Category: Houston Press

New Exhibits at Rice University’s Moody Center For the Arts | May 2017

Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s “Green light — An artistic workshop,” acts both literally and metaphorically to welcome refugees. Photo by Nash Baker
Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s “Green light — An artistic workshop,” acts both literally and metaphorically to welcome refugees. Photo by Nash Baker
Women in hijabs bend over a table painting pieces of wood white. At another table, a man sits and sands triangular lengths of raw wood. Others fit the sections of wood into 3-D printed green (recycled) plastic joiners or perform quality control with sandpaper or white paint. All of the workers are refugees — from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Cuba. In the lobby of the Moody Center for the Arts, in what looks like the world’s most light and airy sweatshop, these refugees are manufacturing lamps designed by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. They are all are participants in Eliasson’s “Green light — An artistic workshop.”

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 PeopleCannot 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.

Source: New Exhibits at Rice University’s Moody Center For the Arts | Houston Press

“The Beginning of Everything Review at the Menil | Apr 2017

Edgar Degas, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” c. 1859. Graphite, traces ink wash on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/16 in. (19.3 x 25.2 cm).
Edgar Degas, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” c. 1859. Graphite, traces ink wash on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/16 in. (19.3 x 25.2 cm). Collection of Janie C. Lee
Phillip Guston’s Head is one of the best things in “The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections,” while pervy Balthus’s Study for Nude in Front of a Mantel is the most problematic. The wide-ranging show of nearly 100 works consists of promised gifts from Lee and Sarofim and a bequest from the late David Whitney. These are the trustees of The Menil Collection who were early advocates for creating the Menil Drawing Institute. The institute, with 30,000 square feet and a price tag of $40 million, is slated to open on October 7 this year. It is described as a “premier venue for the exhibition, study, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.”

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.

Source: “The Beginning of Everything Review at the Menil | Houston Press

Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Black Squares | Mar 2017

Sol LeWitt, Glossy and Flat Black Squares (Wall Drawing #813), 1997

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.

 

Source: Review: Sol LeWitt: Glossy and Flat Black Squares | Houston Press

David Snyder’s Work at the GAR Tackles Trump and Guano | Oct 2016

Screenshot of The Guano, video, 2016.

Donald Trump, cockroaches and bat guano — all part of David Snyder’s work on view at the Galveston Artist’s Residency. Trump’s voice is center stage in “Knock-off Oracle, Undecider’s -Anthem…And a Disaster, After,” Snyder’s sprawling installation in the main gallery, curated by the GAR in collaboration with Rice Gallery’s Joshua Fischer. The bat guano and roaches are part of Snyder’s video The Guano (2016) which, screened in the back gallery, presents an absurdist yet quasi-plausible repurposing of old Blockbuster video stores. Snyder has a penchant for American dreck.

Walking into the main gallery, you see a mass of haphazard wooden constructions while you hear the whirring of a motor and the clunking of wood. Underneath the sounds is an ominously distorted voice, the kind of electronic vocal camouflage news stations use when interviewing a hit man in silhouette. The voice is Donald Trump’s, emanating from an old boxy television suspended in the air from a wooden beam. Its screen points to the floor, displaying video that melds the molten orange surface of the sun with a glazed doughnut. Could that roiling orangey-ness and the nutrition-bereft fried food be a Trump reference? Surely not!

The video monitor is in the center of the gallery, moving up and down over a spider-like construction that appears to be made from scrap wood — one-by-twos and random chunks of plywood. Sticky-looking accretions of sawdust cling to the pieces. Strange robot-like figures surround the structure, with boxy “heads” and glowing eyes, turned down as if in reverent obeisance. Their bodies are made from old shutters and strips of wood plastered with blue-green shop towels. Their box heads are stuccoed and open-sided, revealing lit table or ceiling lights embedded within them. Their lights illuminate plastic bottles of soda in unnatural shades of blue, green and red that protrude from the boxes to create the “bulging eyes” of the creatures.

It feels like some postapocalyptic worship site, the materials looted from homes and scavenged from Home Depot and Family Dollar after the Trump nuclear holocaust. Behind the circle of “worshippers” are three old couches turned on end and reading like couch-potato versions of the megaliths of Stonehenge.
Snyder is definitely a proponent of the Rube Goldbergian school of sculpture. An old ice cream freezer motor creates the clunking sound of the wood. It moves a lever that knocks into articulated wood pieces connected to the beam from which the TV hangs. A grotty ceramic bathroom sink scavenged from a demolished crack house counterweights the TV. The ice cream freezer motor was apparently a garage sale find; old masking tape is still stuck to it with the Sharpie-scrawled message “Motor works, rust in container, as is, $5.00 ice cream.” There are other notations on the structures — carpenter measurements and notes-to-self scribbles from the artist that say things like “bad idea” and “big mistake.”

You can stand under the video, in the center of the spider-like hut structure, and view it by looking up through a plastic tray filled with circulating water. The ice cream motor mechanism moves it up and down overhead in a vaguely hypnotic manner, the sun burns, the glazed doughnut fades in and out and Trump’s voice intones, “I am the messenger.” And if that isn’t unsettling enough, a viewer has the vague feeling that Snyder’s structure isn’t especially structurally sound. The TV might just fall on your freaking face as you gaze transfixed at the fiery Trump-doughnut-orb. And maybe that’s a fitting fate.

