Houston

Joseph Havel

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Joseph Havel’s recent sculpture seamlessly melds compositional strategies indebted to post-Minimalism with metaphorically resonant objects. In his recent ten-year retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the combination of style and subject was almost perfect, its effect both elegant in its capitalization on the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed galleries and more than a little sorrowful in its take on gender-role conformity.

The overwhelming majority of objects shown here make use of either fabric or fabric cast in bronze. Bruised, 2004, for example, consists of a Carl Andre–like grid of boxes containing specially fabricated shirt labels, each printed with the title of the work. Beginning with the mute objecthood of the commercial fabricator’s cuboid boxes, Havel gently nudges their contents to produce small ripples and curls. Together with the corporeal associations of the title, the labels’ appearance of gentle motion invests a cool formal device with an element of suffering expressed with great restraint: The organic line is like a drawn contour; its flow is contained within the grid but speaks to issues of the body. Other works using shirt labels confront the realm of painting: Bruised VI, 2003–2006, is an array of thousands of labels pinned to the wall, each one reading JOSEPH HAVEL and BRUISED, as if they were designer brand names. Again, the artist disturbs the regularity of the grid, bending and warping the labels to set up casual ripples across the array and allowing the color to fade almost imperceptibly from purple to pale violet toward the outer edges.

That sort of compressed poetic trope is a consistent feature of Havel’s work. Spine, 1996, a suspended column of worn white shirt collars linked to one another with nylon monofilament, references both the men’s necks that once inhabited the collars and their spines (each collar standing for a vertebra). Of course, the metonymy also extends to the lives of and economic realities enmeshing the white-collar workers whose bodies Havel bids us imagine and thence to corporate hierarchies and all that they imply.

The effects of gravity on the making of many of Havel’s bronzes are clearly discernible in the end results, the pleats and folds of drapery suspended in the studio having been made rigid with urethane resin in preparation for casting. The process of casting collars, sheets, and curtains in bronze is a difficult one, but it’s well worth the effort since it integrates medium and meaning with uncommon thoroughness. Bronze casting carries weighty art-historical baggage, which when applied to a sheet or a set of curtains fuses a signifier of prosaic domesticity with one of grandiloquent public display.

A similar conflation appears to have guided Havel’s aesthetic decisions in Fallen Reich, 2005–2006, a site-specific project. The sculpture is principally an elaboration of a piece of preexisting gallery decor, the floor-to-ceiling curtain that covers the glass north wall of the space, which the artist bent away from its functional arc to establish an assertive curl of steel and cloth that intruded into the exhibition space. The work’s title refers to Lilly Reich, an important early modern designer associated with the Bauhaus, and Mies van der Rohe’s professional and romantic partner during the 1930s. That Reich was known for exploiting the play of metal against fabric in many of her designs is obviously pertinent, but Havel’s intention seems also to be an acknowledgement of her as someone who, like those white-collar workers referenced elsewhere, labored long and hard for scant recognition.

Michael Odom