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We take an art pilgrimage to Houston, Texas, and visit the likes of the Rothko Chapel, James Turrell's Twilight Epiphany, the Menil Collection, and Project Row Houses, among others. Come with us we feast upon Houston's many cultural riches, and some good food, too!

The full itinerary:
The Rothko Chapel: http://www.rothkochapel.org/
Siphon Coffee: http://siphoncoffeehouston.com/
The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston: http://camh.org/
Cullen Sculpture Garden: https://www.mfah.org/visit/cullen-sculpture-garden/
Underbelly: http://www.underbellyhouston.com/
Lawndale Art Center: http://www.lawndaleartcenter.org/
Project Row Houses: http://projectrowhouses.org/
James Turrell’s Skyspace at Rice University: http://skyspace.rice.edu/
Common Bond Cafe and Bakery: http://www.commonbondcafe.com/
The Menil Collection: https://www.menil.org
The Orange Show: http://orangeshow.org/orange-show-monument/
The Beer Can House: http://orangeshow.org/beer-can-house/

Broken Obelisk photo by Runaway Productions
Menil Chapel 1971 interior photo by Middleton

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This episode of The Art Assignment is supported by Prudential.


(PBS Digital Studios logo)

We arrived to a rainy and cold Houston and drove directly to Kim Chau to fuel up on Vietnamese food.  We were so hungry we forgot to document our meal before we ate it, then we ordered more and then forgot to document that, but trust us, it was delicious.  Then we spent a delightful several hours in the spectacular studio of JooYoung Choi, who regaled us with stories of her fictional realm called the Cosmic Womb, populated by a variety of intriguing and adorable characters.

It wasn't until the next day that we officially began our art trip tour and we started with the big daddy: the Rothko Chapel.  I'd heard a lot about this place and seen many pictures and I wondered if it would live up to expectation.  It's a non-denominational chapel that art collectors John and Dominique (?~0:57) commissioned painter Mark Rothko to create in 1964.  Rothko helped design the octagonal building with architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubrey, and it opened to the public in 1971.  According to its mission, the Rothko Chapel is a sacred space open to all, every day, to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.

Inside the space, you encounter and become surrounded by 14 murals created by Rothko, all in dark shades with subtle variations between each.  The light in the space is natural and emerges from behind a (?~1:36) that covers skylights and protects the paintings from sun damage, so there's this ethereal low level of light that suffuses the space and allows your eyes to take in the texture of the painting surfaces and the shifts in hue between them.  Every detail of the space is considered and just so.  The proportions, the seating, the pavers, the discrete (?~1:57) that remind you not to brush up against these delicate surfaces. 


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While there, I kept thinking, what are the preconditions for worship?  For contemplation?  For meditation?  It's a kind of comforting neutral that admits the darkness of life and the world but that also is welcoming and enclosing and sheltering.  You then emerge from the darkness of the chapel back into the glorious grounds that surround it.  You'd usually take in a full reflecting pool and Barnett Newman's remarkable sculpture "Broken Obelisk", but it was away that day being conserved, but rest assured, it is back now in place.

The sculpture is dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. whose life of servicee to social justice and spirituality was much admired by the (?~2:35).  The entire campus is not only a destination for more private meditation, but is also a dynamic meeting place for spiritual and world leaders.  

We stopped off at Siphon Coffee and then headed to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which has this incredible building designed by Gunnar (?~2:50).  You know you've arrived but you're not quite sure how to arrive until you find the only way in.  Of course, we missed the opening of a new (?~2:57) show by two days, but luckily there was a fantastic exhibition of works by Matt Keegan and Kay Rosen.  Both artists explore language and linguistics in their work, and for the past eight years, they've had an ongoing mail art correspondence, a selection of which was on view.  

While it's easy enough to see that yes, they both enjoy and excel at wordplay, the differences in their approaches reveal the depths that are available to plumb when it comes to exploring the architecture of language.  The show was clever and challenging, both intellectually and optically, and I found myself looking differently all day at signs and the written word pretty much anywhere they appeared.

Across the street is the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and we took a walk around their sculpture garden, which is rather lovely.  We'd intended to go into the actual museum but we were too hungry and decided to go to lunch.  I thought we'd go back but well, we didn't.  I know, we're terrible people.  Said lunch was immensely enjoyed at Underbelly, where we had these refreshing colonial-style shrub drinks made with carbonated water and preserved fruit vinegars.   They were the perfect counterpoint to the spicy korean braised goat and dumplings.  We probably should have stopped after that, but we didn't.  

