animals

Animals. They’re everywhere. I’ve never been much of an animal person.

  • BEAR: Sculpture by Eladio (dEmo) de Mora. DUMBO area of Brooklyn, New York. September 2012.
  • TURTLE: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. November 2012.
  • COW: Elephanta Island, Mumbai, India. January 2013.
  • CHICKEN: “The Chicken” by Chaïm Soutine, 1926. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. April 2007.
  • LION: Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (with United States Capitol in background), Washington, D.C. November 2012.
  • SHEEP: Near tomb of Xu Guangqi (Paul Siu), Guangqi Park, Shanghai, China. January 2011.
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back in h-town: chapel of st. basil

Alrighty, peeps. This is my last Houston post. Mostly because, well … I’m not in Houston anymore! And it’ll probably be a while before I return again to the land of sun and Tex-Mex. This series of “Back in H-Town” posts have all dealt with Houston art museums and architecture associated with them in the downtown area. So I’m going to end with one of my “favorite” works of architecture in Houston. Quotations are needed, because there’s so much wrong with this thing, but that in turn makes it fascinating.

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This monstrosity, ladies and gentlemen, is the Chapel of St. Basil. I visited shortly before the new year, so they still had their Christmas decorations up. It is located on the University of St. Thomas (UST) campus – a stone’s throw from the Menil and Rothko Chapel – and was designed by American architect Philip Johnson (also architect of the Rothko Chapel). Johnson designed the university’s Academic Mall, the long two-story arcades on either side of the chapel, way back in the 1950s (on recommendation of the Menils) … but back then he was relatively unknown and his chapel design was rejected … so this chapel wasn’t completed until 1997, after Johnson had become super famous and was really old. In other words, this was one of Johnson’s last buildings, was after his high modernism phase, and came at a time when he was probably having a lark and could do whatever he wanted because people would still worship him.

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Basically there are three elements: the white stucco cube (with the entrance flap), the gold-leafed sphere (actually a semi-sphere dome), and the black granite plane (that doubles as the bell tower), and the intersection of these three perfect forms (cube, sphere, plane) form the chapel. I actually wrote a paper on the chapel in my senior year of college for an architectural criticism course. The entrance sequence, internal layout, natural lighting system, and exterior form are actually quite intriguing. I guess those are things I find similar with the Rothko Chapel, with Johnson playing around with the archetype of a chapel. However, since the Chapel of St. Basil holds services, its program and elements are more typical than the Rothko Chapel, so inside there are pews, religious statuary, an altar, et cetera.

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But … in the picture above, do you see the giant tilted cross? Yeah … there’s a giant tilted cross in the side of the cube that’s only viewable from the prayer garden and the street beyond. The official explanation is that it represents the tilt of Jesus carrying the cross, but it seems heretical and reminiscent of the Russian suprematists. Also given that Philip Johnson was gay and not Catholic, but here he was designing a chapel for a private Catholic university … it makes you wonder if he had a smirk on his face as he sketched and why the university let him run wild. UST’s new logo actually incorporates the chapel in its design and they’ve fully embraced this piece of architecture. And yet … it’s atrocious. But immensely fascinating.

back in h-town: rothko chapel

Last week I posted about the Menil Collection, so of course I now need to talk about the little Rothko Chapel as well! It’s a block away from the Menil and was commissioned by the same Dominique and John de Menil, but the last time I visited it was probably around 10 years ago. While the Rothko Chapel is technically a chapel … it doesn’t really feel/seem like a chapel other than the atmosphere inside. It’s actually more of a mini gallery of Mark Rothko’s paintings.

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Er … this cat is not the Rothko Chapel. But he (or she?) was hanging out in front of it, so I just had to take a photo. But hmm … it doesn’t look very happy at having its picture taken. The Rothko Chapel itself is a bit … odd. Okay, very odd. It’s modern architecture (courtesy of American architect Philip Johnson), so whatever. The exterior is brick and the main interior is an octagonal space with 14 large black paintings (that aren’t completely solid black, but still essentially black) on the walls and some benches. Its skylight is baffled, probably because they realized light was bad for the paintings and the dimness of the space now is kinda nice.

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At the Menil, there are a few Mark Rothko paintings that are essentially extras for the Rothko Chapel. That was pretty interesting. In the Rothko Chapel, the large format of the paintings and the darkness of their hues, organized around the perimeter of the very regular and dim space, created a heavy, serene environment that felt safe to be in. But in addition to the front desk/receptionist guy, there were two people monitoring the main space, and  for a such a small space it seemed overkill. When I entered, there was one woman sitting quietly on a bench, but a group of tourists (with a baby!) entered shortly after, and they were not in there for silent contemplation.

