Critics’ Picks

View of “Byzantine Things in the World,” 2013.

View of “Byzantine Things in the World,” 2013.


“Byzantine Things in the World”

The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross Street
May 3–August 18, 2013

In this exhibition, Byzantine functions less as a historical or stylistic category than as a gambit for interacting with the material world: To be Byzantine is to allow things—not necessarily artworks, but all manner of objects—to be affecting in new ways, and to alter how one relates to things inside and outside the museum. The 159 works on view range broadly across time and media, and their presentation is resolutely eclectic and ahistorical. Each gallery houses items that date from various centuries and range in scale from miniature to larger than life size. This curatorial approach is meant to be transformative; by encountering the pieces divorced from their staid place in the Western art canon, a viewer may come to see these things anew.

No doubt the deliberately promiscuous curatorial choices will be frustrating for some viewers. For instance, it may feel necessary to shed otherwise crucial notions of historical specificity or cultural politics in order to contemplate the juxtaposition of Kiki Smith’s visceral 1992 intaglio print Sueño (Dream) with an animal-shaped Boli power object containing organic sacrificial materials, including possibly blood, and George Dawe’s 1810 oil on canvas rendering of A Negro Over-powering a Buffalo—A Fact Which Occurred in America in 1809. The implications of this particular passage in the exhibition seem hazy, but the visual, almost bodily impact of their combination here lingers. Easier to grasp are those items that offer aesthetic pleasure, and there are plenty of these. Shiny surfaces punctuate the galleries––from delicately gilded and stylized icons to the fabulously bejeweled Box No. 27, 1965, by Lucas Samaras. These, coupled with the more earthly, figurative objects, facilitate a viewing experience that wavers between transcendence and corporeality.

Perhaps such wavering is what makes this exhibition worthwhile. A Byzantine frame of mind embraces contradictions and ambivalence. These objects exist together here more to show us how our present time has trained us to think than to retrain us according to any specific ideology.