News / Houston

Art & Dialogue: Houston Summary by Catherine Morris

This report is intended to offer a brief summary of impressions and thoughts from my visit to Houston as a Visiting Curator as part of the Artadia Art & Dialogue program, October 5 – 7, 2016.

My itinerary included eight studios visits, a public evening talk on my practice at the Museum of Fine Arts, a dinner reception and collection visit hosted by Artadia Trustee Marc Melcher, and some independent time to visit the Menil Collection. The trip was an extraordinary opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with a wide variety of artists living and working in Houston. I am grateful for this chance to build on my knowledge of Houston and its art communities. On previous trips I largely spent my time visiting the city’s vibrant and vital museums. Talking to artists and spending time in their studios offered me unique access to learning about specific personal experiences working in the city as well as significant insight into the larger arts community, which seems to be flourishing in Houston.

The following summary is organized following the chronology of my visit. Within these notes I reflect on some of the topics suggested as subject to address within the guidelines provided by Artadia, including common or particularly interesting techniques employed by the artists I visited, observations on themes seen in the studios, stand out projects, the relationship of projects to the city of Houston, significant locations or cultural happenings that seem noteworthy. My closing observations reflect my thoughts on possible dialogues or links with other cities or other ideas generated by my visit.

After checking in at my hotel late in the afternoon on Wednesday, October 6, I started my itinerary with an evening visit to Zach Moser’s home/studio. This was a standout visit as Moser’s work takes the city of Houston – particularly examples of its histories of labor and local economies – as a starting point. The work is challenging and timely, speaking directly about the city of Houston and Moser’s engagement with it. Our conversation set up several talking points I continued to pursue in the following days. In what is effectively a post-studio practice, Moser described the fascinating and distinctive ways he aligns and presents his interests in the history and current state of a highly specialized local labor economy (shrimping), making art out of participating in, presenting, and documenting the lived experience of a group of unique and interlocked small business owners. For Moser, the city of Houston offers artists an urban working context that is relatively unencumbered by significant historical markers and as such opens up in exceptional ways for artists interested in having their work function in multiple contexts, particularly as locally based practices which can be discussed in global and international terms.

Thursday morning I met new Core Fellow, Shana Hoehn, who acted as my guide for the rest of my trip. Shana offered an perceptive introduction to the Core Program, sharing insight into the services and opportunities it offers. As a young artist who has worked for several years in the art world, Hoehn understood the unique situation she was newly engaged in, giving me an overview of the program and a tour of the Core building on San Jacinto Street, where I had my first studios that day.

Jill Conrad, an artist who has lived and worked in Houston as a teacher and practitioner for a significant period of time, was very interested in the opportunity to present her work to a curator from outside the scene with which she is so closely aligned. As an artist who is able to maintain an active studio practice and national exhibition history while also teaching, Conrad exemplified the benefits of working and living in a city like Houston. Her work reflected a long term commitment and close reading of several formal interests, particularly new ways of utilizing and engaging photography as a sculptural medium.

Working in a small studio in the Core building, Jamal Cyrus is producing work that feels very exciting and current. His engagement with multiple histories of African American experience in Texas and the south were effectively tied to the formal means he used to produce his work – integrating an interest in quilting techniques and the history of modern painterly abstraction, for instance. This was a stand out visit for me as I felt I had been introduced to an artist whose work I now intend to follow into the future.

I was grateful my visit afforded me the chance to get to the Menil to see the Smithers Collection installation curated by colleague and friend Michelle White. One of my curatorial interests is exploring new ways to engage with the obsolete art historical category of outsider art, so I was pleased to have the chance to talk to Michelle about her project, simultaneously gaining insight into a local collection being donated to an important Houston institution.

Visiting Delilah Montoya at her home studio, learning about her career and seeing several bodies of work was a worthwhile experience. Curatorial and educational teams at the Brooklyn Museum have had recent discussions about the politics of acquiring works from the historical genre known as Casata Paintings, so it was a useful and fascinating coincidence to discuss this type of work and see its inspiration in Montoya’s recent practice and within her personal history.

The opportunity to give a talk at the Museum of Fine Arts on my own work was truly rewarding. The audience seemed responsive and engaged, offering interesting follow up questions and comments. Seeing friends from the local community was a great bonus. The reception and dinner which followed at the home of Marc Melcher was generous and welcoming. It is always a pleasure and adds a very personal note to be able to see the homes of local collectors and to meet community members in a causal social environment.

Friday began with a visit to Soody Sharifi, and it was a pleasure to discuss her experience as an artist of the Iranian diaspora living and working and Houston for a significant amount of time. Seeing the formal and thematic interests of her life experience as an Iranian American launched an interesting conversation. It was also instructive to see the studio building Sharifi worked in at 1824 Spring Street, which seemed like another positive opportunity for artists within the local community.

Visiting the studio of Trenton Doyle Hancock added significantly to my thinking on several of the themes begun in my earlier conversations with artists in Houston. Hancock’s deep investment in the local community, his interest in outsider, or as he prefers to call it – visionary – art, and his engagement with the social and political experience of African American communities were some of the subjects we touched upon, and which I very much enjoyed discussing. Visiting an established artist with a complex studio practice that fully reflects a multifaceted career of interwoven interests and pursuits was very rewarding.

My next visit was to Nestor Topchy, another artist with a highly unique practice deeply rooted in his long engagement in local arts communities in Houston. Encompassing ambitious and idiosyncratic intellectual investments with architecture, environmental consciousness, social practice, collective experimentation, portraiture and Pysanky, a Ukranian egg painting tradition, visiting Topchy’s compound was a dynamic and at times heading-spinning experience.

My final visit was to the studio of Rachel Hecker, an artist whose studio practice was in many ways the most traditional, and whose thematic interests and formal skills reflect a thoughtful and humorous engagement with human foibles and lived experience. With a discussing ranging from feminism, to the impact of a commitment to pedagogy on an artist’s career, to aging parents, to the gallery system, and, finally, to Houston humidity, our meeting was informative, inspiring and comfortable.

Some general observations on issues and themes artists seem interested in:

– The heat and humidity and Houstonians’ apparently universal commitment to air conditioning as an extreme sport was a recurring conversation throughout my trip, even though I was there after the close of the summer season. In addition to the artists, Uber drivers were very game to participate in this conversation.

– Houston, as southern city that somehow avoids a lot of the deep historical baggage of the south, was a theme that came up several times and was interesting in relationship to the different communities the artists I visited represented – from African American, to Latina, to Iranian.

– Further to that, the majority of the artists I visited were not born or raised in the city – though many of them have lived there for decades – and that was an interesting point of comparative discussion as well.

– The resources of the city were very important to the artists – the museums of course, but also Artadia and the Core programs in particular. The commitment of both of these organizations to contemporary artists in the city was a very significant thing for all of them.

– Artists seemed very intent on focusing on how to align notions of local and global within their practices and they felt that Houston was a good city in which to do this. As this is a theme I see artists all over the world increasingly invested in, it would suggest to me that Houston’s artists very much see themselves functioning within the international art world.

– The interest in and support for an outside curator visiting studios without an agenda beyond simply meeting the artists and seeing their work was palpable. It was also a welcome relief for me as visiting for the sake of visiting felt like a rare gift.

Thank you for this opportunity to get to know a new city in a unique and rewarding way.

Image: Trenton Doyle Hancock, I Want to Be at the Meeting After the Separation, 2014, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 90 x 108 x 3 1/4 inches