I know museum guards and watchful volunteers are necessary to prevent vandalism, which is an unfortunate statement on today’s society … but it’s hard to appreciate a space when it’s made to feel like a prison with someone always watching you. And it’s great that more people going out and appreciating art and architecture … but it’s annoying when they don’t offer the deserved respect. If I could have the Rothko Chapel to myself, now that would be nice. But as it is and despite my love of chapels and churches and cathedrals, I doubt I’ll be visiting it again any time soon … unless I’m bored. Then, maybe.

back in h-town: menil collection

The Menil Collection is a short drive away from the MFAH and CAMH in downtown Houston. It has its own parking lot (yay!) and is free admission (yay!), but it’s only open Wednesday through Sunday, which are kind of odd hours. I know the museum more for the architecture than the art, and more for its history than its current events.

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The Menil Collection is a museum housing the private collection of John and Dominique de Menil and was opened to the public in 1987. Basically, the Menils were loaded, very much a part of the art scene, and contributed a lot to Houston in terms of the arts and architecture. They were also patrons to Philip Johnson, who went on to help define modern architecture.

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The Menil Collection is located in a fairly residential area, near the University of St. Thomas, and it fits its surroundings. It’s a pretty simple rectangular structure with wood siding painted gray, a low profile, and a surrounding portico. You enter in the middle and go either left or right to the galleries. The collection itself is kind of odd, split between twentieth century and contemporary works on the right and antiquities and African stuff on the left. The three exhibits going on right now are “Progress of Love” (weird contemporary stuff, some of which is downright pornographic), “Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs” (eh), and “Dear John & Dominique: Letters and Drawings from the Menil Archives” (kinda interesting if you’re interested in the museum itself or art scene and don’t mind reading, but not much to look at).

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As a side note, there seem to be a whole lot of museum guards for the relatively small museum (smaller than the MFAH but larger than the CAMH) – and they’re strict! I didn’t get yelled at, but there were a lot of other people that got evil eyes and strongly worded “No photos” or “Stop that.” Then again, a Picasso got vandalized last June at the Menil, so I can imagine they’re being vigilant to avoid a repeat of that incident. Or maybe it was because I was there when it first opened for the day and the guards were still in a morning grouch.

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The architecture is a classic. Not sure how many people know of the Menil, but we studied it in architecture school, which could be because I went to school in Texas … where we studied a lot of Texas buildings. But it was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, and that dude’s internationally famous. And for good reason. The Menil Collection is mostly known for its louvered ceiling, which bounces light into the museum space, since natural light generally looks great but the ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight can damage artwork. In some of the gallery spaces the ceiling is completely covered to further protect the work from light, which is understandable but unfortunate. But the exterior, where the louvers are exposed … well that could use a real good scrub down.

back in h-town: contemporary arts museum houston

Ah, so last week I posted about the MFAH, which I often visited this past summer during my lunch breaks. If you go to Cafe Express (the MFAH’s cafe) or the food truck parked in the MFAH parking lot, you get free admission to the MFAH if you go at lunchtime. So … me and the other interns went a number of times. Anyhow, I used to intern at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), so I had to stop by to check out its new exhibits. It’s much smaller than the MFAH and it’s a non-collecting museum, so there’s no permanent collection like the MFAH has.

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First up, the CAMH got a statue! Of Andy Warhol! “The Andy Monument” by Rob Pruitt was apparently on display in New York’s Union Square for a while, but seeing as I still have not been to Union Square, I never saw it there. And hey, Andy looks like he totally belongs at the CAMH since his shiny chrome surface matches the CAMH’s shiny corrugated steel exterior.

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The CAMH has two floors – the ground floor and a basement level – so there are always two exhibits going on at the same time. On the ground floor there’s “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and downstairs the exhibit is “Unfinished Country: New Video from China,” both of which will run until mid-February 2013. The upstairs exhibit was a bit random and confusing because I wasn’t there for one of the scheduled performances, and the performative aspect is lost when only artifacts are shown. It’s an interesting topic, but I felt like there was information lacking, like the exhibit was evidence for a research paper rather than a stand-alone kinda deal. Downstairs I sat and watched some of those videos, but honestly not for very long. Found it kind of lacking.

I like the CAMH, I really do. I have fond memories of my few months working there, but … I’m not a big fan of the exhibits. It’s a small museum (really small), it doesn’t have the resources that larger museums do, and the members of its tiny staff take on multiple roles. But the CAMH isn’t about catering to the public or showing famous pieces of art. It’s about contemporary art – what’s happening in the art world out there right now – whether you like it or not. Plus, it doesn’t charge admission and it’s motto is “Always Fresh, Always Free.” I can appreciate that.

back in h-town: museum of fine arts, houston

Where’s your happy place? For me, I feel most at home in museums and galleries. There’s something about the quiet contemplation of a piece of artwork and the clean, open gallery spaces that settles my mind. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is located in Houston’s Museum District and just a short walk away from the CAMH, where I worked over the summer. Since I’m here for the holidays, I decided to stop by my old stomping grounds and take a look. And hey, on Thursdays the MFAH is free! Unfortunately that also meant that the museum was more crowded than usual.

