When the pirate Jean Lafitte captured slave ships in the 1800s, he brought them back to his headquarters in Campeche, as the island of Galveston was then known. The “hero of the Alamo” Jim Bowie and his brothers acted as intermediaries for Lafitte and sold the slaves onward, making a fortune in the process. Galveston would go on to become the largest slave market west of New Orleans. And it was on Galveston island on June 19th, 1865, that slavery in America is popularly considered to have come to an end*, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union General Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and read aloud General Order Number 3, which stated:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” **
Thus, Galveston is the home of Juneteenth, the holiday that sprang from that June 19th announcement. And that’s the reason for the title of the Galveston Arts Center show, Two & ½ Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth, a collaborative project by artists Tierney Malone and Robert Hodge.
The seeds of the duo’s collaboration were planted four years ago when Hodge listened to Malone’s 90.1 KPFT radio show “Jazz Spotlight” and heard the Juneteenth history in a segment about slavery in Texas that Malone created and narrated. Hodge loved the jazz-filled piece and thought it would be interesting to do a version using contemporary hip-hop artists to engage and educate a younger audience. Hodge and Malone’s album debuted last year on June 19th featuring quintessential Houston hip-hop pioneers like Lil’ Keke and Z-Ro, as well as newer Houston talent. They see the project as ongoing; a piece by 2010 MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran will be added in the next few weeks. You can listen to the album here.
The Galveston Arts Center is presenting the visual component of the 2 ½ Years project. Malone and Hodge are generationally different artists, but both use imagery from popular culture. Malone riffs on history and jazz with cool, elegant paintings carrying fragments of text and cropped graphic images culled from album covers, books, and signs. He uses bold areas of color and spare and dramatic forms with his artfully selective text.
Malone’s Third Ward Jubilee, 2016, fills the back wall of the gallery. He uses the dramatic silhouette of an African wood sculpture and pairs it with the cropped word “Monk,” in what may or may not be cover art from an old Thelonious Monk album. The text and the sculpture’s shape are both formal abstract elements and signifiers of African and African American culture. Rectangles of color and cropped text from logos and signs include Houston icons like “The Shrine of the Black Madonna” and “Zina Garrison” (the “I” is topped with a tennis ball). A dusty blue semicircle is a giant version of the label for the Houston-recorded 7” LP MacGregor Park by The LA Rapper. (Zina Garrison began playing tennis at a free clinic at MacGregor Park.) There is a cropped image of one of Blast Records and Tapes iconic mix tapes. All of these elements are masterfully combined into this large-scale painting which functions as a powerful work of abstraction while simultaneously conjuring memories and associations for people both familiar and unfamiliar with its roots.
Hodge has a much more raw aesthetic as he creates collages of frenetically layered figures from culture—pop and otherwise—running the gamut from MC Hammer to Pope John Paul II. He visually samples iconic African-American artists like Aretha Franklin and white artists like Elvis who ripped off African-American culture. He arranges them in politically and culturally charged combinations. Hodge builds up jagged layers of painted and sometimes “gilded” cardboard scraps to create a substrate for these collaged images. Their irregular shape and thickness make them almost sculptural; they look like giant chunks of bark pried off some mammoth East Texas pine.
Between the Devil and the Deep, 2017, after the Ella Fitzgerald song, is a swirling vortex of predominately ‘70s figures from pop culture, cut out and glued and stitched down. There’s a shirtless man from the Bar-Kays, his eyes painted out. There’s Flip Wilson dressed up as Geraldine, Richard Roundtree as Shaft, and an unrecognizably young Neil Diamond. Across the top of the piece is a glittery word that reads “Praise.” In the center is a gospel singer in blue and white robes and below him is an upside down image of Pope John Paul II, the two stitched together at the waist.
It’s like those flip dolls they used to sell in plantation gift shops, two connected torsos with a skirt in between that would change them from black to white, but the white doll would have blond hair and a pretty dress, and the black doll would have a red and white gingham headscarf, presenting as a “mammy”. Viewers can pull a multitude of meanings from Hodge’s juxtapositions, but the Catholic church doesn’t have a great record on slavery—in 1866, just after the Civil War, Pope Pius pronounced: “It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.” In Hodge’s work, Pius’s hierarchy is reversed.
