Seasons in Houston take peculiar forms and operate on their own erratic timeline. Walking through the Bellaire Nature Discovery Center and adjacent Russ Pitman Park conservancy, fallen autumnal leaves still crunch beneath feet while visitors yield to the spring blossoms of native wildflowers.
It is this beautiful, bizarre landscape that forms an ideal backdrop for a new public sculpture exhibition. Artist June Woest, who organized the exhibition along with Lucinda Cobley and Lisa Qualls, describes the exhibition as "the work of a loose-knit group of 13 artists working in collaboration with the park's naturalists."
"I was interested in it because it seemed to mix exotic and preserved native plants in a harmonious way," Woest says, explaining what triggered her desire to curate in the park. "So it wasn't just pure native landscape, or pure interventionary landscape."
The land on which Russ Pitman Park stands brings the visitor back over a century. Originally the property of the mayor of Bellaire in the late 19th century (whose world travels explain the exotic pants), much of the landscape still resembles untamed countryside.The existence of this patch of unmowed wilderness in the midst of the city inspired the exhibition's title, Preserving Space.
Each work engages the natural landscape. In Patrick Renner's Treed, a collection of ladders is haphazardly lodged in an oak tree, and in Claudia Franco's Naturally Occurring Hybrid, a dome of replica pill bottles resembles a perfectly formed ant nest or rock outcropping, and suggests the tainted connection between forests and pharmaceuticals.
"I was experimenting with the impossible task of trying to bring the dead back to life," Woest says of her own piece, Dormant. "I picked up these dead branches from the park floor — whittling on them reminded me of domestic kitchen spoons. I thought that perhaps adhering actual spoons could act as a reservoir for rain, refurbish the roots and make them alive again.
"It's a non-scientific experiment," she quips with a sideways grin. "I'm playing with material memory."
Ticking Corn Bomb
A banal formation of corn stalks stands in the parks' southeast clearing, the work of the artist Lotus. Closer inspection reveals that the ears of corn poking out are in fact grenades. "Just the over-production of any item in our landscape can cause conflicts down the line," says Woest, who hails from Kansas and grew up among cornfields. "Our society is choking on corn. It's in everything: Corn syrup, corn meal, gasoline. These grenades suggest that our reliance might be a bit of a time bomb."
Such politicized work is balanced by gentler commentary on life processes. In Survival Mechanism, Kathy Hall selected as her canvas the non-native and invasive wax leaf ligustrum tree, which had been slated for removal to allow more sunlight into the developing native meadow. Utilizing a traditional Japanese technique, she dressed the tree for "burial" with bands of fabric.
"I chose fabrics with images of highly stylized nature popular during this tree's lifetime," Hall elaborates, "but arranged the colors to mimic the colors in the original native prairie this land was before human development." It's a soft statement on human intervention in nature.
A similar sentiment is found in UK-native Lucinda Cobley's grass+cipher, an installation of color-coded tags distributed around the park, which coordinates with a "Color Identification Key" to allow viewers to discover some facts about grasses. "I didn't want to suddenly go into the park and start to make artworks that are nothing to do with my practice," says Cobley, whose meditative paintings of rich hues on glass have been exhibited at Wade Wilson Art.
Seeking to incorporate the same bands of color found in her translucent paintings, she wandered around Southland Hardware and bought hundreds of zip ties in different sizes, painted them bright shades and embedded the pieces among patches of coordinating grasses.
"Seeing the artworks in the show is like watching the park bloom," Cobley raves. "The unfurling of the artworks and their coming into being in springtime is a sort of nice analogy for the park as it wakes up from its winter dormancy.
"For the artists, it gives us the opportunity to experiment outside our artistic practice. We view it as a mini-residency: Getting to meet with a naturalist and learn directly — it's an educational thing for us."
The exhibition's location at a Bellaire park removed from the traditional Houston arts district proposes exciting opportunities for an expanded audience. "You've got the birders, families with small kids, everyone is going to see it," Cobley adds. She's beams with excitement: "It kind of puts art in their face. If we can do some more experimental things like this, it's really going to change the complexion of Houston and its surrounding boroughs."
A not to be missed tangential installation by Woest, RoadsignUSA #3 is on view on a billboard beside the nearby railroad tracks on Bellaire. The words "Preserving Space" are displayed against lush foliage. The perfect capstone to the exhibition, the billboard reiterates the exhibition's artists' commitment to nature. Never before has environmentalism been addressed by artists in Houston on such a large scale.
The exhibition, Preserving Space, is on view through May 2.