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Then it was on to Lawndale Art Center, which currently has a really rad exterior wall mural by LA-based artist Russell Etchen.  We were meeting up with JooYoung, to see Lawndale's exhibition celebrating the artists who've participated in their artist studio program over the past ten years.  JooYoung is one of those artists and she had on display a large-scale sculptural work that brings to life a development in the ongoing tales of the cosmic womb, where Captain Spacia Tanno fights Lady Madness to protect the snow people.  

There was a lot of other good work, too, and I especially appreciated the small portrait paintings on paper by Dawn Black, who's based in Baton Rouge.  These are part of her Conceal Project, and they depict a wide range of people who take on guises, wear costumes, or engage in any number of masquerading tactics in order to wield power and influence. 

We then headed over to Project Row Houses, an arts and culture non-profit organization in the Northern Third Ward, whose mission is to be the catalyst for transforming community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture.  They accomplish this through a broad range of programming, but we were there to see its current series of artist rounds, featuring seven installations by artists in the row houses along (?~5:09) street.

Walking into each of these houses is almost like walking into ones actually lived in, because each of them is a little world unto itself, despite being architecturally nearly identical.  Each of the artists are part of Houston's arts community, but they all have distinct approaches, highlighting the diversity of viewpoints and practices in the city today. 

In one house, you'll encounter Regina Agu's investigation of the Gulf Coats of Texas and Louisiana and its cultural and environmental exchanges with the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Guinea.  In the next, you'll experience "The Jazz Church of Houston", curated by Tierney Malone, which we caught in between its transition between being a daytime museum dedicated to the history of jazz in Houston and a nighttime music venue with performances by local jazz musicians.  In another, you'll see works by two different artists who both use collage and have brought their distinct works together into a collaborative installation, and in yet another, you'll transport once again into JooYoung's cosmic womb.

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Entering her immersive installation, "Have Faith For You Have Always Been Loved", you pass through a makerspace where you can get a window into her planning process and then you meet Spacia Tanno once again.  This time, Spacia Tanno has crash-landed on Earth, holding the wounder warrior (?~6:19), soliciting you, the audience, to donate constellation plasma to help heal them.  You can do this by adding your own light to the installation while thinking about a time when someone made you feel loved.

When we re-emerged into present day Houston, we saw the Sun was getting lower in the sky and hightailed it over to Rice University to take in James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany".  It's situated in the middle of campus and it's one of his skyspaces, which is this really beautiful series of works in which he engineers the architecture of a given space to reveal and frame a section of sky.  This one is two levels, is designed to host musical performances, and just before sunrise and just after sunset, you can experience an LED light sequence that project onto its ceiling and through its aperture.

We were there when it was under repair and got to experience it in its unembellished state.  We sat within it and gazed up at the sky as it transitioned from day to night.  Every once in a while, a bird flies past, or the normal sounds of a college campus float in, but it's mostly just you and the sky, which gradually darkens and causes the light balance to shift and create these mesmerizing optical effects at the aperture's edge.  We watched the Moon rise and realized all of a sudden that it was almost totally dark.  Yes, you can observe sunset without Mr. Turrell's engineering and framing, but do you?  And does it look this cool?  

We started out next day at Common Bond Cafe & Bakery, where I couldn't resist this absolutely delectable kouign-amann, which is a kind of caramelized pastry that's worth seeking out.  Mark had dessert for breakfast and some other stuff, too, and it made us wish we lived in Houston so we could eat here every day.  Then it was on to the venerable Menil Collection, a campus founded by the eponymous art collectors we mentioned earlier.

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Several buildings house their permanent collection as well as host temporary exhibitions, including its main building designed by (?~8:08) that opened in 1987.  Inside, you take in their absolutely astounding collection, built around the art that the Menils loved the most.  You see objects from around the world and from many different eras, presented without wall labels and with exquisitely minimal mounts and barriers.  

The Menils collected art from the 1940s all the way to the 1990s and throughout the galleries you see master work after master work, presented impeccably and mostly without comment.  Photography is not allowed in here.  We had special permission, and it's not because they're snobs or hate the internet, it's because they want the physical experience of art to come first.  It was the philosophy of the founders to foster each person's direct, personal encounter with works of art and for me, they do this so well.

The Cy Twombly Gallery is housed in another (?~8:53) building designed in consultation with the artist.  (?~8:57) allow just the right amount of natural light to illuminate the artworks as well as the bare plaster walls.  I love Cy Twombly paintings and like them in almost any environment, but this one was transcendent.  It's rare than an artist can ever control the conditions of viewership this tightly and set up their audience to have the best possible encounter with the work.  Well, here it is, folks.  If you don't like Twombly here, alone in these perfectly proportioned spaces, with the light perfectly tuned and the slight scent of plaster in the air, you never will.