Malone lays out some powerful work by bluntly addressing slavery’s consequences. His 2017 Queen Mother is a blue-toned photographic image presented like an LP label. The title is written across the bottom in large yellow block letters like the title of an album. The blue toning makes the image harder to see but when it registers you realize it’s a 19th-century portrait of a black woman, her breasts bare as she nurses a white baby. Enslaved mothers were forced to become wet nurses for white children to the detriment of their own children. Those babies would grow up to own and oppress the women who had nurtured them.
Another photo-based work, My Connection to Slavery, 2017, is an enlargement of old portraits of a bearded man in a dark suit and a woman in a white dress with their names printed at the bottom, Prince Albert Cowan and Eliza Lang Cowan. Over the images Malone has painted “Slave Master’s Son” and “Enslaved African”.
For Ain’t Never Goin’ Back, 2017 Malone cropped an advertisement for the return of a runaway slave. There is a partial figure rendered from an engraving of a black man with a hobo bag on a stick. Words from the snippet of the ad include: “boy,” “copper color,” “Houston” and “reward.”
Part of Malone’s goal with the Juneteenth project is to stress the active role black people took in their own emancipation. In addition to myriad acts of resistance and escape, several hundred thousand black men served in the Union Army. Freedom Sound, 2017 is a large black-and-white reproduction of a period photograph showing black soldiers in Union uniform. They stand with their hands on their rifles and look straight at the camera with a mixture of gravitas and vengeance. The words “colored soldiers in droves” are outlined across the photo. The quote is from the slave narrative of Harriet Smith describing seeing black troops as a child. The men in that image are the ancestors of Black Lives Matter, early travelers on the long and seemingly endless journey to freedom and equality. If white people today are freaked out by peaceful Black Lives protesters, one can only imagine the hysteria of slave owners when confronted with these soldiers.
Very often politically engaged art ends up preaching to the choir, but the location of the Galveston Arts Center on the tourist-clogged Strand makes it possible for people to accidentally encounter art. The Center’s shop is visible from the street and acts as a lure; a tourist fresh from purchasing a fidget spinner or a “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt down the block can easily wander in. And tourists drive by Ashton Villa today, admiring the building. Most are unaware of what took place there on June 19, 1865 or that the elegant home was constructed by a man named Alek, an enslaved brick mason purchased specially for the job.
‘Two & 1/2 Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth’ runs through July 9 at the Galveston Arts Center, 2127 Strand, Galveston, TX 77550. Photos by Ronald L. Jones.
*The real end of slavery came when 13th amendment was ratified. Georgia gave it the ¾ majority on December 6, 1865. Mississippi, the final hold out, didn’t ratify the amendment until 1995 and then failed to make it official until 2013 when they finally notified the U.S. Archivist.
**Naturally the order ends by admonishing people who have toiled their whole lives in servitude to be sure to keep themselves busy.
Eliasson’s “Green light” is one of the inaugural exhibitions at Rice University’s new collaboration-focused Moody Center, along with “Thomas Struth: Nature and Politics,”“teamLab: Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled But Live Together” and “Dana Thater: The Starry Messenger.” With the exception of Struth, the opening exhibitions, like the design of the new Moody Center itself, are long on style and short on substance.
“Green light,” first presented in Vienna, was commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, an art foundation started by the super-rich aristocrat Francesca von Habsburg. The title “Green light” refers to the green LED light of the lamp designed by Eliasson, who intends it as a literal and metaphorical “green light” to welcome refugees. Yes, that is how deep the symbolism goes.
The Moody Center recruited lamp-making participants through Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. Three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, Interfaith volunteers drive the refugees from far-flung parts of Houston to the Moody Center for the Arts. Arriving at noon, the participants receive lunch and then work making lamps for two and a half hours. Once a week, after work hours, Interfaith volunteers teach an ESL class to the whole group, while other volunteers provide help with résumés. Additional activities have included a photography class, a Rice baseball game and a trip to a Plant It Forward urban farm — the organization helps refugees start their own urban farm businesses.
Each table is a different station in the lamp-manufacturing process. The refugees have been working for a couple of months now, and these people work together with a kind of quiet camaraderie. Apparently they have been having a lot of fun in their ESL classes as they all try to learn English.
