Cowboy at Heart
Bernar Venet transforms Hermann Park with towering sculptures
Growing up in France, Bernar Venet dreamed of Texas, pretending all the while he was an American cowboy. Sharing photos with friends at camp he would tell them his parents were cowboys, riding horses all the time. Reinventing his identity, he called himself "Jimmy," to have an American name. Texas was a myth as large as the Lone Star state itself; it is the vast nature of the landscape that most intrigued him.
So it seems fitting that his art would land in Houston and funny that childhood friends still refer to him as "Jimmy" on occasion. He says that they still say, “Comment allez vous Jimmy, où est votre chapeau de cowboy?" In other words, “How are you, Jimmy, where’s your cowboy hat?"
Venet’s 15-piece installation of sculpture — some towering 30 feet high — in eight locations at Hermann Park will be unveiled to the public on Saturday. (Venet will appear at a private reception today at the park and give a lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Friday.) The breathtaking pieces were the main topic of discussion when I met with him last month. Across from McGovern Lake near the boat house, we briskly walked around a large bent, curvilinear, cor-ten steel sculpture titled “Four Indefinite Lines." Venet boldly described the finishing details on this particular piece, the ground, polish, and surface details. “Presentation is everything,” he said.
Monumental in scale, the works invite children to play as they curve, undulate or stand at attention in the shape of arcs, straight or intertwined lines. Beginning as a site-specific installation on the Champs du Mars in Paris in 1994, they have since traveled to Asia, Europe, and several other cities in the United States. The Texan-French Alliance for the Arts (TFAA) brought the exhibition to Houston for nine months. The artist has been here several times to oversee the installation of the sculptures, with assistance from McClain Gallery. (The gallery is also featuring an exhibition of Venet's drawings and small sculptures.)
During an interview at the Hotel ZaZa the 69-year-old sculptor, who lives in New York with his wife, reviewed his previous works of mathematically influenced paintings, non-representational sculpture and steel wall sculpture that influenced the large free-standing, three-dimensional works in cor ten steel. “A true work of art must contribute to the knowledge of art history, and go beyond it,” Venet said.
The energy in the room was electric as Venet described the evolution of his work. He says that change is a given; each piece is complete only when purchased. Cranes and cables are used to form the heavy, cold steel weighing up to 22 tons. The steel bars can snap before your eyes, quick and without warning, making the process a dangerous one. ”My life’s work is intended to be a contribution to the world born out of a deep knowledge of what has gone before in an honest attempt to do something that has never been seen,” Venet said.
Stacey Holzer writes about contemporary art in Houston onvisualseen.net