As you move to the back gallery, don headphones and sit down to watch The Guano, the video’s defunct Blockbuster stores, bat guano and roaches feel like a variation on a theme. The 12-minute 44-second video opens like a cross between a political ad and a late-night get-rich-quick infomercial. The voice-over lays out grim statistics — seven million unemployed, deficits and waning industry. It notes that Blockbuster made $5.9 billion in profits in 2004 and shut down stores in 2014, leaving 1,700 vacant stores of 5,500 square feet each. The narrator dubs the stores the “waste product of a faster, lighter entertainment industry.”

As in all good infomercials, the terrible problem is presented and followed by the amazing solution — in this case, bat shit. The video proposes retrofitting the old Blockbusters into high-yield bat shit factories. With bat shit, i.e., guano fertilizer, retailing, as it does, at $8 a pound, the profit potential and job opportunities are amazing! The ecological advantages of bat shit versus industrial fertilizers are laid out. The feeding of the bats is described, and animations show proposed “roach cannons” to turn the symbiotic supply of cockroaches moving through the bat shit into “dynamic food bait” because apparently bats have to eat stuff that’s moving.

It’s a goofy-ass video with a lot of research, spiffy 3-D animation and found clips of things like American flags, bats peeing, people at business meetings, roach larvae, factories, old Blockbuster commercials, Mel Gibson in The Patriot and hyenas tearing apart a carcass. When the voice says, “There aren’t concerns about flooding the market with bat shit,” we see new footage of a woman wading through rushing brown floodwaters. It parodies the style of persuasive videos with an idea that sounds plausible and ridiculous at the same time.

The video wraps up by waxing lyrical about America and its resilience, giving as an example the Donner party’s “rebranding” for survival. It closes with that stilted video of Ted Cruz and his wife and children. Cruz’s wife, to quote Samantha Bee, looks as if she’s being held hostage. The ending image is a still of Paul Ryan in a muscle shirt, lifting weights. The announcer asks the question “As a nation can we afford not to go bat shit?”

Snyder takes the castoff, objectionable and absurd and turns it into witty and provocative work. Just like turning shit to gold…

 

Source: Review: Knock-off Oracle, Undecider’s Anthem…And a Disaster, After | Houston Press

Oscar Muñoz: El Coleccionista | May 2016

El Coleccionista-20″

 

Oscar Muñoz conjures up a mysterious figure in his masterful video installation, El Coleccionista (The Collector). On view at Sicardi Gallery, it is the first U.S. presentation of the 2016 work. In the downstairs exhibition space, videos projected over an entire wall give viewers the feeling they are leaving the gallery and entering the private room of an unknown collector of photos. Using elements that deceptively seem simple but are technically challenging, Muñoz combines three-dimensional objects with projected images. The artist gives us a wall-length shelf that appears to hold dozens of stacks of photographs of people. Periodically, a figure with dark hair appears and walks in front of them, changing one image for another, reorganizing, rearranging, adding and subtracting.

We only see the figure from behind. Clad in a shapeless black sweater and pants, it could be male or female; we don’t know for sure. The only sound is the crisp rustling of paper being rearranged. Muñoz has blended real-world objects with video projections to great effect in the past, and it works amazingly well here. The shallow, almost 40-foot-long shelf runs the length of the back wall of the gallery, and holds variously sized pieces of heavy white paper (2” x 3” to around 5” x 7”), leaned against the wall in stacks. The piece is realized with five separate projections that line up to create the illusion that the collector is actually walking back and forth, handling the photographs. Each projection of a photo is perfectly aligned with a similarly sized paper to create the illusion that the photo exists in the real world of the gallery space. There are even tiny bits of photos peeking out from beneath other photos.

The images are varied, but they are all portraits of one kind or another. All the images are black and white, which visually unifies them. Some faces you recognize, some faces you think you should recognize, and some faces make you ask questions, e.g., the one that appears to be a man’s fleshy severed head resting on a table.

There are images from art history: Caravaggio’s head of Medusa, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Diane Arbus’s photo of spooky twins (also the inspiration for the ghostly sisters in The Shining) and Luc Tuymans’s equally creepy painting of Condoleezza Rice.

There are stills from films: Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange with his eyelids pried open, Yul Brynner as Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, and a woman who might be Vivian Leigh.

There are snapshots that look as if they are from the files of the disappeared: Is there a mother in Argentina still wondering what happened to that son or daughter?

There are photos of people who look like war criminals: Is that guy Pol Pot? Is that man a spy disguised with a fake beard?

There are indistinct photos of children: Who were they, why are they here? Did they live to grow up?

And there are photos of the dead. How and why did they die? Murder? Execution? Accident?

You try to get close enough to the photos to really scrutinize them, but when you get too close, you see the faint registration grid that underlies the images, and those images blur, becoming less clear than from a few feet away. It’s intriguing and frustrating at the same time. (There are also a couple of closely cropped images of faces near what look like fleshy shapes; you can’t tell if it’s some porn outtake, or a photographic equivalent of a Rorschach test and the full image is completely innocuous.)

