The Houston Artist Speaks Through Grids 

By: Reyes Ramirez

“A 1946 National Magazine article described a Chicago building where the landlord had  divided a 540 square foot storefront into six cubicles, each housing a family. He had  similarly subdivided the second story. Total monthly rent was as great as that generated  by a luxury apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast along Lake Michigan.”1

Houston is a series of grids: streets, buildings, shopping malls, the electricity illuminating  their contents and the blueprints that envisioned them all. H-Town lacks governance  regarding land use (except in rare cases, most which benefit the affluent through deed  restrictions). The emptiness of the squares on these urban grids have always been  conduits for the Houstonian imagination. I’ve lived in an apartment complex that had a  movie theater, several restaurants, a gas station, food trucks, auto repair garages, a bar, a  laundromat, a sex shop, and three elementary-age schools within a five-minute walking  radius of a predominantly Black & Brown block.

One of Modern Art’s distinguishing factors, according to Rosalind Krauss, is the presence  of grids. The grid permeates the nature of contemporary American  consciousness and urban design. However, in the context of white art, the grid itself is a diagrammed white space  that prioritizes white aesthetics since white humanity is inherently valued in Western  society. For POC, the grid itself is a mechanism of oppression to be seized and either  abolished or decolonized, like a prison or urban planning that places resources outside  neighborhoods of color. 

The most transformative use of grids has been through work subverting the grid’s utilitarian purpose by utilizing the form to serve POC aesthetics. It’s no coincidence that  five artists of color in Houston explicitly utilize grids in their work: Matt Manalo, Angel  Lartigue, Irene Antonia Diane Reece, Marcos Hernandez Chavez, and Jessica Gonzalez.

In a series of drawings titled ‘Forensic Burial Maps of Cadavers,’ Angel Lartigue appropriates the practice of forensic anthropology’s gridding of cadavers to depict  corpses imbued with fantastic qualities. Corpses of marginalized people are often seen  as numbers, lines, and/or metonymic symbols that erase their humanity. Jason De  León’s “Hostile Terrain” installation has toe tags represent migrant deaths along the US Mexico border; Coronavirus death numbers obfuscate the high percentage of Black &  Brown people that are disproportionately affected by the virus. In these drawings,  Lartigue ‘documents’ cadavers’ decay along various planes, including what is not traditionally  noted in  forensic studies that makes each cadaver part of a larger conversation of nature and  history: insects drawn to the corpse stench; the passage of a soul from its mortal  container; the constellations formed from different points of maladies; the melding of  flesh into dirt & roots; the feathers of vultures; written notes from song lyrics, concepts,  and astrological points. Lartigue depicts them all along a grid.

I lived in many apartments throughout my life. In B2, I often drank until I wept myself  thirsty. I have no idea what happened in B1 even though only two layers of drywall  separated my neighbor and me, until I saw a record player amongst all of their evicted  belongings. We’re just  passing through boxes in grids we don’t own, after all.

In a series of paintings by Matt Manalo, grids are a mimetic system of abstract  representation that places the bird-eyed viewer as an outsider looking down at the tops of  slums, structures, and even metaphoric journeys of assimilation and displacement.  There’s a planned disorder in these organizational maps. ‘Displacement,’ an 8’’x8’’ mixed  media piece, features an x-y axis where each square contains something; their contents  range from cubes in various states of dilapidation to grey, white, or rust colored  emptiness. The ‘empty’ spaces’ colors can imply removal, disrepair, or planned  ‘development,’ ghosts of a memory or design. A series of smaller pieces titled ‘Structure,’  each 12’x12,’ are grids filled with cubed raw canvas, raw cotton threading, charcoal, or air  in various manipulations. Manalo’s use of grids create maps of contemplation, considering  each square’s meaning, use, history, and future on a graph of chaos and change frozen in  a moment.

Grids have a power to quantify how much is ‘necessary’ to sustain human life, and their  absence or obsolescence can be used even further to oppress, such as the power grid in  Puerto Rico and the plumbing of Flint, Michigan. Grids attempt to be anti-narrative, to  facilitate information and/or resources within a limited space for interpretation by a  power. This is not the case. The grid is an abstraction of reality that places a space outside  its history to implement a consciousness. A field of grass can become a home; a burger  joint becomes a cash advance agency which turns into a thrift shop until it is bulldozed  over for a high rise. A blueprint for a building cannot have feedback from the building  itself; POC, who historically have been restrained from having generational capital, can’t  either.

