Continuing through March 17, 2024
When a museum invites six very different artists to respond to a historic theme show on the occasion of the institution’s 75th anniversary, the results are bound to be disparate. Such is the case with “Six Scenes from Our Future.” Upon entering the expansive main gallery, one is struck by how open the space looks. The center is dominated by Mel Chin’s “Convo Pool” (2016/2023), a replica of the apartment pool featured in the 1990s television soap opera, “Melrose Place.” To the left is JooYoung Choi’s “birthday cake,” a multi-tiered series of circular platforms displaying her signature puppets. In a far corner is Lisa Lipinski’s homage to Sakowitz, one of Houston’s eponymous department stores. In another corner is a video by Jill Magid documenting the exhumation of architect Luis Barragán’s remains in order to transform them into a diamond ring. Various other artworks hang on the walls or from the ceiling. It soon becomes apparent that to appreciate the show, one needs to examine the organizing thesis.
To celebrate the diamond anniversary of the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH), six artists were invited to respond to its inaugural exhibition, “This is Contemporary Art,” which took place in late 1948. At that time, the fledgling organization presenting the show was called the Contemporary Arts Association of Houston. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, because the institution had no permanent space. Paintings, sculpture, photography, architecture, jewelry, wallpaper, graphic art, and industrial design by more than fifty artists were displayed alongside some 150 functional household objects. According to the catalogue’s introductory essay, “This exhibition illustrates the influence of contemporary arts in a number of fields and tries to show the interrelation of the various arts.”
Artists featured in the exhibition included such now familiar modernist artists as Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Charles Eames, Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Jacob Lawrence, Fernand Léger, John Marin, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Edward Weston, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Thus, the original curators established the nascent CAMH as a “place for experimentation and play,” as well as a “forward-thinking space centered around a belief in the transformational power of art and artists.” They believed that art and life should be inseparable, writing, “Here, you will see examples of good design showing what an important contribution contemporary art makes to modern living. Art has a place in the daily life of every family.”
That six artists are included in this anniversary exhibition reflects the fact that the original institution was founded by six artists and architects. Each of these artists have mined the curatorial framework of the original show to extrapolate various ways in which contemporary life and art may collide.
In Houston-born Chin’s replica of the Melrose Place swimming pool, movable cushions upholstered in the same pattern as the original pool’s tile are stand-ins for water, and visitors are invited to step into the pool and rearrange the cushions. With this piece, the artist draws attention to a project titled “In the Name of the Place,” which Chin participated in from 1992 to 1998 as the leader of a scholarly group known as the GALA Committee. The group surreptitiously incorporated over 150 works of art into the popular television show. The concept was to include the artwork in the show for a period of years, after which they would be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. Many pieces were subversive, such as a Chinese takeout box with Chinese characters that translated to “Human Rights” and “Turmoil and Chaos.” The GALA project epitomized the concept behind the 1948 exhibition, which was that art and life should be inseparable.
Likewise, Lapinski’s “The Younger Set Seating” uses sculpture and collage to create an environment that harkens back to Sakowitz, one of Houston’s seminal department stores, which opened in 1951. While researching, Lipinski encountered photographs of the store and was inspired to imagine how a children’s shoe department might have looked at the time. Shoes are displayed amid geometric modular seating and original wallpaper. The shoes include classic Mary Janes, ballet flats, and lace-ups in pairs consisting of one white shoe and one black shoe presented against a backdrop of yellow curtains tied back with black bows. Lapinski merges art and design to create an intriguing tableau.
For Choi, life and art are inseparable. She has created an imaginary universe called “The Cosmic Womb” from which all her work derives. The installation here, “Nova Trekkers and the Vehicle for Change,” is part of this larger project. Choi perceives the circular structure that supports her puppets as both a birthday cake for the host institution and a spaceship capable of teleportation. Her research into the inaugural show revealed that only three of the fifty-seven artists were people of color. Jacob Lawrence, the only Black artist in the show, was banned from attending the opening. Choi imagines her sculpture as a “magical teleporting spaceship fueled by truth,” with the power to crush racism and oppression.
Magid’s “The Proposal” is centered on a 2.02-carat, blue uncut diamond in a silver setting that is part of an extended project she launched in 2013. A six-minute video, “The Exhumation” (2016), along with its meticulous documentation, explains her attempt to recover the legacy and archives of the celebrated Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who died in 1988. As part of her ongoing investigations that challenge power and control, she investigates the fact that the architect’s professional archives were sold to a Swiss corporation. Her video documents the exhumation of the architect's remains, one-quarter of which Magid had transformed into a diamond ring that she offered to the Swiss corporation in return for public access to the archive.
A second, new series by Magid titled “Study for The Living Room” was made by aggregating numerous photographs by visitors to Barragán's home and studio (now a museum) of facsimiles of Josef Albers’ long series of paintings, “Homage to the Square,” a selection of which the architect had displayed in his home. Magid sourced the images online and used them to create the JPEGS on display, which reference artwork in a domestic setting.
Leslie Hewitt presents “Daylight/Daylong,” a series of four photographic diptychs based on research she conducted at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The left side depicts different sunrises, while the right “frames her sensory experience” of Dan Flavin’s major light installations at Chinati. Leslie Martinez contributes three hanging sculptures resembling lamps constructed with wooden dowel rods, tea towels, and LED bulbs. Having previously worked in the fashion and design industry, she tapped into her past to “think beyond the frame” and create these unusual sculptures from objects found in the home.
Just as the CAMH’s inaugural exhibition presented works of art alongside functional objects to explore interdisciplinary relationships and affinities, the current show’s most successful pieces are those inspired by the world outside the realm of art yet fully capable of existing within the museum or gallery context. After 75 years, “Six Scenes from Our Future” reconfirms that the CAMH remains true to its founding principles as an experimental space fueled by the transformational power of artists to address contemporary issues and possibilities.