I can’t quite figure out if the blur is intentional, a consequence of the technology or a glitch caused by focusing issues. There is a decent amount of light coming in from the two doorways into the gallery. I had a momentary urge to hang up a curtain to see if it made things more clear. The important thing is, however, that Muñoz is a master at drawing us into his world and making us want to know more.

A particularly interesting and unnerving aspect of the installation is that when you walk up to view the row of photos, you often find yourself looking over the shoulder of “the collector.” The shadow of your head is next to his, making you not just a viewer but also a participant. Sometimes he just walks past, startling you.

Beyond trying to identify the images, there is the urge to discern some system of organization. What is the rationale for placing these images next to each other? One category of photographs could be “people with their heads in their hands,” among them Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde and the woman in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother.

In other groupings, you wonder, are these people victims? Are they perpetrators? Are they heroes? Are they villains? Out of all the images in the world, why did Muñoz select these and show them together — or is it purposely random?

El Coleccionista is 52 minutes long, and the more time you sit on the bench in the darkened gallery, listening to the scratchy sounds of the paper, the more you are drawn into Muñoz’s world. Is the collector a lone survivor in a postapocalyptic world, playing with and organizing images of people long dead and artworks long gone? Is he conducting a forensic analysis of what went wrong, or remembering what was lost? It reminds me of the incredible loneliness of the old man in the pristine Louis XVI bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, someone absolutely and eternally alone.

Or is “the collector” some omniscient and godlike figure, arranging, rearranging, and charting human history — this person appears at this time, disappears at this time? But if so, there is nothing cold and clinical about the collector. A feeling of empathy permeates all the work I have seen from Muñoz. El Coleccionista is filled with poignancy and compassion for what it is to be human.

I have seen too much art in recent years that runs to the sterile, purposely obscure and hermetic — expecting the viewer to work to divine something but without giving anything in return. What makes Muñoz such a powerful artist is that he makes visually generous art and yet leaves viewers to their own devices. Muñoz gives us a rich, well-crafted, evocative work and leaves us to it.

Source: Review: Oscar Muñoz: El Coleccionista | Houston Press

“Thorsten Brinkmann: The Great Cape Rinderhorn” | Feb 2016

Thorsten Brinkmann makes art out of other people’s discarded items. Credit: Thorsten Brinkmann, The Great Cape Rinderhorn, 2016 Commission, Rice University Art Gallery Photos: Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

Thorsten Brinkmann collects random crap. A lot of artists collect random crap. Few, however, transform their gleanings so deftly and so evocatively. Brinkmann’s junk piles become a skewed world of decaying grandeur, opulence and nostalgia. His visual references run the gamut from the Renaissance to Dada. His photos, sculptures, videos and site-specific installation are on view at Rice Gallery in “The Great Cape Rinderhorn.”

For much of his work, Brinkmann costumes himself to create large photographs that at first glance read as Renaissance-era portraits. Then you realize that the “knight” is wearing a freaking coal bucket on his head, and the decorative plumes are really a grubby mop. His “doublet” incorporates a 1970s table runner, his gauntlet is an old ski glove and he’s clutching a chair leg instead of a sword. But the colors are so rich, the pose so perfect that it’s the illusion that stays with you as an afterimage even though you’ve already ID’d the anachronistic component parts.

The sumptuously patterned wallpaper that covers the gallery creates a similar illusion. Close inspection reveals that it is a photograph of objects arranged to create a pattern over a pink ground, with red/old canes, a white ceramic pipe, fragments of an enamel light fixture, a steak knife with a pearlescent handle, and part of a coat rack. The photograph was then digitally mirrored and repeated to create the wallpaper.

Other Brinkmann photos are hung on the gallery walls; there’s one that looks like an equestrian portrait. A chest of drawers serves as the “horse.” One assumes Brinkmann cut a hole in the top to sit inside it. A moss-green bedspread that looks like a decorative horse blanket surrounds him. Brinkmann holds a red coat rack as a lance. He has an affinity for artist studio videos, Bruce Nauman’s ’60s offerings in particular. But Brinkmann always covers his head in his photos (here with a red-and-white-striped trash can) to eliminate himself as a character. His body becomes just another prop.

You can see the origins of the artist’s work with objects in a 2003-04 video screened in the RG Cubicle Video Space around the corner from the gallery. The video, Gut Ding will es so (approximately “Good things want it this way”), only shows Brinkmann from the neck down, unless he bends into the camera. He physically interacts with his objects: He sits down in a cabinet and flips it backwards; he plays with mini-blinds that open and close as he raises and lowers them, his foot on the pull string. He “swims” in front of the camera on a carpet dolly, slowly inching himself forward by moving his arms and kicking his legs. He snakes his upper body through the open arms of a chair in the kind of stunt my kids would try, likely necessitating a call to the fire department. Brinkmann’s childlike openness and playfulness are on full display as he stands inside a big cardboard box and spins in circles until dizzy.

Visitors must crawl along the floor to get to this room.
Visitors must crawl along the floor to get to this room.

