Debtfair at Art League Houston. Photo: Art League Houston
On any given day, one can drive or walk around Houston and spot a dozen tantalizing public projects, exhibitions, and creative endeavors throughout the city. From new city engagement with public parks, bike trails, university campuses, and museum properties, there’s a plethora of signs of our artistic driven initiatives and dozens more to be found. Houston is an incredibly supportive arts city and more sustainable than its metropolitan counterparts. Of its many museums, institutions, nonprofits, galleries, and private institutions, there are myriad national and international projects on the burner building exposure for local and regional artists. Not all projects in this state are presented only for other Texans to see. We all know the story of the big fish in the little pond. However, as early back as the 1930s, Houston has been working on cross pollination projects with groups and organizations from around the world to build on that exposure and present our talents abroad and throughout the country. It’s certainly not a transcendent idea to build up the city’s arts reputation by exposing our creatives to other parts of the world, but there has been some exhilarating efforts recently. As a major museum, it’s mandatory to keep the international conversation fresh and at the forefront. Same goes for many of our veteran institutions and nonprofits. Spaces like DiverseWorks, Project Row Houses, FotoFest, and Art League Houston have worked diligently to maintain this ongoing conversation.
In 1948 The Foundation of the Contemporary Arts Association (CAA), now the Contemporary Arts Museum, became known within Houston’s playing field. Their first round of exhibitions focused heavily on internationally known artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Arthur Dove, and Joan Miro. The idea was to keep Houston validated on a national and international level and to continue to educate the local collector base and everyday art viewer, combined with the efforts of the Museum of Fine Arts. CAA, MFAH, and private collections such as The Menil Collection and their family efforts continued to grow and gain momentum and putting Houston into play worldwide. For the last 70 years the efforts to create a constant dialog has persisted as the primary motivation. Today, this can be discovered by just flipping through an art history book. As the years go by, the context of the dialog changes as the climate of the art world evolves. The presenting realm becomes vast, complicated, and difficult to navigate in different directions. The exhibition spaces as well as the artists surrounding them must remain nimble and dialed into these directions, ever changing and ever moving. Factors such as financial temperature, regional support, and overall stability certainly play a prominent role into what can and can not happen. However, remaining on a swivel with a 360 view is key and is certainly a pleasing quality we have recently seen in Houston.
Patricia Alvarez is an anthropologist and filmmaker whose scholarly research and creative practice develops in the folds between ethnography, critical theory, and the documentary arts. Her most recent works converge on issues of gender and ethnic representations in neoliberal, post-authoritarian Peru. Alvarez’s films and installations have been exhibited in national and international film festivals and galleries across the US and Puerto Rico. She completed her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology with a Designated Emphasis in Film and Digital Media, and her BA in Anthropology from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piers, and Alvarez is currently working a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Rice University. Her creative practice speaks volumes and while currently a Houstonian, she has aggressively traveled the last several years, presenting her stunning short film Entretejido, an observational-ethnographic film that weaves together the different sites and communities involved in making alpaca wool fashions. The film explores the varying representations of indigeneity that emerge out of these encounters, which both challenge and reproduce historically-rooted racism. A sensorial immersion into the textures that compose this supply chain from animal to runway, the film brings viewers into contact with the ways objects we wear are entangled in racial politics and histories. Much like her other works, there is depth and diversity in the overall delivery. Once through the documentary movements of the film, contemporary art delivered through fashion is brought to light as an art form cultivated through industry and branding, but originating from small Peruvian villages. Cutting from village-based storefront sewing circles to high end fashion runways, local craft becomes high art, while the film remains a story of heritage and new beginnings.
