Works of Note: October 2011
September 16, 2011 – January 8, 2012
There is a certain resonance to the number three. At face value, it is simply a prime number, but symbolically it suggests mystical, paradoxical relationships such as that of mind, body, and spirit. Thus, it perfectly suits the work of Walter De Maria, an artist best known for his “Lightning Field” (1977), whose work often lives between the clarity of mathematically-determined systems and the indescribable sublime. De Maria’s exhibition “Trilogies” at the Menil Collection comprises three sets of three works that range in date from 1968 to 2011.
The exhibition thus spans the mature work of the artist, from his signature polished geometric sculptures to his current use of appropriation. “Bel Air Trilogy: Circle Rod” (2000- 2011) consists of three restored 1955 Chevy Bel Airs, each with a stainless steel rod piercing the front and back windshields. The unique design of the car, without a central window post, frames the rod crossing the interior of the cab. The cars’ rich red color and sleek design, with shiny chrome accents that echo De Maria’s rods, open up associative resonances in a more overt way than the artist’s earlier, more reductive sculptures. Nostalgia, sexuality and American identity are all present. Also, the Bel Airs were manufactured when De Maria first studied art as an undergrad and evoke the speed and freedom of long road trips across the expansive American West, where he created his magnificent land art.
Above all, “Bel Air Trilogy: Circle Rod” is a captivating visual experience of harmoniously arranged line, color, and form much like the other triads in the exhibition, “Channel Series: Circle, Square, Triangle” (1972) and “The Statement Series” (1968-2011). The latter two sets are overshadowed by the “Bel Air Trilogy” but are elegant statements in and of themselves. Taken all together, the trilogies distill De Maria’s body of work over the last five decades. Though the exhibition does not offer the monumental experience of some of the artist’s large scale work, it does open up some previously unavailable ways of looking at De Maria’s art through the lens of the artist’s life and his cultural context.
Rachel Hooper is a Ph.D. student in art history at Rice University, Houston.
“Mary McCleary A Survey: 1996-2011”
September 9–November 12, 2011
Narrative figuration entered her densely packed collages, Mary McCleary told the crowd at Art League, “when I became a Christian.” It’s not often you hear an artist say that! But don’t look for bible story type imagery in this survey show spanning 16 years of the artist’s career. Presented instead are dark themed and humorous pictorial narratives based on literature and history. McCleary composes tacky collage elements — wood, cloth, beads, glitter, paper fragments, cheap plastic toys — into illusionistic scenarios. She builds up collage layers elaborately intending for absurd textural qualities to unsettle the viewer. It is surprising how well the images succeed, depth and illumination are convincing, in fact human figure contouring is handled so adeptly some panels are mistaken for paintings when viewed from a distance. If medium is slightly outrageous, the art’s existential content is profound.
An underlying theme is the Christian concept of man’s fall and redemption expressed metaphorically. Collaged plastic death skulls, weapon imagery, text from William Blake, T.S. Eliot or Saint Paul, paper fragments referencing Nazi atrocities are all examples of “Fall” symbolism. Fire is referenced in a number of the 26 collages, pictorially and allegorically. Allusions to Eliot appear frequently in McCleary’s art, indicative of deep meditations behind art made with coarse materials and flavored with Cracker Jack prize esthetics. In the same manner Eliot decried spiritual barrenness with elevated and low-brow associations, echoing the Upanishads, Ecclesiastes, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Ovid, Virgil, Verlaine, Augustine and others, McCleary builds up gaudy layers of junk to cite the tragedy and comedy of our sorry selves. It was interesting to hear that she initiates compositions with preliminary water color sketches before gluing collage objects, and that family and friends model for her figurative pieces. And that a lifelong interest in antiques significantly impacts her art; she views meticulous collage application as similar to Oriental rug or Chinese porcelain design. In numerous works you will see small plastic eyes, a frequently used motif that served as a symbol of God’s omniscience. McCleary discontinued using the eyes, she stated, after deciding “God didn’t need my help to be omniscient.”
—VIRGINIA BILLEAUD ANDERSON
Virginia Billeaud Anderson is an art historian, artist and writer living and working in Houston.