In Irene Reece’s series titled “There Were Always People Like Me,” one piece  uses the grid as a saturation of images to counter erasure of Black beauty. Reece places  images from 50s/60s advertisements of various Black hair models on a 12’’x12’’ grid. Its  purpose is to overwhelm the viewer with depictions of Blackness absent in American  conceptions of beauty that often defer to whiteness. Reece notes the “feeling of being  brainwashed” but in the opposite direction of prevailing narratives from oppressive  white media. The nature of this overwhelming or brainwashing is either empowering or  worrying. This brings into question how the mind works when presented with repetitive  images of a single narrative. A tool of colonization is repetition: providing singular  ideations of abstractions such as beauty, intellect, history, success, aesthetics, etc. Reece  uses the grid to subvert generations of colonization in a single piece.

Those with the ability to dictate the nature of said grids and cull them to their benefit has  mostly been in the hands of white people in America; the self-determination afforded to  white, rich people to decide the aspects of a city and who has access to resources has  always trumped those of communities of color through racist efforts such as  gentrification, redlining, gerrymandering, citizenship documents and forms, etc. It is the  forced navigation of grids and the squares within them that has inherently plagued the  experience of communities of color: renting apartments rather than owning a home;  having a strict file of forms that deem your existence legal in a country; being subject to  the erasure of complexity in favor of a simplified structure to fit the needs of an oppressor;  and knowing when to break from entrenched patterns of racism that have consistently  denied POC’s self-realization. As inhabitants of a shifting metropolis, us Houstonians of color are aware that a square on a grid is a life, that we have to pack as much density of  our lives into oppressive structures.

Jessica Gonzalez’s “A#05-14-1989” uses the grid to explore  the use of  bureaucratic processes to institutionalize people of the Global South through redundant,  repetitive documentation. Gonzalez lays out several portraits of her mother, a  Salvadoran refugee, taken by the American government at different years for her file, the  name of which begins the x-y axis. The American government contributed to the  continuation of the Salvadoran Civil War. Each picture is in black and white with a y axis dehumanizingly stating over and over again “PHOTO AVAILABLE,” replicating the  sense of process for the sake of process. A documentation for the sake of documentation. If one is documented as living in a country for years, how is a ‘citizen’ any different? Gonzalez use of the grid form reveals that nothing had changed in her mother’s  situation, merely that the US government sought a variation in her exile from her  country as though looking for an excuse to expel her. The grid is a document of  oppression.

Through these works,  I see a desire to counter the oppressive structure of grids  with declarations of control in the hands of POC. Art, then, becomes a way to  reappropriate and deny the oppressor’s singular vision of a tool. The master’s tools cannot  dismantle the master’s house, but perhaps those same tools can be seized to build another  foundation that can facilitate another vision. The grid, it seems, can be seized creatively,  at least.

In Marcos Hernandez Chavez’s series of pieces, with various, conceptual titles, made of  cotton or silk thread woven through 12’x12’ wood frames with pegs, the grid is revealed  to be a paradoxical container of infinity. The seemingly random and chaotic appearance of the threads must be in an order since unraveling them one by one would require a  patient, meditative hand. It goes to show the infinite nature of how a life can be fulfilled  but is still destined to occur in one setting, a paradox of chance within the rules. We  question the nature of free will in a set amount of overlying circumstances, how relative  infinity is in the density of a space. The math and what can be quantified vs who  finally makes what choice. This is the presence of a consciousness without a  consciousness inherent in grids.

1 Daniel Herriges, “How the Government Segregated America’s Cities By Design,” last  modified September 26, 2019, the-government-segregated-americas-cities-by-design.

Reyes Ramirez
Reyes Ramirez (he/him) is a Houstonian, writer, educator, curator, and organizer of Mexican and Salvadoran descent. He authored the short story collection The Book of Wanderers (2022) from University of Arizona Press’ Camino del Sol series and the poetry collection El Rey of Gold Teeth (2023) from Hub City Press. His latest curatorial project, The Houston Artist Speaks Through Grids, explores the use of grids in contemporary Houston art, literature, history, and politics. Reyes has been honored as a 2020 CantoMundo Fellow, 2021 Interchange Artist Grant Fellow, 2022 Crosstown Arts Writer in Residence, 2023 Dobie Paisano Fellow, and awarded grants from the Houston Arts Alliance, Poets & Writers, and The Warhol Foundation’s Idea Fund.
Featured Image By: Displacement (2016) by Matt Manalo / Desplazamiento (2016) por Matt Manalo

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