Over the past 6 years, Art League Houston has consistently reformulated its programming to incubate diversity and multinational reach. In 2015 Occupy Museums, a New York City based activist and progressive arts organization, and ALH joined forces locally on a recent project, Debtfair. The collective invited local artists to submit original works for a group exhibition based on their own economic realities as a way to explore how artists think about the concept of debt in relation to their own art-making practice. Debtfair, is an ongoing artistic campaign to expose the relationship between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ growing debt burdens, explores the idea that all spaces function with a layer of extraction just below the surface. Here in Houston, the project received mixed reviews upfront due in part to the city’s unique artistic financial structuring, but quickly cultivated a sweeping discourse over the next year presenting the project and Houston collaboration in Chicago and Warsaw, Poland. With momentum growing, the New York-based group was chosen to participate in the Whitney Biennial and brought along with them the Houston chapter, represented by ALH. “Michael Peranteau and I were excited to learn that the Debtfair project by Occupy Museums had been selected for the 2017 Whitney Biennial,” Visual Arts Director Jennie Ash eagerly commented. “It has been great to see a project that we believed in travel internationally to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw last year, and now be developed to reflect artists from around the country for an exhibition like the Whitney Biennial.”
Included in Debtfair and its international exhibitions was multidisciplinary artist and anthropologist Lina Dib. Her installations and compositions range from the experimental to the ethnographic and investigate socio-technical and ecological change. Dib is an affiliate artist at the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University in Montreal and Tx/Rx labs in Houston, and a research fellow at the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Rice University, where she also teaches. Dib and her practice are versatile and have landed her exhibitions at such institutions as Lawndale Art Center, Houston; Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco; MOP Projects, Sydney, and The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Dib’s sculpture “Artists Time Management Machine (ATM Machine)” features a 1970s modified time card punch machine. Each time card, as it would be at the workplace, rests alongside in a unified slot system and punched with phrases such as “Writing,” “Fucking Off,” and “Thinking I Should Have Been a Doctor.” The sculpture reads more as an installation element, part of a larger picture, and I found this intriguing about the work. Her piece certainly maintained as one of the stronger pieces in the Houston collection and represented Dib’s ongoing archaeological creative process and complimented Occupy Museums’ participation at the Whitney.
Former CORE Fellow and Houstonian Harold Mendez was also selected to participate in this years Whitney Biennial. For the Whitney, in collaboration with Tiffany and Co., Mendez presents a sterling-silver pre-Columbian death mask, now a high end conceptual object, paying homage to his ancestors. “Let X stand, if it can for the one’s unfound (After Proceso Pentágono) II” features a crumpled and marred photo of a man’s head being yanked, punched, pulled, and attacked by unknown assailants from outside the frame. Mendez successfully recreated the photo by the Mexican art collective Grupo Proceso Pentágono. Both pieces show his depth and minimal approach of subject and object and his extraordinary grasp on culture, history, and political temperature. His time spent as a Core Fellow benefited both Mendez and the Houston community with his ongoing projects and collaborations with such spaces as Project Row Houses, Artpace, Sicardi Gallery, Lawndale Art Center, and a dozen more side projects. Now spending most of his time in LA, he continues to maintain a solid presence across the country with his exhibitions and begins on his MacArthur Foundation project in Havana, Cuba in 2018.
Houston sits on a solid foundation for new opportunities to emerge everyday. The creative community within the region is fertile and advantageous with a great many key supporters at hand. While at times still honing our national and international arts coverage through the glossy press world, the unique local structure allows flexibility and bold outlets for our artists and institutions. The benefit of this has been generating a strong community with prevalent diversity throughout exhibitions, collaborations, and the direction of local artists. The overall conversation Houston continues to provide is a catalyst for drawing in creatives from neighboring cities and countries and is ever present within much of the curations being set forth. Growing programs and festivals such as DiverseWorks’ Diverse Discourse and Mitchell Center’s annual CounterCurrent, which just concluded this weekend, are prime examples of these successful partnerships that import and export talent. Houston is the third largest arts city in the country and it is certainly satisfying to see our vision projecting past the foreground and beyond the horizon from so many local talents.