September 9 – October 8, 2011
After the U.S.-Iraqi invasion, Mohammed Al Shammarey fled with his family across the border to live in exile. The paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos he created in Jordan, then Houston, iterate the bloodshed, death and deprivation of war devastated and occupied Iraq, as well as the pain of exile.
An example is the video “Chess” which captures chess pieces moving across the board and destroyed by fire to allegorize Iraq’s destruction and its debased status as pawn. “Unidentified Man” and “Unidentified Woman” are painted approximations of charred skeletons observed working in a morgue at Um Qasr, artistically re-purposed to honor those for whom burial was disrupted and identity disallowed.
Al Shammarey’s newest works at Anya Tish seem to assuage the pain of exile. He turns to mysticism, as filtered through the teachings of Jalal al-Din Rumi who searched for the sublime through poetry, music and ritual dancing. Photographing in black and white, the artist records himself in white tunic twirling in the manner of entranced dervishes. His tunic seems covered by an ethereal light, an allusion to the mystic turning into light and rising to divine presence.
Al Shammarey’s artist statement confirms his intention to manipulate light imagery in the art. He describes the loneliness, “yearning” he calls it, that motivates him to seek the sublime. And indicates that by photographing the dance by which mystics become light, he approaches the divine. The artist is guided by Rumi’s poetry in which light is a dominant motif.
Anyone visiting Rumi’s tomb in the central Turkish city of Konya will notice sumptuous mosque lamps near the sarcophagus, meant to represent divine presence and Rumi’s attempt to merge with it. Al Shammarey also presents the video “Handle with Care” featuring a veiled woman, which denotes vulnerability in exile. His works form weird and lovely symmetry with the exhibition’s other artist, Simeen Farhat, who also uses Rumi’s verse to derive elegant wall pieces and installation. Farhat shapes urethane resin into calligraphic forms to replicate writings by Rumi and others. Thin and translucent, their sinuous shapes play with shadows and light on the gallery wall.
—VIRGINIA BILLEAUD ANDERSON
September 9 – October 8, 2011
Visiting Seth Alverson’s current solo exhibition at Art Palace is like entering a world replete with double takes, doppelgangers and that unsettling, all-toofamiliar feeling of déjà-vu. A viewer might ask herself, “Haven’t I seen this painting before?” In this case, the answer is yes. In a clever, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the art market, for this show Alverson re-exhibits the ten paintings from his last solo outing at Art Palace that failed to sell. This time around, however, the artist accompanies each previously exhibited work with a newly painted clone. Walking into the entryway, visitors immediately encounter Alverson’s “The Best Part of a Bad Painting” (2009), which is hung facing the front door. The painting depicts a pasty, gnarled hand reaching out from behind a dense layer of black paint. The curled fingers gesture ambiguously towards something outside the canvas’s unframed edge. Turning in the direction of the languidly pointing digits, viewers see another painted hand illuminated against a field of gestural black brushstrokes — “The Best Part of a Bad Painting II” (2011), a seemingly exact replica of the tenebrous scene.
Likewise, the sickly pink infant in “Man and Baby” (2009) is kept company by a nearly identical twin; and the empty seat in “Chair” (2009) is doubly present here. Standing in the middle of the gallery space, viewers’ eyes dart back and forth, and back again, as they try to find slight variations between one canvas and its painted facsimile. It is difficult to resist participating in this visual exercise that is akin to a “spot the differences” picture game. Testing visitors’ powers of observation, Alverson invites people to take a closer look at what was perhaps previously disregarded. Failure, loneliness, and absence — themes that suffuse Alverson’s work — are all the more apparent in this compellingly self-reflexive exhibition. By showcasing paintings that nobody wanted to buy and giving them titles like “The Best Part of a Bad Painting” or “Hole for Bad Ideas,” Alverson draws attention to the anxieties inherent in the art-making (and selling) process. His fallibility as an artist may be on view at Art Palace, but in his current show Alverson deftly transforms failure into success.
Katia Zavistovski is a PhD candidate at Rice University, Houston.
