A show by Jim Houser has a certain presence, a feeling that seeps in through small cracks within the dizzying abundance of art. The walls are saturated with his work: canvases, as well as other painted images applied directly to the surfaces of the gallery or museum. He populates his exhibition spaces with an iconography that plays a part in his story: ocean waves, bare-chested men in shoes, geometric foliage, and the monolithic beasts Philadelphians knew as lurkers before they, and Houser, gained international recognition.
And there are words: sometimes written as sentences, sometimes presented in isolation; always fragments.They are written on or in paintings; they explain images or confuse them. The constant dialogue between the two forms creates a friction that changes one’s experience of the work, so that words become aesthetic images and pictures are read like icons. The painting of forms and text is crisp, and the variety of colors, both bold and soft, harmoniously unites everything. Meaning shifts over and between individual pictures and texts, complex and always changing. This quality is difficult to pin down, but you might call it Houser’s overwhelming subtlety. Whatever it is, it’s won him fans at home and all over the world, as well as museum shows and placement in prestigious private collections.
A lot of Houser’s friends are street artists who put their art outside for a shared urban experience. Houser, who lived in Providence, RI, while friends attended art school, found his own way, on his own terms. Rather than bring work out into other people’s worlds, he brings other people into his world, his work. His personal environment engulfs you, blossoming into a fully realized world over which Houser has complete control, unlike the world out there. Slyly, objects that were painted a potted plant, the bust of a lurker move beyond the walls, emerging three-dimensionally into your space. You could call him an installation artist, but really he’s an environmentalist.
The spatial dimensions play off each other in Houser’s work, but his installations also move beyond them into the fourth dimension time. It’s like a series of absorbing detective novels, as each individual object and gallery show is an episode that contributes to the overarching story. But the word “story” seems too linear to describe Houser’s art; really, the process is more like a universe expanding. Each new specimen emerges in the context of everything that came before it, and in turn adds something new to the whole picture. Houser views his work as a catalogue of his experiences, each image and word cross-referencing the others to create a detailed map of his personal history.
Houser’s work and life are truly interwoven, and his art traces important events and moods, for him as well as for the planet. He proposed to his late wife, Rebecca Westcott, by hiding a message under a small painting at a museum show. The life they shared was reflected in the art of both, and photographs in Houser’s 2005 book, Babel, bespeak the way his art and daily existence have always been knit together.
In later shows, undercurrents of violence penetrate his environment, with arrows piercing his peaceful figures. It’s not difficult to universalize this conflict, both at home with Philadelphia’s cruelly mounting body count, or abroad with war and strife. But these are merely examples of the associations Houser’s art inspires. Look again, and you’ll see something else. The work is highly personal, but Houser’s personal darkness becomes our own fears and concerns, as the ambiguities that live between image and text give us the space to make our own meaning.