When I visited, volunteer Sarah Boardman was at a laptop working on participant Mohammed Horo’s résumé while Horo sanded wood. Horo is a talented musician, a Kurd from Aleppo, Syria, who sings and plays the guitar-like buzuq. He is working as a tailor to try to support his wife and five children. Another man at the table from Syria introduced me to his wife, and told me she is looking for work cleaning or cooking. Even with limited English skills, the participants are friendly and earnest as they try to answer questions or show what they are doing. These people signed up for this project because they want to connect with their new communities.
The finished lamps are faceted wooden frameworks with a network of string and a green light inside. Stretching the (recycled) plastic string inside the lamp is, according to the people working, the most complicated part. The lamps can be grouped into larger geometric forms. They sell for $350 apiece and proceeds go to Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, a truly worthy organization. About 12 lamps have sold so far; there are many more available.
The Moody declined to tell me how much the refugees are being paid. But Interfaith Ministries was matter-of-fact about the center’s arrangement. According to Elena Korbut, community engagement coordinator for Refugee Services, the refugees work seven and a half hours a week. The Moody keeps track of days or hours missed and those are deducted. The refugees are paid $8 an hour. That is 75 cents over minimum wage and ends up being $20 for each afternoon worked.
The Moody Center for the Arts cost $30 million. Among the furnishings are Eames conference chairs that cost a couple of grand apiece and, at last report, still had the tags on them. Olafur Eliasson sells work for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Von Habsburg has no shortage of cash.
These refugees manufacture the artwork at close to minimum wage while Eliasson uses their status to make his project Topical! and Interesting! Their histories add cachet to the show.
Houstonians interested in helping refugees can contact Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston to volunteer or donate — the organization needs everything, from cash to household goods. You can also hire refugees through Interfaith. If you want to employ or help these refugees in particular, their last workday at the Moody is Saturday afternoon, May 6.
Dana Thater’s “The Starry Messenger,” 2014, will be on view through February 18, 2018. Which would be great if you could actually see it. The nine-panel monitor wall presents video of the Milky Way shot at Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory. The video wall is opposite one of the many vaunted window walls in the Moody Art Center, and it’s almost impossible to see the video. I don’t know that we are missing much; as far as I can tell, Thater just recorded what the observatory projects in its planetarium. It might, however, be stunning in a darkened, enclosed gallery that could let a viewer imagine the spectacular vastness of space.
Windows and light are lovely, but they can make showing art and other functions problematic. The multitude of window walls make the building and classrooms so loud, professors have had to stop class until groups move from the lobby. The windows of the “makerspace” where people will be using machinery, which can fling objects, seem pretty foolhardy. The window walls on the visiting-artist studio have already been covered by current artist-in-residence Mona Hatoum. Nobody likes to work in a fishbowl. Staff offices have the same issue.
To create the darkened room needed for teamLab’s video installation Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled But Live Together, which runs through August 13, a room had to be built within a room. The walls are covered with dark, velvety fabric and the floor is covered with dense, dark carpeting that makes the space feel quiet and cozy. teamLab are billed as “operating at the frontier of art and technology.” Which is as pretentious as the idiosyncratic capitalization of this Tokyo-based collective’s name. The room is filled with projections of small, pastel-hued flowers that cluster, lose their petals or disintegrate in response to the viewer’s presence. It seems as if it ought to be amazing, but the result is much more decorative than transcendent and it’s basically a good space for student selfies and Instagramming.
“Thomas Struth: Nature and Politics” runs through May 29 and has some great work. In the series on view, Struth uses a large-format 8×10 camera to capture images of complex technology, photographing places like NASA or the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics in Germany as a kind of man-made landscape.
His massive photograph Space Shuttle 1, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, 2008 is about six feet high and 12 feet wide. It shows the looming underside of the space shuttle, its belly covered with a grid of insulating tiles to protect the shuttle during re-entry. There are around 24,000 of them, six by six inches each. Their gray surface makes them look like a Roman road, and you think about how such complex technology used this ancient idea of paving. Struth’s photograph shows the mobile scaffolding used to check and mark damaged tiles. No human beings are visible, which somehow emphasizes how few of us actually understand this thing that has been created.
Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald, 2009, is another massive photograph showing a technological bird’s nest of pipe and brackets and wires and clamps. You realize this tangle of mechanics is the direct result of its function. A lone glove rests on top of the mass, like the wheeled scaffolding in the space shuttle photo, a relic of human interaction.
A smaller-scale photograph, Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery Max Planck IPP, Garching, 2009, is an expressionist tangle of coils, loops and bundles of multicolored wires. They look like the veins and arteries of some frightening cyborg.
The exhibition is too large for the space, the only conventional gallery space in the building. Multiple pricey temporary walls were built for additional hanging space. They are set at angles to each other and the effect is of a densely overhung show. Maybe that claustrophobia is intentional — the mass of imagery in the space mimicking the masses of forms in the photograph. But in the end, it is just really difficult to see and experience Struth’s work when it’s so jammed in.
We’ll see how the gallery works for future exhibitions, but the lack of a crawl space in the ceiling means that hanging things from above is not going to be an option. Other functions have similar problems with the space; in addition to the loud classrooms, the “studio” spaces don’t have storage space for work, and the black box theater has nowhere to build or store sets. No department is housed at the Moody Center, which is presented as simply a 50,000-square-foot space for collaboration but so far feels like a rental hall in which occupants are allowed a short period of usage and then have to clean up and clear.
Green light — An artistic workshop
Dana Thater: The Starry Messenger
teamLab: Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled But Live Together
Thomas Struth: Nature and Politics
All exhibitions are on view at the Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, Campus Entrance 8 at the intersection of University and Stockton. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 713-348-2787.
Head, Guston’s 1968 ink drawing of said cabeza, is a wonky silhouette showing the clunky outline of a figure standing sideways but with his head turned toward you. No profile is visible, just the lumpy shape of a noggin and the cut-off shoulders. The thick, awkward forms we know from Guston’s paintings are reduced here to a thick, awkward line. It’s simple but wonderfully evocative and fascinating for what it leaves out.
There are a lot of the usual suspects in this show, numerous works from de Kooning, Pollock, Rauschenberg and Twombly. There is a smattering of white women represented. Unless I missed someone, there is no artist of color. You can’t retroactively enlighten private collections, but the Menil Drawing Institute will have an obligation to broaden the discussion.
Balthus is one dead white guy I could do without. His awkward and slightly surreal paintings featuring very young, early-adolescent girls have always been controversial. His response to the criticism was that the viewers simply had dirty minds. (Isn’t that some kind of abuser tactic?) He painted these girls in sensual and sexualized ways, the artist’s view of his subject manifesting in his rendering. It later came out that he had had an affair with one of his teenage models.
The drawing on view, Study for Nude in Front of a Mantel (1949), reads as a well-drawn and fairly academic nude with the kind of subtle sensuality you see in other such drawings. The exception is the obvious youth of the model. Balthus’s model is a girl, probably just starting puberty. She still has a little-girl body and is drawn in profile, one raised arm holding her hair up and displaying the side of a training-bra-size breast. The profile of a hairless pudendum is also visible.
A lot of arguments are made around Balthus’s work. Certainly there have been many appalling and morally bankrupt people who made good art. But I think intent matters. Balthus drew and painted these girls because he was attracted to them, essentially making arty pedophile erotica for himself. He also exploited his young models, and an argument can be made that we are perpetuating that exploitation by showing their images.
I suppose a similar argument can be made about pox-ridden Gauguin and all those young Tahitian girls. It could extend to God knows how many artists. But in this case, there was a living victim with a recent account. Nobody should go and dig up Jesse Helms, but Balthus’s work is an ethical quandary for museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a big Balthus show in 2013 but excluded the artist’s most overt paintings. Germany’s Folkwang Museum recently canceled an exhibition of 2,000 Polaroids taken by the artist as he photographed a young girl from the ages of eight to 16. She was occasionally topless in the later photos. Die Zeit called them “documents of pedophile greed.” Photos are a lot less ambiguous than paintings.