Rice Gallery is renowned for its site-specific installations, and Brinkmann’s allows you not just to view his world but to interact with it physically yourself. Back in the main gallery, a huge plywood shipping crate rests in the middle of the floor. (A giant fiberglass cow horn, locally sourced at General Supply and Equipment, rests on top.) You can enter it through a low door, not just the kind you duck through — it’s at a height that requires a deep knee bend for those of middling size or full-on crawling for the tall. Inside are rows of comfortable chairs and a video projection of Brinkmann in a Renaissance-esque getup striking various “royal” poses reminiscent of period portraiture. He’s got a dented white trash can on his head that he keeps adjusting as if straightening it. You know you are sitting in a plywood box, but the space feels very cozy, a feeling oddly enhanced by the musty smell of aged, moldering stuff. The ceiling is “paneled” with salvaged kitchen cabinet doors like some ancient palazzo. The walls are covered with layers of vintage and aged wallpaper. (Slopping things with coffee is one of Brinkmann’s patina-generating tactics.) Small Brinkmann photo portraits incorporating things like planters and tennis racket covers as head gear hang on the papered walls.

There is a cabinet in the back of the crate room that opens to reveal an even smaller door. It leads to a winding tunnel papered with striped wallpaper. You must crawl along the carpeted floor (pushing your laptop bag ahead of you if you happen to be reviewing the show) until you get to a room at the end of the tunnel. Here is the source of the 1930s fox-trot you have been hearing: It’s a bedroom that feels like a burrow. The floor is layered with fake “Oriental” rugs; there is a four-poster bed with a cheap tapestry bedspread that fills up most of the room. Opposite the bed is a dresser with a lamp and an old TV that is the source of the fox-trot music you began to hear as you crawled through the tunnel. It’s playing stop-motion video of different objects moving around the floor of the room and on shelves to a 1930s tune that Shazam tells me is Al Bowlly’s “Guilty.” It’s like a Ziegfeld Follies number but with random objects instead of showgirls: A towel bracket, a chain and a dish dance jerkily along in circles and lines.

Metal shelves stand against one wall, featuring an old toaster oven as well as the objects from the video and others, like a cat head ashtray. You wonder if they are going to start moving, keeping you company in the space. Random old clothes and cotton work shirts hang in a partially curtained closet. Next to it is one of those old butt-shaking exercise machines. A mannequin head rests atop it, altered into a Dadaist sculpture reminiscent of Raoul Hausmann, with Brinkmann’s additions of a bottle brush, a basket and a candle snuffer.

Brinkmann scavenged his installation materials here in Houston, but he homed in on dark colors and objects that evoke an early-20th-century Germanic vibe. Next to a record player and near a stack of albums is a gem titled Wir Bleiben Beim Bier, which roughly translates as “We stay with beer.”

Pop up your head through the holes and see various sculptural objects created from things like a mannequin foot, casts of fingers and small lampshades.
Pop up your head through the holes and see various sculptural objects created from things like a mannequin foot, casts of fingers and small lampshades.

Part of the ceiling is dropped — an upholstered panel with three round holes cut in it is suspended from the ceiling. You pop your head up through the holes and see there are various sculptural objects created from things like a mannequin foot, casts of fingers and small lampshades. It has a very surreal vibe. The walls are hung with more Brinkmann photos. It’s like a tiny private museum constructed by the occupant. You feel as if you’re in the lair of some genially mad eccentric, maybe an old art history professor gone off the rails. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia. It feels melancholic to the viewer, but you can imagine the character who lives here is content and safe in his little room of memories.

Someone back in my home state of Arkansas told me about a once well-known architect who just went off the deep end. He became homeless, and his family couldn’t get him back, but this person told me the guy lived in a wonderfully designed hut he had constructed for himself under a bridge in Little Rock. It is no doubt a tragic story, but there is an appealing element of freedom to it; it reminds you of constructing forts when you were a kid, of making your own worlds out of junk your parents didn’t want and that was therefore up for grabs.

The surname Brinkmann, according to a Dutch friend of mine with the same name, referred to people in northern Germany living on the edge of a settlement and also on the edge of society. The worlds Thorsten Brinkmann creates are those of someone at the edges of conventional society, someone who sees the true potential in things cast off by more ordinary citizens, someone happy to be living on the brink.

 

Source: Review: “Thorsten Brinkmann: The Great Cape Rinderhorn” | Houston Press

The Paintings at Isabella Court Run the Gamut | Jan 2016

Shake It Off, 2015 Courtesy of artist Clark Derbes and Devin Borden Gallery


Running the gamut from wonky abstraction to goofy realism, the galleries of Houston’s Isabella Court have some pretty great paintings on view.

Inman Gallery presents the hard-won abstraction of David Aylsworth in “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.” The artist’s forms have a kind of elegant, mid-century vibe — there’s a sparing swoosh of a dusty teal and an arc of reddish orange in Upon His Caterpillar Knee, 2015, an archway of mauve interrupted by an angled jade green shape in Big Cocoon, 2015. His compositions are set against predominantly white grounds, the edges are clean but the colors aren’t flat, and they’re slightly brushy, with other hues worked in or showing through. It gives them a richness and body.

Aylsworth interacts with a painting like a dog with a bone. He just won’t let it go until he’s gotten everything he can out of it. Every painting has the layers of those that came before, the ghosts of forms repeatedly altered or eradicated by another coat of paint.