September 17–October 15, 2011
Robert Pruitt’s “You Are Your Own Twin” at Hooks-Epstein Galleries stands apart from the average portrait exhibition. Displaying portraits as personified identities, he combines draftsmanship with commentary on the consciousness of African-Americans. Pruitt draws figures in charcoal on hand-dyed paper, looking more like an animal hide than paper. He allows the dye to provide much of the tones and selectively colors clothing with conté crayon and pastels. The artist emphasizes the paper in his larger portraits, displaying the drawings unframed and floating off the wall on a pair of nails.
The more intimate and smaller bust portraits in the back of the gallery are framed to highlight the paper’s delicate deckle. Aside from faithful renderings of faces, Pruitt chooses to generalize the anatomy of his figures and deliberately includes gestural sketchiness on the fringes of the silhouettes. The direction of the work is playfully rooted in the notion of “double consciousness,” a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois that describes the dual and conflicting identity of African- Americans. The viewer confronts not just a likeness, but an identity that exists in undefined space appended by African culture, pop culture and spaceage tech.
In “Outta Sight,” we see a woman with a mountain-shaped hairdo, a traditionally patterned skirt, and a t-shirt with a symbol suggestive of the Star Trek insignia. She seems unaware of the viewer’s presence, preoccupied with something outside of the picture plane.
The most peculiar inclusion to this portrait show is “Voice of Space”, a small drawing less than eight inches square. At first, “Voice of Space” appears as a bizarre piece of technology. A tool perhaps? Closer inspection reveals an African mask in profile with cables and tubes affixed to the back: a manifestation of opposing identities combined. While an outsider to the African- American community might anticipate “You Are Your Own Twin” to be inaccessible, the artist prunes away unnecessary details and leaves room for all viewers to relate. Amidst the surreal, towering afros and selectively chromatic elements, Pruitt delivers stark portraits that look forward to the future but are deeply rooted in the past, struggling for reconciliation.
Geoff Smith is a twenty-something arts enthusiast with a background in intaglio and lithography.
“Return of the Masters” & “Giselle”
While the heat remains unrelenting outside, Houston Ballet opened its 2011-2012 season with a cool winter wonderland. “Return of the Masters” lifted its curtain to reveal the icy delights of “Les Patineurs,” transforming dancers into boot clad ice skaters and the stage into a picturesque frozen pond. Sir Frederick Ashton’s jovial yet deceivingly athletic ballet reveled in two things not often seen on stage — a white dance floor and deliberately choreographed falls. Melissa Hough and Nozomi Iijima offered charmingly tenacious performances as “The Girls in Blue.”
The second act of “Return of the Masters” included a breathtaking performance of Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night.” Featuring three sets of duets, the ballet revealed the romantic dynamic between different couples, one sweet, one cold and one torrid. Sara Webb and Connor Walsh dazzled as the couple in blue with yielding and youthful lines. In the third pas de deux, Amy Fote and James Gotesky reflected the push and pull of passion, Fote always circling back, falling into Gotesky’s arms and then rebounding into sharp arabesques. The set design was sparse with only the twinkling lights of stars, then a chandelier looming above the dancers.
Choreographically, the ballet’s clean and sophisticated style allowed the maturity of the dancers to take center stage. Kenneth MacMillan’s “Songs of the Earth,” created only five years before Robbins’ “In the Night,” felt dated, relying on a modernist aesthetic that is unfortunately not timeless. One redeeming element was the male-male partnering, which was a welcome contemporary twist.
On Sept. 22, Houston Ballet opened its second production of the season with the 19th century story ballet “Giselle” paired with Stanton Welch’s “Indigo,” which begins with four female dancers (Sara Webb, Kelly Myernick, Melissa Hough, and Nozomi Iijima) wearing half camisoles and long loincloth like skirts poised in dramatic downward cast pools of light. Four male dancers (Luke Ingham, Connor Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama) join the women, materializing from behind them.
Paced at lightning speed, “Indigo” indulged in luscious bent and kinking lines, head bobbles and fluid moving spines. Christina Giannelli’s brilliant lighting design skyrocketed the tension. With only two acts, “Giselle” is a tale of love, betrayal, death, fragile hope and absolution. Danielle Rowe delicately rode the physical and emotional melodrama of her character, from Giselle’s highs as a shy girl in love to her lows as a heartbroken madwoman to her transformation as an ethereal wilis. “Giselle” is the perfect fall ballet, with the first act echoing the warmth of celebrating what has been gathered and the second act courting in the bluer chill of loss and contemplation.