There are far better nudes in this show in any case. Check out Joseph Beuys’s 1954 Women, hanging right next to Balthus. The expressive watercolor drawings of grown women depict a rear view of angled hips and limbs. It has an Egon Schiele vibe and an engaging bodily awkwardness. And if you are seeking a different gender, there is a beautifully executed circa-1859 Edgar Degas sketch, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” which shows a cleanly muscled man lunging to lift something. The faint grid lines Degas likely used to help transfer the drawing to canvas (or possibly create the drawing) are still visible and highlight the negative space around the body.
The Drawing Institute is an exciting project, and the Menil has already been acquiring and organizing under its umbrella. The 2008 “How Artists Draw: Toward the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center,” masterfully curated by Bernice Rose, was inspirational. This show is less so. Rose had all of the drawings in The Menil Collection to work with, while this show is strictly composed of promised works from three private collections. It is really raw material for later, better shows.
There are some some great and unexpected things, however. Sam Francis’s 1952 ink drawing Grey Cloud Study is wonderful; the smoky gestural ink marks look to have been made by some entity emerging from nothingness. I only knew his paintings — crayon colors and a loopy, decorative Abstract Expressionism. But seeing the artist’s gesture without the overbearing primary colors of his paintings makes you really appreciate the mark-making. It has a strange, slightly otherworldly presence.
Conversely, I think Jasper Johns’s thick, tactile encaustic paintings and their cast elements are way more successful than the majority of his drawings. His technically skilled drawings come off as glib with no sense of investment. Even when he is working with something as loose and difficult to control as the ink on plastic he employed for Souvenir for Janie, 1977, it reads as facile. And we’ll be getting a lot more Johns drawings; the October opening show at the Menil Drawing Institute is a survey of Johns’s drawings. Sigh.
I don’t know that I have seen Eva Hesse’s drawings before, but they are a fascinating contrast to the loose, organic nature of her sculptures. The tiny circles and dots in a graph paper grid on an untitled work are microcosmic studies in precision and control. But on closer inspection, there is a looseness to the circles the makes them feel like massed cells.
There are drawings in the show intended as works in themselves, and others likely viewed by the artist as part of the process of creating something else. (There is a particular Richard Serra that looks as if it were rescued from the studio floor.) There are no rules; a casual sketch may be a wonderful thing in itself, but there are also works that read more as artifact. There is nothing wrong with this; from a scholarly point of view, the great and the incidental are all relevant to an artist’s work.
The Menil has always wanted viewers to confront artwork one on one without a lot of verbiage in between. But in this kind of show, the Menil’s presentation style and eschewing of didactic wall text becomes frustrating. There are drawings here that you want some context for. The 20-plus Bruce Nauman drawings, most from 1965, read like the pages of a sketchbook. And as in a sketchbook, some drawings are interesting, some not. Viewers might like to see how the arching and angling images relate to Nauman’s early sculptures.
A tiny blue undated and untitled Agnes Martin drawing has a cobalt blue wash over a delicate rectilinear grid of ink and graphite lines, thin as a hair, some side by side with only a millimeter between them. You can feel the artist’s quiet focus and contemplative precision. But her untitled 1978 drawing with watercolor, ink and graphite on rice paper is so subtle, or likely faded, that it practically isn’t visible to the human eye. The nine-inch square of rice paper is crinkled and buckled because it isn’t a great freaking idea to do watercolor washes on a tiny swatch of rice paper. It looks like old typing paper that got wet. Did the artist consider it a study for something else or a work in itself? Has it altered over time? I’d be interested in the answers.
Georgia O’Keefe’s 1962 From a River Trip needs no additional information. It is a charcoal drawing of two mountain forms that has the same wonderful, weighty sculptural feeling as her paintings. You want to run your hand on the rock and are convinced it will be cool and smooth.
A lone work by Lee Krasner makes you wish there were more. The collage seems to be made of strips torn from a brushy drawing in black gouache. There is a raw, almost frenetic energy to the work.
A lovely early Piet Mondrian drawing from 1907 of a chrysanthemum gives no apparent hint of the lively abstraction to come. Ellsworth Kelly has contour drawings of the natural world that somehow manage to convey both effort and simplicity, as well other drawings with clean, weighty, abstract black forms.
It is a show worth seeing, but it feels a lot like an inventory. Perhaps the best strategy is for the viewer to pick and choose, mentally creating his or her own show from the offerings. And in the meantime, we can look forward to the shows that will come out of the Menil Drawing Institute.
