"Why, am I bleeding?"
Once up the stairs and down the hall, I could see what Nance was talking about. Seth Mittag's strange disaster scene, We're Still Here, looked perfect behind the glass of the installation space known as Emergency Room (ER).
The temporary space for Houston artists is run by Rice University Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts faculty John Sparagana and Christopher Sperandio. Nick Barbee's Cato occupied the space next. Right now, you can see Josh Bernstein's Man Corn, which follows the travails of Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca on Galveston Island.
Bernstein's work is also included the upcoming Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage at the MFAH. You can find Bernstein's ER installation, which runs through March 15, by entering Rice Gallery in Sewall Hall. Stop to see Joel Shapiro's hurling colored beams for a bit, then follow the signs to the fourth floor.
I spoke with Sparagana and Sperandio below.
CultureMap: I like the scale of the space. What did it used to be?
John Sparagana: The space was formerly an office in our department, then appropriated by the admissions office. We observed that it was underused by admissions, and enlisted our supportive dean of humanities, Nick Shumway, to get it back for the department. There is a significant movement around the country to make a lot happen in small informal spaces, some, such as The Suburban in Oak Park, Illinois (edge of Chicago), long lasting, others relatively short lived, many pop-up; Emergency Room has that DNA.
Christopher Sperandio: The room has a gorgeous, leaded glass French door that lets out onto a lovely private balcony. It's actually elegant. Generally, space is at a premium at Rice, especially for our department. We've been working on creative ways to use even the smallest available space. Our student gallery, Matchbox, is similarly scaled. We plan on doubling the size of the ER over the summer.
CM: The separation of the glass reminds me of a museum diorama. Bernstein's show has more of a mini gallery feeling.
Houston is a hard place to have a career – there's no clearly defined career track, and sometimes even mid-career artists struggle here. The ER is an attempt to begin to turn this tide. We're also trying to raise our identity in Houston.
JS: The glass front suits Emergency Room well. We don't have a budget to man/woman it, so the glass front allows the exhibition to be on view Monday through Friday, and 24/7, for the students at Rice. The tight space and glass front worked perfectly for Seth's installation, as it was meant to be experienced like a diorama.
Other exhibitions will need to be viewed from inside the space for a full experience, and generally the artist or someone in the department will be willing to open the space for viewing upon request. We need to work on lighting, for the moment its very DIY — we wanted to get the space up and running, but we are working on it. The office next door is ours as well, and over the summer we plan to take out the dividing wall and combine the two spaces, possibly with the oversight of an architect.
CM: What are you rescuing exactly? You have to have a good story on selecting the name "Emergency Room."
JS: Emergency Room, coined by Chris, denotes urgency, and is a play on emerge as in emerging artists. It also gave Chris the opportunity to design an awesome neon sign (not to be confused with the Dos Equis logo).
CS: I feel like things are getting better for our very modestly-sized department every year. There's no emergency in our program, but there is emergence. If anything, we feel urgency, not emergency. Urgency Room just doesn't have the same ring. ER is attention getting, and in this town, you need to grab people's attention.
CM: You mention that you are in search of interesting and underexposed artists. What defines interesting to you? Do they need to be in a certain place in their careers?
JS: Underexposed and interesting — yes, it's a certain place in their career. More active in their art practice at this point than in the exhibition arena, with a focus, ideas, and a formally sophisticated body of work.
CS: Since we don't have a graduate studio program, we wanted to 'patch in' a little of that experience for our undergrads — the experience of being around young(er), active artists who are not yet full-blown academics. As far as selection goes, it's really common to run into artists in Houston, and for whatever reason, they haven't received the attention that maybe they should.
When I meet one of these folks, I pass along their web site or images to John. His perspective is key, as he's in both the Houston and the Chicago art scenes, and brings another POV to the decision making process. I'm sure as we go along, our mission will begin to change, but only as we feel the need in relation to our BA arts program.
CM: Post MFA is often a dangerous place for any artist, many stop working after a few years. Are you thinking of ER as a mini bridge of sorts to support artists post academia? Do they need to be out of school?
JS: The artists that we invite to exhibit at Emergency Room will generally be out of school, either post BFA or MFA, but it's not unreasonable to think that we will run across artists that haven't been in a university art program. We also have a terrific student run gallery, Matchbox (another former office, in the lower courtyard of Sewall Hall), that is appropriate for anyone currently enrolled in a school program. We did an exchange with students from UH at Matchbox, and are interested in doing more — a really healthy development for our department.
CM: The ER poster and essay add depth and a dash of flash to the project.
JS: We have excellent writers in the PhD program in Art History at Rice. It is a happy exchange to offer them a gig, have smart, well written essays for our posters, while reaching out to our colleagues in art history. The idea of the poster is to offer the artists useful material that documents a body of work and exhibition, and exists beyond the space and time of the show. It will be a tool for them to generate further opportunities.
CS: We hope that our attention to these artists will help them transition to greater success. Houston is a hard place to have a career – there's no clearly defined career track, and sometimes even mid-career artists struggle here. The ER is an attempt to begin to turn this tide. We're also trying to raise our identity in Houston. You'd be surprised at the number of people who don't even know that Rice has any art program at all. The poster is a clever and cost efficient way to get a lot out of one piece. The poster allows us to showcase the artist, and to say something meaningful about them. It's an advantage for the artist as well as for the young writers who contribute their work.
What can we expect in the future?
CS: The spring semester will feature the work of Emily Link in mid-April. At the end of the day, the ER is primarily about improving the education of our students. To that end, we are selecting the artists as much as the artworks. Through lectures and studio visits, the ER artists are going to be having an impact on our program. We take all of that very seriously.