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Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experience - The Menil Collection, Houston, TX - December 2015


In a dimly lit room accessed through a constructed hallway, Menil Curator Paul Davis has assembled paintings, sculptures, furniture, totems, and a range of other art objects from the collection for the exhibition “Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences.”  This exhibition provides us with two polemic modes of understanding the “art experience.”  On one end, the viewer’s role; on the other, the impact of the object.  Davis understands that our relationship to objects forms our understanding of those objects through careful study and intimate functionality.


There are several works in this show that beg mindful attention.  Paul Klee's "Two Emphasized Layers" is a small watercolor which asks us to quietly contemplate the depth of complementary fields of color; solid blocks of pale orange behind staccato squares of blue.  It's deceptively simple at first glance, but holds one’s attention, moving line of sight to and fro, and seemingly forward and back.  Adjacent to the watercolor, Hans Arp's small sculpture "Feuille sur Cristal" incorporates its surroundings (including our bodies) into the highly reflective surface, essentially creating a time-based, evolving work of art.  Observing the work over time provides an ever-changing field of imagery.  


On the other side of the entryway, we are confronted with a pair of formidable totems,  David Smith’s “Forging III”, and an early 20th century oceanic totem from Vanuatu.  These represent what Davis refers to as “the commanding agency of the artwork.”  The Vanuatu totem is highly textured; a result of the fibrous palm tree from which it was carved.  In addition to its enlarged eyes and nose, it sports a large carved phallus.  By contrast, Smith’s sculpture features a very smooth, industrial texture, with very little in the way of representation.  It is less an object imbued with protective mysticism, and more a Newman-esque expression of procedural capacity.


There are several functional items in the back of the space.  Constantin Brancusi's "Stool (Taborret)” is carved of wood, with a flat arced plane on which to sit, with a round, oral cavity in the center.  Like his polished sculptures, this is based on African sculptural forms.  There is also a headrest, or isicamelo, created by the Nguni Peoples of Southern Africa:  It consists of a smooth top piece, supported by eight large volumetric legs.  These lovely legs taper to soft points at their ends, resembling inverted teardrops.  


Across the room sits a variety of functional vessels, not least of which is an elegant Nikostheres Kylix (a Greek wine cup), with a pair of eyes emblazoned on the outer surface.  When the kylix is tipped to drink wine, the eyes replace those of the user, creating the surreal illusion of an otherworldly presence in the body of the user.  


The Hawaiian “Cloak (‘Ahu’ula)” is an attractive bit of craft, woven from vegetable fibers and adorned with brightly colored feathers.  With an undoubted role in ritual and most likely an indicator of social status, this beautiful garb is sadly rendered inert by its enclosure, unable to drape over a human form.


While the presence of some objects is palpable, it’s the ‘pursuit of delicious experience’ that isn’t fully realized, especially in the case of the ethnographic art.  As indicated with the ‘Ahu’ula, most of these objects are anesthetized, and only shadows of themselves.  Without sitting on the stool, wearing the cloak, or actually drinking from the kylix, we are left wondering about the true visceral nature of these objects.  Experience is not only appreciated with the eyes.  Experience is sensed by touching, smelling, hearing and tasting.  The exhibit fails in its attempt to well and truly capture an art experience regarding these craft objects.  This is the problem with curatorial display; we are meant to remain passive, and access only with vision, despite craft’s tactile, intimate nature, as well as Dominique de Menil’s assertion that “Passivity is fatal.”

Cut - The Bridge Club at Art Palace, Houston, TX - September 2015

The latest offering from the Art Palace Gallery is Cut, an opening night performance and series of photographs documenting the myriad performances of the collaborative The Bridge Club.  This troupe features artists Annie Strader, Christine Owen, Emily Bivens, and Julie Wills.  The gallery website details, “The exhibit’s title refers both to the cinematic nature of the photographs on display and to the physical act of cutting, which will feature prominently in the performance.” 


Walking in to the Art Palace space, you are greeted with the imagery of past performances, and a low platform in the room’s center.  These large photographs, all at least 24” x 36” and framed in crisp white, give us a survey of The Bridge Club over the past two years.  The four women, wearing wigs, shoes and dresses chosen for specific performances and sites, exude a uniform, cult-like aura which strips individualism in favor of the collective female identity.  


At first blush, the photographs deliver images of indeterminate narrative, but viewers seem invited to follow the trajectory of the Warning Signs II performance.  In Warning Signs II (Forecast), the ladies all wear little black dresses, a semi-formal outfit, and stretch chalk line case (wrapped in crochet or macramé) across a concrete courtyard, seemingly using arcane knowledge to measure the path of or delineate some unseen force.  The players make no attempt to meet one another’s gaze, which is a running theme in this body of photographs; perhaps the chalk lines are stand-ins for eye contact.  In Warning Signs II (Storm Path),  we observe a world atlas held by a performer, where similar lines have been ascribed, or perhaps erased.  In Warning Signs II (Flood), we see the performers redacting the chalk by spooning water from a gilded teacup, carefully applying liquid to the lines, removing the traces of pathways or boundaries using domestic means.  The angle of photography dramatically frames both foreground and background, with a stoic warning being called from the middleground.  Warning Signs II (Strike) shows a tensely lit performer interacting with a video component, superimposed on the trailer which they used in several of their performances.


The most striking image, installed alone on the far wall, was Inheritance (Sieve).  The performers, wearing matching chamber maid outfits and white gloves, wash teacups made of slipcast greenware in an old wash bucket.  The act of inundating greenware with water causes it to revert to moist clay, and eventually, back to mud.  Therefore, the maids reduce these objects representative of their servitude to a mere puddle through traditional ‘woman’s work.’ 


I noticed a strong digital noise presence in most of the photographs.  It appears that the enlargement of the images stretched them to their visual capacity.  As I continued to look and discuss with my companion, we talked about how photo documentation was the impression of the performance; she convinced me, that as such, the impressionistic features have a place in the imagery.

Eventually, the actors emerged, costumed in the exact manner documented in Dirty Little (Operator), and climbed onto the platform in the middle of the room.  Sharing a single pair of shears, they crouched before one another to cut strips from from the bottom of another’s dress, letting the scraps fall to the pedestal or floor below.  The other players used their bodies to shield part of the audience from the act, and looked on, as if supervising.  The cutter, in a break from the anti-gaze theme of the images, would return their gaze, as if asking for approval.  This continued for over a half hour, until fabric was cut well above their hips.  This self-removal recalled Warning Signs II (Flood) and Inheritance (Sieve), and contextualized the exhibition as a perpetual cutting away of gendered objects, stereotypes, and divisions deemed unfit for the contemporary female identity.

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