The Beginning of Everything: -Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude-Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections continues through June 18 at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org.
After more than 20 years of stunning, nationally and internationally acclaimed installations, Rice Gallery is being closed — making way for a Rice University welcome center.
For the final show, the walls have been painted black, as if the gallery is shrouded in mourning. “Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Black Squares” is a reinstallation of the conceptual art pioneer’s work created specifically for Rice Gallery and shown in 1997 at the request of the then recently hired gallery director, Kimberly Davenport.
At the time, Davenport had made the decision to have the gallery focus exclusively on site-specific installation art. Part of the initial impetus was budgetary. In the early days, the exhibition budget was about ten grand. Davenport realized you could bring an artist in and have that person make work on site for less than the cost of shipping and insuring existing work. And, she says, “I thought it wouldn’t just be taking things out of a crate and hanging them on the wall. People would see the process; they could press their faces up to the glass.”
LeWitt created his wall drawings through a series of instructions that could be executed by others. (His early works used drawing media but he moved to paint in later years, still referring to them as drawings.) They were temporary, and the same drawing could be installed in multiple places at the same time. The process of art being made by someone else through written instructions may seem clinical, but the results are not.
In the Rice Gallery installation, black paint with either a flat or a gloss finish is brushed in rectangles and squares on the gallery’s three 16-foot-high sheetrock walls. On the left wall is a rectangle with one-half gloss black, one-half flat black. The back wall has a square diagonally divided into flat and gloss black. On the left are two squares side by side, one gloss and the other flat.
These vast planes of blackness overwhelm the viewer. They are all at a much-larger-than-human scale, and when you stand in front of them, you are encompassed by their darkness.
The gloss paint has a hazy reflectivity that gives you a muted image of yourself as you move through the gallery, and disappears when you pass a section of flat black paint, which traps rather than reflects light, creating a kind of dark void. Each has a gorgeous smooth surface, subtly furred with the brush strokes of coats and coats of paint.
According to Rice Gallery preparator David Krueger, an artist himself, the installation of the wall drawing took six weeks, with ten people working on it off and on. The powerful physical presence of the work, its sense of richness and solidity, owes much to the laborious process behind its creation. You can’t just roll on a bucket of Behr and get the same effect.
Before anything, the walls had to be prepped to create a marble-smooth surface. The gallery has presented more than 70 installations throughout its history, and all that painting and repainting gunks up the walls. Krueger says that eight years ago or so, they had to cut a hole in the sheetrock of the gallery walls. The chunk of wall taken out had multicolored layers of paint a half inch thick, like some sort of geologic strata.
“If you went down a half inch of paint, you would find the original LeWitt installation from 1997,” says Krueger.
Prepping the approximately 2,000 square feet of gallery walls required coats and coats of sheetrock mud, much sanding, more coats of primer and paint. Finally, the squares and rectangles of black were created by brushing on multiple coats of black paint, thinned with matte or gloss medium. The layer upon layer of pigment imparts physical depth to the color.
“Glossy and Flat Black Squares” is a quiet and elegant ending for a space that has hosted such a dynamic range of work. Rice Gallery is/was the only university art gallery in the nation dedicated solely to installation art. Gallery director Davenport hunted down young artists and gave them their first big chance to do something amazing. Tara Donovan’s “Haze,” her 2003 installation at Rice Gallery, created an ephemeral, cloud-like mass using the cheap disposable material of plastic drinking straws — two million of them stacked against the wall. It was a stunning achievement that led the way to a major installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 and a MacArthur fellowship (“genius” grant) in 2008.
Meanwhile, “Shape of Space,” Alyson Shotz’s 2004 Rice Gallery installation with more than 18,000 magnifying plastic Fresnel lenses clustered like fish scales, was purchased by the Guggenheim for its permanent collection. (It was a part of the Summer Window series, which was begun to keep the gallery active when the space was closed for the summer, through the commissioning of work for the window wall of the gallery.)