Rosie Trump is a dance choreographer and filmmaker, the Dance Program Director at Rice University and the editor of the blog Reading the Dance.
DiverseWorks Art Space
September 16, 2011
A wall of mirrors greeted me when I entered the black box theater of Diverse- Works September 16th for a performance of “Two Alike,” a collaboration between choreographer/performer Jack Ferver and visual artist Marc Swanson. The expanse of mirror and light was broken at intervals by black strips hanging to the floor. Mirrored themselves on the side facing the wall, the strips created a subtle but endless loop of reflections. An apt image, it turns out, for an examination of childhood loneliness and its lingering effects on the man of today. Ferver takes us on an intense journey, from searing rejection to bitter resignation. “It doesn’t get any better,” he says at one point, “because they are still out there … and still in here.”
Although it is Swanson who created the stunning set, Ferver also brings us several striking images. On his hands and knees, Ferver repeatedly and audibly contracts his gut, causing his head to flail wildly. Later, standing with legs crossed and arms outstretched, he lowers his torso with glacial slowness toward the floor. Brought together by a commission from DiverseWorks and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, “Two Alike” is the first time Swanson and Ferver, both based in New York, have collaborated. Meant to evoke the woods, a place where both Swanson and Ferver spent a lot of time as children, Swanson’s set is also intended to function as an “internal landscape,” an emotional space as well as a physical one. All of Ferver’s work, Swanson notes, is the creation of a psychological space.
“Two Alike,” is a place where, as Ferver puts it, “I tell the same story over and over, hoping I tell a different story, hoping that this time I will tell a different ending.” Early in the performance, Ferver writhes against the mirror. Saliva and oil from his skin leave behind a cross-shaped image, a phantom presence which dominates the stage until the lights go down. Sometimes, we are marked by our childhoods in ways that haunt us to the end.
Roxanne Claire is a writer and choreographer working in Houston.
Zilkha Hall at The Hobby Center
September 24, 2011
Songs are the emotional transports of memories for many of us. Whether it’s in the strains of classic melodies spun from the days of childhood to the cyclical rounds of rock played during the wonder years, each time those songs reemerge one can recall treasured moments. Musiqa’s season opener “Play a Song For Me” successfully captured nostalgia by featuring compositions based on traditional melodies from classic songs. Main musical themes were not merely note by note renditions, but instead offered new classical fantasy takes on tunes matched with rich modern textures in the accompaniment.
The concert opened with “Musiqa Miniatures” composed by each of the five composers in the organization collective all spinning around the tune of “Happy Birthday,” very fitting for Musiqa’s 10th anniversary. “Songs America Loves to Sing” offered the audience a chance to take an aural journey with the contemporary ensemble with classic tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Aura Lee.” Many of the songs were composed with canonic techniques in the woodwinds, transforming the melody into echoes of hallowed memories matched with open sounds of strings and piano. “St. Louis Blues” featured a sultry romp for the lead violin as other instruments pounded out the 12 bar blues bass line.
The finale “Mr. Tamborine Man” was certainly the highlight of the evening. John Corigliano’s use of Bob Dylan’s lyrics as libretto for his small chamber composition had the look of the famous musician’s musical gems but were treated as pieces of delicate poetry seen through the eyes of the composer’s vision. “Blowin’ in the Wind” featured solemn bass lines plotted by the piano and cello while soprano Karol Bennett’s expressive voice begged the question, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” “Masters of War” was rightfully jarring with poignant dissonances unfolding in every turn of a word. “Forever Young” featured tender a cappella portions paired with open string textures creating ethereal overtones in Zilkha Hall. Overall the vocal delivery of Bennett was passionate and the ensemble’s every movement contributed to the musical narrative provided by Corigliano’s masterful writing.
Meghan Hendley is a pianist, vocalist, composer, teacher and arts administrator.
“There Is A Happiness That Morning Is”
September 23 – October 23, 2011
It’s not often that an actor hands you a fragrant sprig of jasmine in the middle of a play. The act proved a harbinger of many joys to come in The Catastrophic Theatre’s production of Mickle Maher’s “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” running though October 23 at Catastrophic’s cozy office space located at 1540 Sul Ross.