The canvases, with their brush marks, lumps and slubs, remind me of the gunky layers of paint you find on old wooden houses — the kind nobody ever strips down, the kind where they just keep adding coats of paint in an attempt to cover up the flaws. This description may make the paintings sound awful, but they aren’t. They’re almost always wonderful. The texture of these surfaces works because they have integrity. Aylsworth isn’t just slopping something on for “textured effect”; the surfaces are the direct result of his creative process. And the residue of tried and rejected forms becomes a player in the final result. Of course, until a painting is out of his hands and in the home of its new owner, it may easily have a few more iterations, even after being exhibited. That is the work of an artist with high expectations, constantly trying to get it “right.”

There is a similar sense of labor underlying Clark Derbes’s exhibition “Square Dance” at Devin Borden Gallery. Derbes is showing wall pieces and sculptural objects that act like a kind of shaped canvas for his paintings. The works that strike you first are the skewed polyhedrons of wood placed on pedestals and plinths around the gallery. They have oddly faceted sides, blocks of wood roughly hewn with a chainsaw and then smoothed down at each angle with an orbital sander. The resulting objects are painted with irregular, multicolored grids as in Shake It Off, 2015. The visual interplay is quite amazing, these strangely loose geometric forms covered with more wonky geometry. It’s as if they’re meteorites from an artyMinecraft asteroid, one full of vivid color and skewed perspective.

The wall pieces are mainly slabs of wood with their thick edges cut at extreme angles, as if they were rectangular boxes squashed and distorted by some great weight. Derbes paints the slab edges out white, and sometimes, as in the 2015 Johnny Angel, creates a trompe l’oeil edge around the picture plane, conveying the illusion of another angle on what is actually a flat surface. The picture plane is filled with its own optically dynamic, warped pattern of colored geometric shapes. Derbes’s work is visually riveting, each piece drawing you in close to try to make sense of the space it occupies.

There are a few pieces that are less successful; these are the ones in which Derbes has left the surface rougher and the color paler and less defined. They feel kind of beachy and decorative; they lack the power of the more visually emphatic works. If there is an obvious new direction for Derbes to explore, it’s probably in scale. Everything seems to fall between ten inches and two feet in height. Seeing Derbes go really big once or twice would be interesting.

In “Simple Taste Is Popular” at Art Palace, Bill Willis and Bradley Kerl each solve the eternal “what to paint” question by selectively scavenging for found imagery. Willis culls most of his from vintage cookbooks or mid-century Italian food magazines. Kerl delves into flower photographs and girly playing cards. Their imagery and painting styles are different, but the work is close enough that showing them together may not be the best way to highlight either. The juxtaposition somehow mutes them both. This is especially true on the wall hung with Kerl’s brightly colored triptych of a naked girl playing cards on a tiger-striped patch of ground. Placed next to it are Willis’s fuzzily painted images of topless women with bouffant hair. You have to make an effort to view them separately in order to appreciate either.

But the wall that is hung salon-style with Willis’s untitled food paintings is fantastic. His images of carefully arranged meat products and molded gelatin are kitschy but also kind of loving and moody. They may spring from the artist’s wry sense of humor, but they’re ultimately more about making interesting paintings. Willis is tweaking his found images, playing with formal issues of composition, color and abstraction. The speckled cross sections of various pieces of salami become painted pattern rather than flecks of fat and flesh in a tube. The subjects are all softly rendered, as if viewed through a flattering lens. They’re often cropped abruptly off the canvas. The colors are wonderfully super-saturated — the rich red of pancetta stripes and tomatoes, the lurid phthalo green of an artichoke. The dishes are set against turquoise or hot pink grounds. Willis exaggerates the rich, unrestrained color of the mid-20th-century magazine printing.

In the 16th century, Netherlandish still life painters gave us images of newly discovered exotic foods. In the 21st century, Willis mines the dining aspirations of the 20th for these visually lush images, far removed from their original purpose.

In Kerl’s paintings, the colors are brighter and more pop than in Willis’s, and he sets his paint on the surface in thick, intentionally clunky strokes. His flower paintings (Four Florals, 2015, and the 2015 Floral Variant series) render the same image of flowering plants in various, slightly shifted color schemes. They are pretty great, the flowers and greenery so intensely hued and flatly rendered that they look like 1970s wallpaper.

Kerl’s girly images are less consistently successful. The small, clunky images of the playing cards on tiger ground are engagingly weird. The women’s faces are crudely rendered with a too-big brush, and the cards lean against some kind of specked fake stone ground. It’s a nice interplay of pattern and cheezy imagery.

A portrait of a topless woman hung in the gallery entry, Eight of Clubs, 2015, has intentionally goofy and badly painted eyes that are a little crossed. Kerl’s thick lines of paint make her dark hair look like yarn. It’s a solid, strange painting that makes us look more at the patterns Kerl creates with his highly textured strokes than at the cartoonishly rendered tatas.

Scale seems to be Kerl’s Achilles’ heel. His least successful painting is his largest. In King of Hearts (Two Peeks), 2015, a bare-breasted blond is set against a yellow and white striped umbrella. She pulls her neon-green bikini bottom to the side to reveal a landing strip of pubic hair. It’s as tacky as the rest of the images Kerl has selected, but this is the painting that feels like a high-school-boy art project. The paint is too thinly laid; it seems as if Kerl is just filling in projected images with color rather than making a painting. It lacks the surface appeal that makes the other paintings work in their strange, engagingly klutzy ways.

