Monday, October 24, 2011

Hello Houston

There was a time when I thought Texas and I would never meet, but we have and Houston is a city that has disarmed any assumptions I may have had of this state. It is surprising how geographically disengaged I am with the America; I have been to more foreign countries than I have been to states. Is this out of snobbery, laziness, and the impulse to only seek the obscure of the cosmopolitan? Yes and no. You go to places for one reason or another and I never had one for Texas on my own, but business has brought me here and I’m lucky for that because Houston is a very fine town.

What takes the socks off Houston is The Menil Collection. Oh My Goodness. Now this is a collection well acquired and handled. To learn about the de Menil’s and their “passion” for art go to their website, they have more detail and fervor in this tale then I want to be responsible for. But anyways the collection of Dominic Schlumberger and John de Menil is a wowzer affair. First the building that it is housed in is an exemplar of unassuming, tranquility inducing, Shaker aesthetic. It has the lushest grass and also the fattest, daring, brown squirrels I’ve ever been acquainted with. The building is, thank goodness, made of wood and is painted a periwinkle blue. If I have to see another hideous brushed-steel building I may just have a minnie seizure. The space inside is minimal, quite, and straightforward with a lobby at center and galleries to the left and right. The rooms are generous and well proportioned allowing the objects in the room converse with each other versus having to merely exist in the same space. The feature exhibition was Walter de Maria’s Trilogies. The room with the three perfectly preserved Chevy Bel Airs with a stainless steel rod piercing through them in the triangle, rectangle and circle forms was an impressive feat of human energy. That’s all I have to say about that.

The most “oh my goodness” factor is the amazing Surrealist collection. Apparently, the de Menils have the largest and most comprehensive collection of Surrealist works and this installation shows so many hits that it makes the heart lurch. Seeing things in real time and space is more then important, it is essential in the arts. Due to our digital reality there has been a trend of separating the idea of an artwork from the artwork itself. Yes, art is about the ideas, art is the memento mori of our collective conscious and history but it also self-specific and functional outside of a placeholder or cue. Seeing RenĂ© Magritte’s, C’est nes pas une pipe at this collection reaffirms this idea to me. It is just a thing; another thing amongst things when you get down to it, but it is more then just a reproduction of itself. Its presence has meaning beyond just a scavenger hunt for our recent cultural feats. In addition to this zinger was a catalog of all the masters of Surrealism, you name it they were there, Max Ernst, RenĂ© Magritte, Man Ray, Georgio de Chirico, Yves Tanguey… I have always had a soft spot for Magritte but seeing so many of them at one time somehow made me a bit embarrassed about this affection. I may be turning a new corner with him, there is something very dull about some of his works, or maybe I’m projecting on who I image him to be as a person. Time will tell. What was stunning to see were the Georgio de Chiricos. His work is much more alive in person then as reproduction. But the biggest zinger of the group was Dorothea Tanning’s Cousins, 1970. Fury, hugging, entwined, faceless brown creatures that are both endearing and creepy. There is now a distinct visual marker for me, the time before I was introduced to Tanning’s sculptures and the time after. Really remarkable.

In addition to this intimidating possession of works there was a small room with artifacts, objects, masks, toys, rocks, and various other curios and tribal wonderments that was accumulated as a showing of objects that the Surrealists either personally owned or was in the spirit of the things they owned. This was, I think, a thoughtful and insightful inclusion. This accumulation of objects also triggers this unsettling realization that all that is in this room is vacuumed sealed of its potency and its self-possession. There are still clinging reverberations of spirit, or whatever you want to call it, in some of the objects though. In the end it is sad to witness but also rewarding to one’s mental map of visual culture.

There were other remarkable works and a breadth of discerning taste evidenced in the other galleries. It is stunning what money can buy. It feels a bit unfair in a way but better for us that it is on view and accessible to all versus above a couch or a toilet. Anyone who happens to be in Houston must must go view this collection. The Menil also claims the Rothko Chapel, which is a big to do. It is very Rothko-y. There was unfortunately a cluster of black folding chairs cramped in the space. I think that is a pity of my timing. In the room with me was one balding, pony tailed, white male on the floor in lotus position and also an attendant, a black women in her fifties who was looking over the circulars. There is a Rothko Chapel office next door in a charming house. There were lots of cats eating from small piles of cat food on the porch. I enjoyed watching the cats. That’s all I have to say about the Rothko Chapel.

Houston is a very nice town, and I mean nice. Everyone is so pleasant and friendly here. Not in the exaggerated way I thought they would be but in a very honest way. There are young, stylish, hip people and if there are those types there must be a thriving art scene somewhere about. This seems like a place that likes being exactly the way it is. It is a car town for sure but the largess of the city allows for un-trafficked flow. The week I was here was apparently the best weather week almost all year, mid 70s to 80s, low humidity, clear skies and bright sun. This is something I am most enamored with about Houston. Its big flat sky and the sun is as bright and warm as its shaded areas are clean and cool. It has the hint of same sun as LA but the air here is cleaner so the light is more penetrating. Also it has the most fabulous springing from the cracks flora and fauna I have seen. Oh and the birds, they have these kooky black birds that strut and make vocal undulations that are hilarious. I could never call Houston home but it is just as nice to visit as any place I’ve visited before.