The setup involves the aftermath of a tryst between a pair of William Blake scholars who frolicked naked on the yard of their dilapidated liberal arts college. Each one takes their turn explaining to their students in their final Blake lesson the reasons for their actions, using “Infant Joy” from “Songs of Innocence and “The Sick Rose” from “Songs of Experience” as fodder for apology, explanation and some outrageously sublime reasoning. To call the play poetic would be an understatement — it’s a full out feast for the tongue. Maher, a master at bending syntax, perks up our ears for 90 minutes straight.
The cast, Troy Schulze, Amy Bruce and Kyle Sturdivant, go full tilt with Maher’s delicious rhymes, rhythms and bizarre word combinations. Blake would be proud. Schulze is all dreamy, bordering on loopy, as Bernard, the folk singer turned scholar. “I happy am,” he repeats in an intoxicating trance. Bruce gives Ellen an abrasive edge, alternating between despair and hilarity. Sturdivant is perfectly awkward as the creepy college president. Catastrophic knows their way around a Maher play.
This is their third, and follows the success of “The Strangerer” and “Spirits to Enforce,” two previous bold Maher productions. Jason Nodler directs with a hands off the language approach, letting words take center stage and the piece’s subtle sweetness ring true. He understands Maher’s force as a contemporary classicist. Wayne Barnhill’s simple college classroom set makes a perfect fit for the venue and the play. Viewers assume the role of eager students. Kevin Taylor does wonders conjuring a morning after glow. Like any Maher play, it’s more than it seems, larger than the story, held in the space and power of language itself, meaning and, in this case, sheer joy. It’s hard to leave without a deeper understanding of “I happy am.”
September 14 – October 9
If somebody forced you — held a gun to your head, or at least assigned it at some university — to write a three-act play running almost three hours about the discovery of medical anesthesia, you’d be lucky if you did as capable a job as Elizabeth Egloff in “Ether Dome”. Then again, beyond the gun or the grade, you’d be right to wonder “What’s the point?” — and especially “Who would ever want to watch such a play?”
The recent season-opening world premiere at the Alley, despite some classy performances and production values, failed to answer those crucial questions. In academic and literary circles (where, it would seem, this playwright spends considerable time), it’s always fashionable to bemoan the “dumbing down” applied by Hollywood to anything historical, complicated or ambiguous. Yet a play laden with character and incident, mostly among the medical community of New England in the 1840s, surely needs some emotional signposts.
The question here is seldom, in other words, “What’s going on?” It’s nearly always “Why should we care?”
There is a father-son struggle gone bad at this tale’s no-doubt well-researched core, about a Hartford dentist named Horace Wells who teaches his dashing, smooth-talking young protégé William Morton how to use “laughing gas” to help patients avoid the agony (“discomfort,” a modern dentist would insist on calling it) in the chair. Yet Morton is a charlatan, we rather too quickly suspect, and surprise-surprise, that’s what he turns out to be. We watch him steal Wells’ innovation for the next three hours, in between stealing other things from other people. And then, spoiler alert, they all basically die.
The cast, including a pair of new faces at the Alley in the leads, labored beyond the call of duty under Michael Wilson’s direction to make this interesting. The most impossible mountains to climb were handed to Michael Bakkensen as a Wells who’s too naive and Sean Lyons as a Morton who’s too smarmy. With neither clear focus nor emotional depth, the script forces these two to constantly say and do things that seem wrong. Or, as with Wells’ bizarre insertion of “sorry, so sorry” the few times he expresses any disappointment or anger, many lines simply strike us as embarrassing.
The Alley regulars in the cast fared slightly better, mostly because their characters were given slightly better roles, led by John Tyson as the aging Dr. John Warren and Jeffrey Bean as Dr. Charles Jackson. Both actors struggled to bring passion and focus to a play that’s sorely lacking in both.
— JOHN DEMERS
John DeMers is the author of 44 published books and the host of the “Delicious Mischief ” radio program in Houston on NewsRadio 740 KTRH and in Austin on Talk 1370.