Currently on view at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles is a solo exhibition of new work by LA artist Jason Houchen, entitled Fallen Trees Spread No Seeds. Houchen’s past life in Missouri solicits his Americana aesthetic, to which he adds a healthy dose of Los Angeles irony and tongue-in-cheek imagery. The painstakingly delicate woodburnings – manifested on either sculpted and carved moose or ram heads, lampshades with polished silver antler bases, belt buckles or flat wooden panels – depict a folksy batch of collective portraits and landscapes. But through Houchen’s witty presentation and thorough craft, one is sure to not confuse the work with folk art goods being sold roadside to tourists on the way to the Grand Canyon.
Upon closer inspection of Houchen’s pieces, the Native Americans that Houchen depicts find themselves in myriad scenes of postmodern woe. In the small woodburning on panel called Outward Expansion, a hesitant team of American Indians find themselves on the brink of civilization (read: suburbia) as they look upon an expanse of sprinkler-lined sod leading to a quintessentially American single family home. The mailbox flag is up, likely alluding to the hypothetical nail in the coffin to the natives of the land that “civilization” has arrived to take over for good.
The piece Paving The West similarly deals with the colonized land of the natives, but in a contemporary setting. Cal-Trans workers lay the foundation for a paved road, using modern machinery to get the job done. Meanwhile Native Americans in full feathered headdresses and buckskins sit atop stallions or stand nearby, however it is unclear whether they are helping or hindering the paving process as they hold spear tips at the road and look on with what seems to be (and one can assume is) displeasure.
In Falling Trees Spread No Seeds, the namesake piece of the exhibition, Houchen creates a woodburning on a carved moose head. The prized game bust, this icon of Americana, hangs on the wall of La luz de Jesus much like it would in a Midwestern hunting lodge, but Houchen exquisitely depicts notable world characters on its long neck, bringing the discussion up a few notches from hunting to matters of historical importance. Martin Luther King Junior appears next to Abraham Lincoln and alongside Gandhi and John F. Kennedy. This multitude of notable men, whose busts sit atop broken tree stumps in a mess of overgrown ivy, surely brings ideas of the past to mind, but it is unclear in what direction Houchen wants us to take those thoughts. The title of the piece lends insight into the dialog, reminding us that those depicted were all struck down, in tragic assassinations, by those opposed to their revolutionary ideas of promoting peace and acting as voices for the marginalized citizens of their time, through various political and social channels. Within this context the piece makes more sense, but I needn’t remind Houchen that all of these men made enormous contributions to society while they were living, clearly “spreading ample seeds” even if their time to do so was unjustly cut short. I doubt, however, that he really means to sell their accomplishments short.
Houchen delves into history repeatedly throughout the exhibition, even recalling Dante’s Inferno in his woodburning on a carved wooden ram’s head, appropriately titled Inferno. This time the animal’s neck is adorned with impeccably detailed images of, presumably, the nine circles of hell, while a skeleton head looks on as fire overtakes the lost souls in Satan’s bondage below. Above the judgement, Christ and the two thieves are depicted, crucified, between the eyes of the ram.
Fallen Trees Spread No Seeds, as a whole, is a unique experience in the landscape of Los Angeles contemporary art. Houchen’s monochromatic pieces, with splashes of stained glass in some cases, present a cohesive visual within a thought-provoking framework. The artist describes himself as an “urban folk artist”, which is evident through the themes and materials of the wild west, and the illustrative precision of a Hollywood tattoo artist. In the setting of La Luz de Jesus, with its combination outsider, kitsch, urban, cutting edge and decidedly lowbrow program, Houchen’s work stands out from the paintings and sculptures often shown. Though no better or worse, Houchen’s work simply can’t be compared to that of his contemporaries simply by virtue of his rare union of medium and subject matter.
Jason Houchen received his BFA from the University of Missouri and is currently working on his Master’s degree and teaching in Illinois.