The Union is a relatively new space operating as a contemporary arts hub located on the downtown edge of the Heights. The new space is operated by young creative India Ashley Lovejoy, the founding director of Black Buddha Creative Agency. Having worked under the celebrated Houston institution Project Row Houses and its public arts curator Ryan Dennis, Lovejoy has now branched off to create her own project and vision. The Union Space itself is impressive, with polished wooden floors, stark white wood-slatted walls, and vaulted sky-lit ceilings. The circa 1880 historical building was part of the old Sixth Ward District. The building was purchased around 2013 by David Gardner and Phillip Arnett, with Arnett working as the “soft touch” architect on restoring the location.
The gallery’s newest show, MaMa: Women in the Arts, curated by Rabéa Ballin, explores diversity within the selection of six Houston artists: Brittney Anele, Julie DeVries, Shannon Duncan, Noélle Mulder, Preetika Rajgariah and Lovie Olivia. “MaMa” is the second exhibition and part of Lovejoy’s series Alt (Alternative Space Art Collecting). The eloquent choices made by Rabéa are inspiring, and the chosen works from the artists flow together within the show flawlessly. Young spaces and arts administrators can easily lose sight of the importance of space and environment when working on a new project; independent opportunity has its pitfalls and can lead to a clouded set of programming. This is not the case with The Union and Lovejoy’s direction. Tapping the talents of Rebéa was a superb decision, and the two worked together harmoniously with MaMa.
The curatorial choices made throughout the environment were insightful and highly approachable. The selection of the works by each artist cleverly orchestrated throughout the separate rooms and managed to remain united as one worked from space to space. The historic building appears small and refined from the outside, but once inside a lavish contemporary interior unfolds, leaving the perfect platform for presenting works. The open floor plan is ideal for the works of the six artists and allows for every piece to be presented on its own while still working inside the curatorial statement.
“By definition, a curator’s role is to research, collect, document, and display objects. When I thought about it, I realized that it is very close to my role as an artist. When reflecting on what the difference is, I realized that the curator is the facilitator to the artist- not a creative rival. It is oversimplifying the curator’s responsibility to simply say they “select” work and “display” it. They have the important task of figuring out not just what, but how the viewer (and the public) experiences the work. It should be interesting, thoughtful, and coherent,” explains curator Rabéa Ballin. “My experience curating MaMA has been so enlightening and that was the biggest lesson for me. I really wanted to honor the curatorial platform and advocate for these six women. I wanted to diversify the show by including women of different age ranges, career stages, as well as remarkable approaches to art making. In a way, I also wanted to curate the audience, it was important for me to see such a diversified crowd at the opening. I found it essential to support India Lovejoy’s vision for MaMA and Black Buddha Creative agency, and I look forward to the upcoming exhibits in such a lovely space.”
Upon entering the exhibition, the works of Brittney Anele square off with the viewer. “The Road to What” is a large fabric piece made of canvas, spray paint and acrylic. The large shroud resembles a kimono, black as asphalt with the lines of a freeway leading your eyes to the top of the work and the ceiling. The viewers stand at attention with their necks craned up as if addressing a parental figure from the body of a small child. The work holds the weight of the front room and does its due diligence to set the tone. Lovie Olivia is a rock for the Houston arts community and has shown at almost every institution in town. Lovie’s sculptural paintings are fascinating, hint on tradition, and stick to the strong message of the people with the titles “We People are Darker than Blue.”
Across the room is the new works by Shannon Duncan. Having worked primarily as a photographer, Duncan had been recently experimenting with a variety of mediums, materials and concepts within her projects. With the series “Itemized Accounts: You Can’t Take it With You,” Duncan has landed on solid ground. The new collection is a photo series documenting female artists and their most prized and personal objects. Operating with the challenges and ideas of “Trash vs Treasure,” Duncan covers her subjects in their cherished possessions, encapsulating them to the extent of obscuring the identities. The women portrayed become sculptures as objects; belongings hang from their bodies and collect in masses at their feet. The individuals document what it is they hold dear in a handwritten letter that accompanies the piece, drawing deeper into the personal and intimate. The work is clever and provocative, leaving the viewer excited to see more from the series and from Shannon Duncan herself.
Opening up into the main room, the works of Noélle Mulder draw the attention to a topsy turvy forest. “Puddles: The Nature Within a Texas Cottage” is a series of native live Texas trees hanging upside down from the ceiling. Below the trees are the “Puddles,” mirrored replicas of water puddles, which collect the drops of water and foliage that rain down from above. Mulder’s creations focus on the movement of people and nature and dance on the fine line of chaos and tranquility. Mulder’s international attention to detail is notable and explores civic intervention and a touch on social practice.
Pairing nicely with the hanging ceiling works, are the pieces of Preetika Rajgariah. Rajgariah’s fiber works are impressive as they are decadent. “Exclusive” is a striking piece stretching a good portion of one wall of the space. The bright red and silky Sari, a female Indian garment, flows along the wall as it loses shape and color and becomes shredded. The beauty is as powerful as its subtle gesture of violence towards women within Indian culture. The garment refuses to be anything shy of majestic, proudly presenting itself despite its misfortune and distress over an unknown time period.
If you come at the right time, the lights from the skylights of the gallery illuminate the works of Julie DeVries’ three dimensional paintings. The traditional painter uses her heavy, yet exploratory brushwork to bring forth the elements of nature. The installation-based pieces were a refreshing step back into painting, and I was happy to spend the time with them.
The moments of purity and grace are hard to avoid with Rebéa Ballin’s curatorial journey with MaMa. She worked as a choreographer inside The Union building and was an incredible choice for Lovejoy for the latest exhibition. The messages within the exhibition and the integrity of the works were as formidable as the Houston Women artists themselves. MaMa: Women in the Arts ends after this weekend, so don’t be the one who hasn’t experienced this show.