What I want most from art is surprise. I want something that delights or shocks and makes the whole world seem new. As I looked back on a heady year of art in 2010, I thought about what has kept me guessing and what keeps me wanting more.
I take my hat off to the Menil Collection and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Both manage to create a total environment around viewers, which is no easy task. The Menil deserves special mention for featuring Maurizio Cattelan.
Although the show happened last spring, it was as if Santa Claus had snuck into the collection at night and left the gift of Cattelan’s stealthy sculptures amidst the favorites of the collection. His All was perhaps the most overwhelming work I saw this year at the Menil.
Then again, how can anyone forget having the chance to climb into the reconstructed Merzbau during this year’s Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage? The Menil’s Merzbau is a reconstruction of the living sculpture that Schwitters created around himself in his home, a collage environment made of found objects. This memorable exhibition also drew attention to his quite painterly assemblages, with their gorgeous bluish-green hues.
You can still see this show, which runs through January 30 2011, and you won’t think of collage the same way after you do.
The CAMH has no permanent collection and significantly slimmer resources than other major museums in town. In spite of this, their impact is profound. The shows that impressed me the most were Benjamin Patterson: Born in a State of Fluxus and Hand + Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft, both organized by senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, who is clearly a real gem in Houston’s impressive crown of curators.
And we should all be pleased that the CAMH’s endlessly energetic director Bill Arning organized a screening and discussion of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly, recently censored at the Smithsonian. Wojnarowicz's hypnotic attention to sex, death, masculinity, and Mexico warrants greater attention.
Let’s hope Arning screens it again. Let’s also hope he turns his intelligence, experience, and curatorial generosity to the question of where art about sex and sexuality is right now. Some recent Houston shows on gay art and performance left me wanting more potent conversation on the subject.
A venue like the Museum of Fine Arts Houston can seem more standard, and to some less invigorating, than the Menil or the CAMH. But what I love about the MFAH is the surprise of what’s familiar. Sure, this is the venue that will welcome Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Hey, we’ve all got to pay our bills and no doubt this will be a blockbuster exhibition.
But the MFAH gave us this year the gift of Sargent and the Sea and Alice Neel: Painted Truths. I always loved John Singer Sargent, but his early works, inspired by a transatlantic voyage, had never before been assembled. What luck that they finally were. And what is there to say of Alice Neel’s fascinating portraits of Warhol, Smithson, and others? It’s a unique vision of what a portrait accomplishes, and she’s a new favorite of mine thanks to the MFAH.
There’s perhaps no performance venue in Houston as consistently innovative as Diverseworks. Whenever I miss something there, I feel intense physical pangs of regret. I don’t have a lot to say about this year’s sensational Yasuko Yokoshi's Tyler, Tyler other than that I've never seen anything like this blend of contemporary choreography and music with classical Japanese dance and theater. This year, Allison Hunter’s Zoosphere, a haunting video-environment populated by animals denatured of habitat, was a standout, even amidst the flurry of FotoFest events.
While others will have more to say on this subject, I can report that Houston Grand Opera’s productions of Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes were revelations. The HGO might be the most impressive of the few truly world-class venues in Houston, and the creativity lavished upon all of their offerings is notable. But the ongoing multi-year cycle of Britten’s work merits further attention. This composer is a great genius who deserves more attention than he gets, and audiences should not miss the productions to come these next years.
Is Houston a world-class city for dance? It remains to be seen, though this year’s 16th annual Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance had some Houston-area highs as well as some predictable lows. This fall Houston Ballet has been a bit of a sleeper, but the year tells a tale all about Jiří Kylián's wonderful Forgotten Land (last year’s astonishing Falling Angels also comes to mind) and Frederick Ashton’s charming La Fille Mal Gardée.
Dominick Walsh has also contributed to the growing presence of Kylian in Houston with a performance of an excerpt of 27’52. We can look forward in 2011 to a world premiere by Kylián's protégé Jorma Elo, many of whose works I had the good fortune to see at Boston Ballet, where Elo is resident choreographer. And it’ll be fascinating to see what mix Dance Salad brings to town; this annual sampling of European dance companies puts Houston heads and shoulders over most cities.
It’s easy to take notice of major spectacles, but I must say that a few smaller shows really moved me. Kristina Van Dyke’s Objects of Devotion at the Menil was wonderfully meditative about the nature of aesthetics and religion in the cult of devotion founded by Dominique de Menil. The show featured religious objects culled from multiple eras and traditions, and I appreciated this curatorial sensibility.
Richard Misrach: After Katrina, at the MFAH and Lawndale Art Center, cut through the sentimentality and the fatigue of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Misrach’s photographs track the desperate, poignant, and odd messages scrawled in paint after the storm. It takes a deft hand to have such restraint in the face of disaster and it takes a mature artist to see what’s really before him.
My only regret is that these photographs were hung outside the entrance to Café Express at the MFAH and got a little lost.
It’s important for a city to present major, world-class works on a grand scale. But for 2011, l would like to see Houston cultivate more small scale greatness.
It may be heresy to say, but not all good things need come in Texas-sized packages.
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles CultureMap will be running this last week of 2010 on The Year in Culture. The stories in this series will focus on a few key points, things that struck our reporting team about the year rather than rote Top 10 lists or bests of.
Other The Year In Culture stories: