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Pondering Life’s Journey

Houston artist Mark Ponder uses his art to connect with others.

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Mark Ponder photographed by Mark S. McCray, wearing makeup by Daniel E. Zamora.

 

Mark Ponder remains unique among Texas art makers, with his intensive draftsman’s sensibility that looks like no other artist working here in Houston. While Ponder’s sure-handed drawing technique has always captivated viewers, over the past few years he’s been jumping into other disciplines—from an oversized jockstrap painting to comic self-help videos to slightly psychotic arrangements of gift-wrapped objects arranged around a fireplace mantel.

Having visited his studio regularly, I am not surprised when, with his almost childlike sense of wonder, he asks, “Since artists have the all-powerful gift of creation, why don’t  more of them start their own religions?” After hearing him insist that he could have been as successful as another L. Ron Hubbard, it becomes clear that we are dealing with an artist who doesn’t take any aspect of reality for granted.

At his April 6 opening for his last solo show at the G Spot Gallery in the Heights, the rooms were filled with what appeared to be every handsome, bearish, bearded arts-oriented gentleman in Texas. Ponder’s somewhat delayed coming-out process was enacted and depicted though his work, so these men formed the community he found via art as well as gay softball. While he has since settled down in a serious relationship, all who met him during his attempts to find his gay Houston tribe remain fiercely loyal to him. More than one gallery attendee joked that whether they had encountered him as a member of the CubCakes softball team or in one of the classes he teaches at the Glassell School of Art, they remain proud members of the Ponder fan club.

This confident, unique maker is a far cry from the shy, mousey artist I met with visionary curator Dennis Nance (then at Lawndale Art Center) at a Polyphonic Spree show at Fitzgerald’s. I told Ponder I was an old punk-rocker and was fond of rock-and-roll energy, so he gave me the finger and walked away laughing. That was when I fell for his impish bad-boy humor.

Ponder is from the classic small town of Groves, Texas, population 10,000. While the nearby bigger city of Port Arthur produced both Robert Rauschenberg and Janis Joplin, the whole area was economically depressed during Ponder’s childhood. When asked if he saw any visual art growing up, he responded with an emphatic “Hell no!” Neither were there any gays in Groves, as far as he knew. Although he saw art as an undergrad at Lamar University in Beaumont, his first meaningful exposure was a semester abroad in Italy.

Still, making his living in art never occurred to him, and he started channeling his passion for the visual into graphic design in grad school in Carbondale, Illinois. But after starting work at a design firm, he found that using his visual talents merely to satisfy his clients’ aims was an unpleasant experience. He was drawn to highly graphic artists who were emotionally direct and unguarded, and he started realizing that he could connect with others through his ability to draw something. But what?

Ponder’s painfully slow process of coming out proved to be his chosen topic. He grew up in a household where sex was considered “bad,” so his cure for that involved a self-portrait depicting himself ejaculating glitter while wearing a party hat, and another portrait in which he wore nothing but clown shoes. He also produced a brilliant series of drawings in which oh-so-gay rainbows served as synecdoches for male bodies, with piles of exhausted rainbows cuddling after their three-way rainbow orgies—quite an absurdist commentary on queer brotherhood.

These drawings followed a rather creepy Cult of Ponder self-help video and a series of works about the institution of death, including an infamous video of women lying in their coffins, seemingly dancing to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” (Since when are we all alone when we pass over?)

Another death-obsessed performance-art project involved a balloon that Ponder kept with him even while sleeping and taking showers. He enjoyed introducing his ballon to passing strangers, including a motorcycle club in Dallas (luckily they were amused and not offended). This continued until the balloon “died,” and was then shown deceased on a pedestal—an absurdist act of mourning.

After Ponder was included in the Texas Biennial in Austin, he was promptly showing at every alternative venue in Houston, including Lawndale Arts Center, the Alabama Song arts space, and Gallery Homeland. Then just as suddenly, he seemed to vanish, and everyone was asking what had happened to Mark Ponder. He realizes now that he used his art to find the family he never thought he deserved, and having found his crew, he has different goals for his art.

Now that Ponder has found himself living with Paul Davis, who chairs the theater department at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he no longer wants to be the wacky personality that Houston’s art world knew and loved. He went underground from 2016 to 2019 while he allowed his work to deepen and become more mystical and private.

The drawings he produces today are puzzles, mazes, and confounding landscapes that clearly refer to our journeys in life. Not used to being happy, he sees his history of depression and sexual addiction in the empty, infinite landscapes he creates. He has experimented with drawing while watching TV and smoking pot, sketching holes, portals, and windows with his hands always moving.

And every once in a while, a concrete, meaningful symbol appears. Taking a bath one evening, Ponder looked up and saw his and Paul’s electric toothbrushes standing next to each other. He thought, “This is what a relationship looks like.” The next day he made a drawing of their toothbrushes as a perfect celebratory representation of his artistic and life yearnings that have become reality.

This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Bill Arning

Bill Arning is a curator, critic, founder of Bill Arning Contemporary Art Consultants.

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