The Year in Culture
War and art: The year in Houston culture, from untimely departures to majoracquisitions
In with a bang, out with a whimper?
I was thinking about that phrase the other day after I saw a headline in The New York Times announcing the end of the war in Iraq War nearly nine years after it started. Another story from that same day noted that Times Square bustled on mostly unaware, as did most Americans, I would guess.
Defense Secretary Leon Penetta performed some ceremony of departure, but how disparate it was to Allen Ginsberg's rallying cry, "I now declare the end of the war!"at the climax of "Wichita Vortex Sutra."
I first heard this marvelous poem set by Philip Glass for the equally marvelous chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox last spring in a stirring production by Fort Worth Opera. Opera Vista tackles this demanding, if rewarding, work this spring in Houston.
Maybe it's strange that I can't get it out of my mind as I think about another year in Houston winding down. War seems nowhere over — not in Afghanistan, not in the streets of major American cities. Pick whatever kind of war you like, armed combat or class warfare.
So, as I conjure my own idiosyncratic and necessarily incomplete recollections of a year in art, I think about the ugliness and aftermath of war, of the invisible wars fought around us every day, and of uneasy comings and goings.
War on stage and on exhibit
Without a doubt, Houston Grand Opera's production of Dead Man Walking last spring comes to mind, but then again, it's not every opera that opens with a rape and double murder and closes with an onstage execution.
Equally haunting and uncomfortable was HGO's Fidelio. The final moments, when a cast of seemingly thousands sing their hearts out to celebrate the end of tyranny, are an utterly sublime expression of the joy of liberation.
It's not war, but peace I think of when I think of the most singular show of the year, the Menil's Upside Down: Arctic Realities
But Jürgen Flimm's production ends with the pulling down of a statue of the malevolent Don Pizzaro, an gesture of liberty, yes, that hauntingly resonates with the opening days of the war in Iraq. As the crowd alternated between exhilarated and menacing, I couldn't help but think of the death and desecration of Osama bin Laden. Evil is evil, but brutality begets brutality. It's hard to feel good about certain kinds of victory.
Clearly, opera has a lot to say about war. HGO's upcoming production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia stages an ancient story of sexual violation and the birth of the Roman republic in the context of the devastation of World War II.
War was everywhere at the Station Museum, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite art spaces in Houston. First, there was the harrowing world of George Gittoes's Witness to War. Gittoes has documented, as only a visionary artist can, some of the horrific geopolitical conflicts of recent decades. Gittoes witnesses what the rest of us would rather not see. What else was art made for?
You can still see the Station's latest offering, Andre Molodkin's Crude, which runs through Feb. 12, 2012. Molodkin's translucent letters, pumping full of crude oil, force us to consider the not-so-invisible energy wars past, present and future.
I never think of war when I enter the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, but perhaps I should. Without the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces barely a month after I was born in 1974, perhaps the chapel in now-occupied Lysi would never have been pillaged, its images chain-sawed into 38 pieces, and later purchased and restored by the Menil on behalf of Cyprus.
The chapel and its singular procession of angels will end its decades-long visitation on March 4, 2012. What a strange departure for the city, although it's hard to argue with the repatriation of looted art.
Comings and Goings
It's not war, but peace I think of when I think of the most singular show of the year, the Menil's Upside Down: Arctic Realities.
The exhibit featured, in an utterly unique wintry landscape and blustery soundscape, artifacts of the Bering Sea cultures that were the lifelong work of anthropologist and author Edmund Snow Carpenter, who died just before the much-heralded exhibit closed.
I was honored to take part in a celebratory reading of Carpenter's Eskimo Realities, which became an unintended elegy for this great visionary. The Menil stayed open until the reading was over. Moments like this make me grateful I live in Houston.
I never think of war when I enter the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, but perhaps I should. Without the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces, perhaps the chapel in now-occupied Lysi would never have been pillaged, its images never chain-sawed into 38 pieces, later purchased and restored by the Menil on behalf of Cyprus.
It was a year of departures, unexpected and unwanted, as in the untimely death of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio. Recently, the MFAH has announced the pending arrival of the next director, Gary Tinterow, a Houston native and former Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met.
Tinterow will now oversee a new building and, no doubt, as yet unannounced and unforeseen new initiatives.
In the list of new arrivals at the MFAH we might select, from the hefty list of acquisitions, two particularly impressive works entirely concerned with the heavy toll of war.
Constant Mayer had the ravages of the Civil War fresh in his mind when he completed his 1865 Recognition: North and South. In it, a Confederate soldier hovers over the languid corpse of his Union enemy, who he discovers to be his own brother.
There's something so hazy, gentle, and sweet about the depiction that you could almost believe the dead soldier is only sleeping. Of course, that's a wish, not a belief.
The completion of John Steuart Curry's The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne took twelve years, from 1928 to 1940. The noted American regionalist features the flag-draped coffin of a casualty of World War I, Private Davis, whose return to his native Winchester, Kansas draws about him a crowd of dark-clad mourners who seem to bend together in grief, as if some center could still hold.
So much of note happened in Houston this year that perhaps it seems unfair to narrow my selections so. And it isn't that I assume all art should address war or the political. But sometimes I wonder if we aren't sometimes too content to find, in art, mere entertainment.
Great art needn't be somber seriousness all the time. Miraculously, it can look like nearly anything. So here's to a 2012 of ever-increasing ambition of vision for Houston art. At a time like this, shouldn't the stakes be as high as they can be?
Otherwise, it's all whimper and no bang.