I’m actually not a big fan of their collection. I’ve been to so many museums over the years and the MFAH just isn’t up to the level of the Met or Smithsonian, which is to be expected of course, but it meant I made it through that museum in record time (also because I’ve been to the MFAH many times before). I saw the animated film “Eleanor’s Secret” (2009) while I was there since they were doing a free screening of it. It was shown dubbed in English as opposed to the original French, and it was cute but not something I would watch again. It was a nice outing and great to visit the MFAH again … but I think I’ve been spoiled by New York!

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tuesday – yet not at the camh

I used to work every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday … but it’s Tuesday and I ain’t at work! I worked at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston (CAMH) in its curatorial department, and it was an amazing experience. Last Thursday was my last day, so I’m going to toot my own horn a bit … because I can! I was an amazing intern. Truly, I was.

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[NOTE: This image is a scan and not mine. Purposefully low quality.]

One of the other interns recently created a Tumblr page for the museum and one of the posts featured my work on Issuu! Not my work as in work I created, but my work as in the results of over two months of work I did scanning, cropping, optimizing, and uploading a whole bunch of old exhibition catalogs! Yeah, that was validating. I think I was a tad overqualified for the position. I also scanned a whole bunch of old photos which will be uploaded to the website by whatever intern replaces me. Ah, I’ll miss the scanner. I spent a good amount of time with that thing.

If you’re in Houston, go visit the Contemporary Arts Museum (always free!). The current exhibit is trippy. Then grab some lunch at the food truck in the parking lot of the Museum of Fine Arts. My favorites are Phamily Bites (the Vietnamese eggrolls or pork sandwich) on Tuesdays and Creole2Geaux (catfish po boy) on Wednesdays. Yum. And yes, there are a lot of links in this post. Au revoir, CAMH!

no more of this … woot!

No more long commutes. No more rush hour. No more stop-and-go traffic. No more crazy highway drivers. No more having to cross multiple lanes in a short amount of time to make the exit. No more passing a rotating cast of homeless guys who stand on that one corner (seriously, do they have a schedule?). And finally, no more work. Woot!

Okay, I actually quite liked work. Even though a lot of the archiving and digitizing work was fairly tedious grunt work, I found it quite relaxing and interesting, because it meant I got to sort through a lot of their old exhibitions and learn about the museum’s history. But the getting to work and getting home from work were exceedingly annoying and I am most glad to be rid of those aspects.

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museum district outdoor sculptures

Personally I’m not a sculpture person. Just not a big fan of it. I appreciate Greek and Roman statuary, but only to the degree that I appreciate the mythology or history they are usually connected to. I’m also not really a fan of performance art or drawing or photography … I really just like painting. But paintings are always (unless it’s a mural) housed in museums, whereas some sculptures are just out there, exposed to the elements. It’s kind of brazen, the way outdoor sculptures shrug off the rain and the heat, while delicate canvas can only hang delicately on a white wall in a temperature-controlled environment.

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“Manilla Palm” (1978) by Mel Chin

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“New Forms” (1991-1992) by Tony Cragg

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“The Dance” (2000) by Linda Ridgway

The above three are outdoor sculptures from the Museum District. The first is behind the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAMH) and the latter two are in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH). I head over to the MFAH quite often because there’s a food truck parked over there and museum café … and there’s really no other food options in the area, which is kind of disappointing. Anyhow, that means that I see these sculptures quite often. (Note: There’s also a prominent red Calder in front of the MFAH, but I didn’t include it because after you’ve seen one Calder, you’ve seen them all … and I’ve seen a lot.)

trapped by rain

Sigh. Last summer Texas had droughts. This summer Texas has torrential downpours. I feel kind of trapped because of it. I’ve been spending wwaaaaaaayyy too much time cooped up in this house. Exactly one year ago I was traveling around China, doing whatever I wanted. This picture is from when I was on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall in Beijing … and spent the day with a random Spanish guy named Julio (who I met on the chair lift). Ah, that was a fun time.

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No such fun-ness here. Thursday I didn’t go to work because there’s no way I was going to drive half an hour into downtown Houston through heavy rain with thunder. I’m not a good driver to begin with, and getting on the highway when it’s raining heavily, I’m freaking out, and other drivers are freaking out … it ain’t pretty. Thankfully no flooding near where I am. It’s just … ugh.