellow artist Tom Meacham that existed only in photoshopped gallery images.) 

On one side of the hall are paintings from Donegan’s “Resist” series; a sign beside them explains how the artist used Elmer’s School Glue to create suggestive imagery. Twenty feet to the left, a projector shows samples of her absurdist, now-deleted Vine channel. A strangely ominous pan over a pile of beer cans; a checkered shirt being folded to the sound of soft moaning — imagine a warehouse-sized amount of this. That’s “GRLZ + VEILS.” 

I was struck by how CAMH as a setting accentuated the madhouse, dreamland nature of the exhibition. A sign by the door alerts patrons that they consent to be photographed by entering the museum, and they generally are photographed — sometimes quite frequently, always without notice. (Probably about 10 photos were taken of me during my half-hour visit; this was a little surprising, given that I was by far the most boringly dressed person at the reception). The mannequins that swarm the center of the room blend in, from a distance, with the other visitors to the CAMH. Freed from framed confines, larger pieces droop from the ceiling and roll across the floor. The lines blur between viewer and viewed, making the exhibition much easier to identify with.

There are some trouble spots with the exhibition. One entire side wall features nothing but fabric-covered canvases, a display choice that, when viewed collectively, turns the original into the somewhat monotonous. Logistically, given the profusion of mannequins, flat-screen TVs and banners on the ground, it’s a little hard to get from point A to point B when the museum is crowded. Overall, however, it’s no contest —“GRLZ + VEILS” is assuredly worth your time. What the heck — wear orange pants.

“Cheryl Donegan: GRLZ + VEILS” is on view at CAMH from Jan. 19 to March 31.

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