We also visited their former 1930s commercial building that now houses a 1996 Dan Flavin installation, which the artist completed just before his death, and just to provide as sharp a contrast as possible, we followed that up with a visit to the Menils' Byzantine Fresco Chapel.  Currently it features Francis Alys' "The Fabiola Project", which is the artist's collection of paintings he found in flea markets around the world, all by different artists, but all with the same subject matter: a fourth century saint known as Fabiola.  Rendered in a variety of mediums, the works are modeled after an 1885 painting by French academic painter (?~10:01), which was lost long ago.

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The artists were working from reproductions and illustrations of the original, which can explain the consistency of composition in most, as well as the reversals and color inversions.  It's the inconsistencies that really stand out, the small differences in facial contour, the delicate folding of the veil in one picture, and the unnaturally dramatic in the next.  Fabiola is revered as the protector of abused women and also the patron saint of nurses and while very little is known about the history of each picture, they're presumed to have been painted mostly for personal or devotional reasons.  It's absolutely fascinating to stand in this room and think about the remarkable persistence of this image, about the impulse and ritual in making one's own copy of an icon.  Why do we need these images and how does this impulse toward reproduction represent itself in the internet age, when the images that stick with us most are blogged and reblogged, tweeted and retweeted, as we receive them or with our own additions, however slight.

Then we filed those thoughts for later and thought about none of that while wolfing down Torchy's Tacos.  We then scooted along to Inman Gallery in the Midtown District, which was hosting an exhibition of the work of Jamal Cyrus with whom we met there to film an Assignment.  He was delightful and his assignment is excellent and you should really get going on this one if you haven't already.  

We had very little time on our last day, but were able to make two last stops before heading to the airport.  The first was The Orange Show, the life's work of Jeff McKissack, a postal worker who made this entire structure in the middle of a residential area entirely on his own starting in 1956.  (?~11:32) the preservation and restoration manager, kindly walked us through, despite it being very early and very cold.  Anyway, the orange was McKissack's favorite fruit and the show was intended to illustrate the benefits of good nutrition, which of course included plenty of oranges, which he planned to sell there.  McKissack anticipated crowds for his attraction but he never opened it to the public until nine months before his death in 1980.  After this, a foundation was formed to preserve the place and really open it to the public, so that we might marvel in McKissack's singular vision and imagine for ourselves what he imagined might take place on its stages.

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The same foundation looks after our next destination: the Beer Can House, which is the former home of another remarkable resuscitator of things most people throw away.  John (?~12:16) and his wife Mary lived here and enjoyed drinking beer here, and John started customizing his backyard with inlaid marbles and rocks and bottles and yes, cans, in the late 1960s.  After finishing with the back yard, he moved to the front and eventually to the surface of the house itself.  He made garlands out of cut beer can lids, which hang from the roof's edge, move energetically in the wind, and make a resounding noise.  This noise moves throughout the property and surrounding area where houses like John and Mary's are being replaced by high-end condos.

We couldn't stay longer, but we wanted to.  There was much more to see.  Houston, the fourth most populous city in the US, felt that big, that full, that diverse.  Many of the places we visited had been on my 'must visit before I die' list and in each case, I was not disappointed.  Far from it.  Sometimes that anticipation and those bits of knowledge can prepare you for a richer experience, where you're better able to be in the moment, rather than be in information gathering mode.  Everywhere we went, I saw profound evidence of Houstonians caring deeply about their cultural heritage, about listening to artists and helping them realize the projects that others might deem too grand or too costly.  They care about remembering neighborhoods, fostering community, and providing platforms for artists at all stages of their careers.  Houstonians are even committed to preserving the expressions of those who didn't consider themselves to be artists. 

The city has changed a great deal since John and Dominique (?~13:37) planted roots here, but their ethos has held strong: that art is central to the human experience and that the experience of art can be spiritual without necessarily being religious.  Pretty much everywhere we went was free and focused on helping you to have as sincere, direct, and profound as possible encounter with whatever was on view.  This video can't replace those experiences, but can perhaps prepare you so that when you do have the chance, you're ready.  

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Thanks to Prudential for sponsoring this episode.  It's human nature to prioritize present needs and what matters most to us today, but when planning for your retirement, it's best to prioritize tomorrow's needs over today's.  According to a Prudential study, one in three Americans is not saving enough for retirement, and over 52% are not on track to be able to maintain their current standard of living.  Go to prudential.com/savemore and see how if you start saving more today, you can continue to enjoy the things you love tomorrow.  

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