 

Source: The Art of Isabella Court | Houston Press

Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Jan 2016

Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), 2015, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas

In Victoria Sambunaris’s 2015 photograph Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), the color of the water is the pale tan of over-creamed coffee. The camera angle emphasizes the flatness of the landscape; it is as if you could see the curve of the Earth in the distance. The water stretches across the whole foreground and recedes into the distance, forming a wide triangle under a slender band of pale silvery-gray sky. The 39×55-inch image is almost all water; the banks of mottled green saltwater marsh barely encroach into the edges of the photo. It looks impossibly remote except for the broad red barge that seems to sit atop the smooth surface of the water. The Gulf Coast’s peculiar marriage of primeval coastal landscape and petrochemical industry is captured in Sambunaris’s exhibition “Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Victoria Sambunaris in Collaboration With Kristopher Benson,” on view at the Galveston Artist Residency Gallery.

Sambunaris creates her work through road trips in which she immerses herself in the landscape and culture of different parts of America. The GAR website explains that the artist sets out on her journeys “equipped with a 5×7 wooden field camera, camping gear, and a few months supply of canned sardines and crackers.” She researches and explores the nature and culture of the world she will photograph.

The Galveston Artist Residency invited Sambunaris down from New York for a project and gave her a stipend and housing. During her time in the area, she collaborated with Kristopher Benson, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Benson advised the artist about the ways in which the coastal environment of the region has been affected by man and industry and helped her get access to locations.

Two sets of untitled photographs are shown flat on shelves on the back wall of the gallery. They were taken at Virginia Point, located just at the tip of the mainland, right before you cross the bridge to Galveston. The photos capture hopper cars moving along tracks past the estuarial corridor, along the line of the horizon. In the foreground is the grassy marsh, interrupted by bands of silvery water. They are very elegant images; in the second set, a few barely noticeable pink-tinged roseate spoonbills stand in the water. The interplay between the railcars, which a viewer imagines laden with petrochemical product, and the tiny figures of the flamboyant birds is subtle. Sambunaris isn’t a polemicist. Her works are nuanced, relying on a visual tranquility that draws you in but keeps you slightly on edge. You know you can’t lose yourself in this landscape, even while you want to. The photographer gently reminds us that in the world today, most images of tranquil nature are an illusion created by careful editing.

Because of the large size of the 5×7-inch negative created with her field camera, the clarity and color of the photos are stunning. There is something so still and perfect about these images that they have the hyper-real feeling of maquettes for a film, tiny, exquisite models created to drop in digitally as a background.

The photo quality certainly makes the unwieldy camera worth the trouble. But working with a big 19th-century-looking wood-cased camera in the 21st century can result in more than just curious stares and comments. Sambunaris was photographing along the Ship Channel on a day when Vice President Joe Biden happened to be in the area. Port of Houston security pulled up to inform her a sniper had been watching her through his scope for the past few hours.

And, no matter what camera you are using, photographing near chemical plants and transit infrastructure in post 9-11 America often ends with someone coming up to ask you what exactly you’re doing. Private and public security officers confronted Sambunaris on more than two dozen occasions. She considered getting a police radio so she’d know when they were coming.

Saumbunaris’s images are almost exclusively unpeopled. We know that someone is piloting the barge in a photograph or driving the engine pulling the cars. We know that someone filled and stacked the shipping containers in a large untitled photograph, but they look like Legos left behind by a long-dead race of giants, an industrial Stonehenge. Who put them here and why?

But the artist’s photographs still have a portrait quality. Presented in an untitled grid of images on the front wall, 15 cargo ships are photographed like a series of people posing for the camera. Each has a name; each one is from a different place, displays a different color and hauls a different cargo. One is a vivid Yves Klein blue, another cerulean, another a rusted cadmium red.

In images like the barge on the Intracoastal Waterway or the shipping containers stacked in Houston, we can really appreciate the formal elegance of Sambunaris’s work. They’re beautifully composed and incredibly minimalist. Squint your eyes, and the shapes and flat areas of color simplify into the abstract forms of a masterful painting.

The rare appearances of people are restricted to a grid of 945 4×5-inch prints, a kind of sketchbook from Sambunaris’s time in Galveston and along the coast. There are a few scattered images of people standing in a boat, swimming or wading, or, in one instance, of a Channel 13 reporter reporting from a submerged road. But the photos are dominated by evidence of us, rather than us. Storm-battered buildings, humble and wooden or stone and formerly grand, pose for her camera. The seedy Ocean Cabaret building in one image is almost obscured by scrubby grasses and palms. Another captures the cabaret’s sign, “NUDE GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS 18 & UP WELCOME,” a fixture as you drive into Galveston. (I have been told it and the hillock it rests on are the only holdouts in the protected estuarial corridor.)