Rice Gallery has challenged older blue-chip artists such as Joel Shapiro by giving them the chance to work in a new way. For his 2012 “Untitled” installation, it was as if the septuagenarian Shapiro had blown apart the components of one of his gravity-bound sculptures; colored planks and rectangles were suspended in the air, seemingly caught in mid-flight. Shapiro went on to do more suspended works in a 2016 show at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
Davenport has also brought in projects from people working in the design and architectural fields. In the 2006 “Rip Curl Canyon,” the architects of Ball-Nogues Studio created a phenomenal undulating landscape of cardboard. Then there was the botanical exuberance of the 2005 “Eminent Domain” installation of designers White Webb.
Rice Gallery curator Joshua Fischer, who has worked with Davenport since 2007, says, “Kim has a knack for finding people that are not an obvious fit for installation art and seeing something in their work that translates to a larger scale and creates a kind of world or environment that is engaging.”
After the gallery closes, Davenport and Krueger will move over to the newly opened Moody Center for the Arts, a $30 million, 50,000-square-foot building where Davenport will be chief curator. Fischer will relocate to Boston, where his wife does medical regulatory work. The Moody Center has a focus on collaboration and is touted as “an experimental platform for creating and presenting works in all disciplines.”
It will be interesting to see what Davenport will accomplish at the new venue — the Moody Center will offer more space and, one assumes, more resources, allowing her to expand on the kinds of interdisciplinary outreach Rice Gallery has been pursuing for the past 20 years.
While students from all areas have been involved in executing Rice Gallery’s often massively labor-intensive installations, the gallery has collaborated with the School of Architecture on numerous occasions. In 2002, department students and professors realized “Bamboo Roof,” designed by noted architect Shigeru Ban. In 2015, Rice architecture students, Spanish architect and Rice professor Jesús Vassallo, and Tokyo-based architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow produced “Shotgun,” a riff on the vernacular structure.
For the New Art/New Music series, students from the Shepherd School of Music have selected or composed music in response to the installations and performed it in the space. The Words and Art series, organized by Mary Wemple, allows writers to create and present work in response to the gallery installations. And workshops and professor lectures related to the installations have been given on everything from acoustics to soil composition to physics to flora. Videos by Walley Films documenting the installations have been featured by the likes of National Geographic and The Atlantic.
There does, however, seem to be a lack of clarity surrounding the end of Rice Gallery. An email from B.J. Almond, senior director of news and media relations, stated, “University leaders made the decision to relocate the Rice Gallery to the Moody Center.” But how is a gallery “relocated” if there is no designated space for it and the name will no longer be used? A statement from Alison Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth Executive Director of the Moody Center for the Arts, explains, “We are going to continue the tradition of site-specific installations, but allow the artist to select where in the building they would like to intervene. We have a variety of fantastic indoor and outdoor spaces for original art work.”
Weaver is no doubt right, but one still wonders why university leaders wouldn’t allow a dedicated art space and a cross-disciplinary space to exist simultaneously on campus.
A thoughtful article in the Rice Thresher, “A Eulogy for Rice Gallery,” by Lenna Mendoza, laid out a student perspective, describing the gallery’s prominent location in a building not exclusively dedicated to art. “Faculty and students who would not have ever visited the gallery at the very least walked by, at the best were pulled in. Simply put, the gallery was hard to ignore, and at a university where attention to and respect for the arts has been undeniably lacking, the location of the gallery was essential…The Moody Center will offer more arts space centralized into a single building tucked away at the far end of campus, which will likely prevent the attention drawing effect the Rice Gallery excelled at.”
Perhaps Sewell Hall was too dangerous a location, making visual art too, well, visible at an institution with a decided “left brain über alles” bent? Is a banal “welcome center” preferable to the campus’s looking “arty” at first glance?
In the end, Rice University is a very Houston institution. And Houston has always enthusiastically bulldozed its history to make way for the new and improved. While gaining a gleaming new multidisciplinary art space, Rice is razing an established international-caliber destination for contemporary art.
In the meantime, “Glossy and Flat Black Squares” is up until May 14. Standing in the space, surrounded by the subtly shifting blackness, is strangely moving. For me, it conjured the sort of secular spirituality I always think I ought to feel when I visit the Rothko Chapel but never do.
If we have to say good-bye, I can’t think of a better way.
“Coming to America: Tatiana Bozic”
diptych, oil and pigmented marker on panel
30” x 36” inches