The Houston Festival, visual-arts section

The visual-arts section of the Houston Festival last spring, curated by Fletcher Mackey, focused on outdoor sited works; fourteen such pieces sprouted along the Buffalo Bayou, a meandering stream that runs from the elegant Memorial district into the downtown. A half-dozen artists were brought from both coasts, and others were commissioned from Houston or elsewhere in Texas. They were faced simultaneously with a setting of considerable natural charm and with the awesomely growing Houston downtown skyline, which hovered in the background of those works that did not hide from it. In addition to the already dizzying sculptural presence of the huge I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill buildings rising miragelike out of the plain, at the time of the show construction was nearing completion on five major buildings within view from the sites.

The works were spread out on both sides of the bayou over an area about two miles long. The downtown end of the installation was marked by Jon Peterson’s newest Bum Shelter, an elegant and inviting little structure covered with mirrored rectangles to echo the mirrored style of the emerging skyline; tucked neatly and inconspicuously under a freeway overpass at the edge of the wino district, the piece exercised a dazzling presence on those with the determination to find it without a guide. At the other end of the stretch was Richard Nonas’ New City Shifter, his largest outdoor piece to date (340 by 75 by 10 feet)—three lines of 8-by-8-inch-by-10-foot timbers laid out in an open hollow in the landscape, out of sight of the downtown skyline.

In between these end pieces—respectively the smallest and the largest works in the exhibition—were a variety of works ranging from forms of “plop art” (art conceived and made in the studio, then “plopped down” in some public place) to more genuine, ephemeral, sited works that grew from the mandate of the setting. One slope was occupied by Russell Maltz’s Pink Degrees, a pink plywood 20-by-104-foot patch; from a distant viewpoint, this abstracted into a floating pink hole or cloud in or above the landscape. Within sight of the adjacent divided highway Scott Pfaffman installed Light of the Beasts, seven rusted metal horses with a distinct fey charm (each with a side that opened into a barbecue pit—as a token homage to the idea of art-in-life?). Maureen Connor’s fishnets draped elegantly over trees were beautiful wispy presences until they were torn down by vandals (almost immediately). Jack Massing’s Urban Hay Bales was an especially charming offering, tucked away in a thicket of trees where one might seem to be in the countryside but for the howl of the highway close behind; eighteen welded-steel-and-wire-mesh boxes about the size of hay bales were filled with collections of urban detritus—books, plastic bottles, old shoes, hockey sticks, toilet seats, bits of a Christmas tree, sticks, tin cans—and disposed in a loose order among the trees. Their locked “enclosedness” and bursting fullness were sufficiently attractive that the box filled with tin cans was pried open and emptied by a scavenger almost at once. Jesus Moroles’ Floating Mesas was one of the more direct challenges to the skyline: huge granite slabs with a powerful weighty presence were raised about 22 feet in the air on frames of stainless-steel tubing that passed neatly as needles through the granite.

Some works were spaces to inhabit and view from rather than objects to view. Peter Michel, an architect, erected his Portal with View, a wooden pavilion that framed the Shell Building, the Allied Bank Building, and the First International Plaza building in the background. Gertrude Barnstone’s Scheme for Viewing the Moment was a small unceilinged pavilionlike structure of wood, wire mesh, and red-painted branches, with a seat inside from which other works could be viewed through varying frames and textures. Meredith Jack and Phil Fitzpatrick offered their East Texas Art Temple: Homage to the Bluebonnet, a trompe l’oeil of welded steel that looked like plywood and, with its heraldically flanking metal flames, provided an altar for ironic/ iconic worship of Texas art.

Public commissions for ephemeral sited work, as opposed to monumental public sculpture, have never been many, and may be decreasing in number. The Houston show was a healthy and impressive addition to that limited list. If it becomes an annually recurring commission, it will be a valuable addition to the field, and one which will push the not inconsiderable currents of the Houston art scene into a wider range of interaction and awareness.

Thomas McEvilley