There is a distinctive, roughly hissing sound permeating the gallery as you walk through. It is the sound of flammable gas burnoff at a petrochemical refinery. Living along the Gulf Coast, we all know that sound and the sight of the accompanying flames. The back gallery of the GAR is painted black, and here is where the sound is originating. One wall is covered with a photomural of a tiny wooden bungalow surrounded by trees. A window-unit air conditioner pokes out of the structure’s asbestos siding. The only sign of life is the silhouette of a pickup truck parked next to the house. Behind it looms the burn-off tower of a refinery, its flare illuminating the backyard with a haunting and eternal light.

Sambunaris has given us a portrait of our region, its flat coastal plain, its nature, its history and its industry. It is a thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive response to what she encountered. It is a portrait filled with quiet beauty, melancholy and regret.

Source: Review: Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Houston Press

“Intersections” Uses Geometric Patterns to Create a Transcendent Environment | Oct 2015

Anila Quayyum Agha, “Intersections,” transforms the Rice University Art Gallery.

With only a lightbulb and a six-foot cube of laser-cut wood panels, Anila Quayyum Agha has commandeered Rice University Art Gallery. Her installation “Intersections” transforms the gallery into a haunting space of light, pattern and shadow. The geometric patterns cut out of the six sides of the cube were drawn from the Islamic decorative splendor of the Alhambra. Suspended in the middle of the gallery, with the light radiating from its center, the sculpture projects patterns of shadow over the volume of the gallery and its visitors.

What Agha has done is create a transcendent environment that evokes the spirituality of whatever religion the viewer may embrace, or simply a sense of tranquil contemplation. You may know that you are -sitting on a bench outside a clean, white-walled gallery, but the glowing light and patterned shadow Agha has created also conjure something beyond the visual. You can almost smell the peculiar musty scent of ancient places of worship, places where thousands of people have gone before you over hundreds of years to think, pray, plead and worship. This is the kind of power and quietude Agha’s work emanates.

“Intersections” is the work that took ArtPrize by storm in 2014. It won the Public Vote Grand Prize and tied for the Juried Grand Prize at the 2014 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (That means Agha won $200,000 for the public prize and half of the $200,000 awarded for the juried prize.)

ArtPrize was begun in 2009 with funding from Grand Rapids native Rick DeVos, the grandson of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. It was and remains a highly egalitarian endeavor; any property or business in the downtown area could host or organize an exhibition, and any artist who could find space could exhibit. The huge cash prizes, determined by public voting, drew artists from far and wide and garnered tremendous media attention. It was an amazing event for the community, but art world critics pointed out that it skewed toward spectacle, favoring works that would quickly and obviously gain public attention. The juried prize was added later, allowing art professionals to weigh in. That both the public and jurors recognized Agha speaks to the effectiveness of her work.

The experiences that inform “Intersections” evolved over time. In interviews, Agha explains that growing up in Pakistan, she was forbidden to worship in the mosque. The interior of the mosque was a place of worship and community for men, while women were relegated to worshipping at home. This is not universal in Islam, but was a result of Pakistani cultural mores.

Seeing the Alhambra was transformational for the artist. In 2011, Agha received a New Frontiers travel grant from Indiana University to visit Spain. While there, she first visited the Alhambra, the breathtaking secular complex showcasing the splendor of Islamic art. The palace’s construction began in the mid-13th century during Islamic rule of the Iberian Peninsula (711?1492). It is believed that during this period, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted relatively well. Christians and Jews, the other “peoples of the book,” had, if not equality, at least a fairly high degree of religious and social freedom under Muslim rule. In this context, the decorative glories of the Alhambra are also a symbol of religious tolerance.

Islamic religious art and architecture eschews human and animal depictions, and these constraints seem to be spiritually effective. Visually glorious geometric patterns and the lack of specific depictions result in something that feels universal. The Alhambra was constructed during the golden age of Islamic innovations in math and science, which surely fed such stunning decorative geometries.

Standing in the Rice Gallery space, looking at the filigree of shadows, you feel like you could soar within the volume of the room. Some of the most compelling places of worship combine theater, architecture and atmosphere. Even in this technologically saturated age, the simple magic of light and shadow still rivets people, in the same way it no doubt did our Paleolithic ancestors gathered around a fire. Visitors become part of the imagery in “Intersections,” as the patterns project over them. I saw a trio of young women holding their hands together to create a giant heart-shaped shadow on the wall while another of their group photographed the resulting image.

Walley Films (Mark and Angela Walley) shot a fantastic video about Agha and her installation for Rice Gallery, and it plays in the lobby outside. You can hear the electronic music Mark Walley created for the video from inside the gallery. It enhances rather than detracts from Agha’s installation. Suddenly the suspended cube becomes otherworldly, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey but more decorative.

Agha was in Houston in 2005 with a residency as a fiber artist at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Looking at her website, you see series of delicate, exploratory drawings evolving into cutout paper works. Early installations are subtle, using dangling threads and needles or bits of paper cut into the letters of the Latin, Hindu and Urdu alphabets suspended from metallic threads. In each of the earlier works, you see delicacy, references to the handicrafts of women and cultural interplay.

“Intersections” was a breakout piece for Agha. She got a big cash prize and lots of recognition, but it also pushed her work beyond what she had done before. With ridiculously simple elements, Agha created something visually striking and emotionally powerful. It wowed the masses at ArtPrize as well as the jurors, and it is just as striking at Rice Gallery. The gallery usually commissions site-specific installations, but this is one of several “site-adaptable” works Rice has shown. “Intersections” adjusts itself to the slightly different dimensions of each venue. But it’s also the kind of work that is a tough act for an artist to follow. When something is so successful and gains so much acclaim, what do you do next? It will definitely be interesting to see.

Source: “Intersections” Uses Geometric Patterns to Create a Transcendent Environment | Houston Press

The Menil Reinvents its Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Starting With “The Infinity Machine” | Feb 2015

“The Infinity Machine”

In Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installation “The Infinity Machine,” a cluster of mirrors dangles from the ceiling, slowly rotating in the darkened interior of The Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel. There are oval mirrors, gilt mirrors, beveled mirrors, wall mirrors, hand mirrors, in all shapes and sizes. Some are vintage, some are antique. In the center of the mass, two mirrors face each other, reflecting infinitely.

The mirrors hang from the dome of the chapel, where, a few years ago, a visitor would look up and see a 13th-century fresco depicting Christ Pantocrator (“ruler of all”). Illuminated by just a couple of small spotlights, the dozens of mirrors reflect darting and flickering light across the walls and over visitors. A haunting, otherworldly hum of sound emanates from eight speakers around the room. At intervals, a voice counts to eight. The “audio collage” is truly otherworldly, incorporating recordings collected by the Voyager I and II probes as they passed the outer planets of our solar system. The sounds are recordings of solar winds striking the electromagnetic fields of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It’s like the spaceship equivalent of driving through a neighborhood with your windows down.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel has stood empty for the past three years after the frescoes it was designed to house were returned to Cyprus. The frescoes had been looted from a Cypriot Orthodox church and then offered for sale in 1983 to Dominique de Menil by a dealer in Germany. De Menil was suspicious and launched an investigation to discover the origins of the 38 fragments. She learned from the Cypriot government that the frescoes had been stolen; the jagged pieces shown in the dealer’s photos were hacked out from a chapel in Turkish-occupied Lysi. The Menil Foundation proposed to the Holy Archbishop of Cyprus that it purchase the frescoes on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. The foundation covered the purchase price and all attendant restoration costs in return for permission to exhibit the frescoes on a long-term loan. The Menil’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel, designed by François de Menil, opened in 1997. The Church decided not to extend the loan beyond 2012, whereupon the frescoes were returned to Cyprus, leaving the chapel empty.

The problem of an empty, purpose-built chapel has since become an opportunity. Organized by the Menil’s Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art, Cardiff and Miller’s “The Infinity Machine” is the first in what is proposed to be an annual series of site-specific installations.

There is a sense of quiet awe as you stand in the dim chapel and view the installation. It looks like a galactic model created by some mad 18th–century gentleman astronomer. Suspended from wires, the mirrors are densely grouped toward the ceiling but straggle downwards, like falling stars. The artists collected the mirrors, more than 150 in number, as they scavenged antique shops all over British Columbia, where they live. Each mirror is unique, some of them bearing inscriptions from the original owners who carried them along when they emigrated from Europe.

Each of the hundreds of mirrors has its own patina of use and age, bearing the streaks, smudges and fingerprints of hundreds of owners, carrying particles of dust from hundreds of different rooms. Is there DNA in a faint spatter of toothpaste? The mirrors become individuals, or maybe they just represent all the individuals who have gazed into them. You wonder what it would be like if those mirrors could play back everything they have witnessed — all the primping, crying, smiling, grieving, grimacing faces that have looked into them, all the intimate acts and spaces they have reflected.

A lot of artists use found objects. Objects carry the weight of cultural and emotional associations, and they can be tricky to work with. Their power can overwhelm an artwork; the objects can be far more interesting in themselves than in the context of the work. Here, however, Cardiff and Miller have played it well. What the individual mirrors bring to the installation only enriches the whole.

There are installations that you can absorb fairly quickly and don’t care to linger in, but “The Infinity Machine” makes you want to immerse yourself in the mesmerizing theatricality of the space. The chapel is slightly disorienting but hypnotic, as the mass of mirrors slowly but steadily rotates, the beams of light flitting around the room. Occasionally a fractured glimpse of your own face appears. You can feel the bass from the sounds of space vibrate slightly in your bones, like aftershocks from the Big Bang.

When I visited the installation on a weekday around lunchtime, there was a man in a business suit walking around looking as if he’d just left an office and would soon be returning to one. He sat down on a bench. When I looked up from my notes 30 minutes later, he was still sitting there, staring at the slowly circling work. He was still sitting and staring when I left.

I don’t know what future artists will propose for the Byzantine Chapel, but Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “Infinity Machine” is a marvelously successful transition for the space. There is a lot of good art that doesn’t fit within the Menil’s historic focus on art and spirituality. However, “The Infinity Machine” does, managing to evoke a kind of expansive celestial spirituality that feels like the next step beyond the culturally specific religiosity of the Byzantine frescoes. An Eastern Orthodox image of Jesus doesn’t resonate with everyone, but the vastness of space triggers some sort of primal awe in us all.

Source: The Menil Reinvents its Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Starting With “The Infinity Machine” | Houston Press