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Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Most Underrated Art Mecca Unveils a Piñata-Inspired Marvel

A Wall of Wonder Awaits

BY // 06.21.18
photography Miranda Proctor

As a recent Rice graduate, class of 2018, one of the pivotal experiences of my time at the university was the opening of a new $30-million arts and science incubator on campus. And I was a teaching assistant for the first course ever taught at the Moody Center for the Arts.

The now-legendary curriculum, called Monster, featured an unconventional pairing of biochemistry and humanities topics, and was a highlight of my junior year.

Monster is emblematic of the Moody’s avant-garde role at Rice; it serves as a beacon on campus and a home for artists and students alike to have the freedom to experiment. 

While the Moody has held true to its mission to provide dramatic programming and sensational site-specific installations since it unveiled February 2017 , it nonetheless remains one of Houston’s most under-known arts destinations. 

The newest installation by Dutch artists, We Make Carpets, and the first commissioned at Moody by renowned curator Kimberly Davenport, could change that.

An Art + Science Think Tank

Designed by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, The Moody Center for the Arts aims to encourage creative thinking and promote interdisciplinary collaboration through transformative encounters with the arts.

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The building itself is a work of art — the dark brick walls are coated with magnesium oxide, altering its color in tune with the Houston atmosphere. On clear, sunny days, the brick reflects a proper Rice navy blue. On overcast days, they appear silvery, and at night they become nearly black.

The dynamic and sleek design of the Moody separates it from the Mediterranean Revival style buildings on campus.

Offsetting the ever-changing brick are glass walls that reflect the Moody’s emphasis on transparency that allows the space to cultivate connections between disciplines while leveraging the constant hum of activity to energize the core of the facility.

To achieve that mission, the Moody Center contains a central exhibition gallery, multimedia space, maker areas for wood, metal, paint and rapid-prototyping, as well as studio classrooms. The gallery itself is designed to promote experimental artwork — even including a sprung wood floor for dance.

The portion of the Moody that faces the campus on the first floor is surrounded by glass walls so visitors may peek inside.

Houston’s Best Curator?

Chief Curator Kimberly Davenport established the Rice Gallery in 1994, on the first floor of Sewall Hall, nearby on Rice’s academic quad. For nearly a quarter century, from a relatively modest space on campus, she has managed to carve out territory bringing bold, often times iconic, installation work to Houston.

Yayoi Kusama, arguably Japan’s greatest living contemporary artist, is known around the world for her Infinity Rooms and luxury handbag collaboration with Louis Vuitton. But before all of that, Kusama had been commissioned by Davenport in 1997, proving the Rice curator’s prowess as a talent scout.

Another unique talent and early adopter of installation art, Judy Pfaff, was commissioned to show all of the above at the Rice Gallery in 2007, a chaotic flurry of everyday and industrial materials that allowed Pfaff to explore the complexities of life and fluidity of creative processes, showing a depth and sense of experimentation that Davenport often seeks in artists.

Sol LeWitt, the minimalist and conceptualist New York visionary, was one of the earliest installations at the Rice Gallery, and also the last — when the gallery shuttered in May of 2017 in anticipation of the coming of the Moody Center.  Since the LeWitt finale, the Texas art world has held its breath, waiting to see what Davenport did next, and finally, 13 months later we have an answer.

This month the Moody rolls out “Crêpe Paper Carpet,” by We Make Carpets, a Dutch collective whose site-specific installation will be on view throughout the summer. As deceiving as the name may sound, no, this installation is not a carpet at all — or rather not a carpet one can walk on.

Crêpe Paper Carpet” is one of the few pieces by We Make Carpets that is freestanding and vertical rather than being laid across the ground.

Instead, the group of artists collaborate, without specific design, to focus on how they may interact with the environment to transform everyday objects into mesmerizing patterns. This “Crêpe Paper Carpet” exhibition is the first time that Marcia Nolte, Stijn van der Vleuten, and Bob Waardenburg, the creatives of We Make Carpets, have shown their intriguing work in the U.S.

It also marks the first installation that Davenport has organized since moving from Rice Gallery — making this a groundbreaking debut for both the curator and the Moody.

“I became interested in this group by way of an article I saw in The New York Times titled ‘When 6,000 Cocktail Umbrellas Become Art,’ describes Davenport. “I was intrigued reading about this group because it’s not easy to collaborate. I think collaboration can only grow out of deeply shared interests and the ability to work together with understanding.”

Nocturnal Viewing

“Usually when I find an artist I follow them for a while until I feel ready to contact them. So at this time, of course Rice Gallery has closed, and I was still thinking about them so I had to bring them up. And it ended up working out because this is really great timing.”

“We like something for the Summer Jam to be vibrant and be able to be seen through the window because it is illuminated at night and there are tons of people on campus this time of year.”

Past Summer Jam artist, David Scanavino, also created a similarly bright, site-specific work with Repeater, which consisted of colorful industrial tiles inviting interaction and movement. Moody Center visitors were able to follow lines and arrows along the floors and walls of the installation.

While Crêpe Paper Carpet is not interactive, it goes to show that the Summer Jam collection at the Moody is cultivating an exciting future — in this case, shaped by a staple of Mexican-American celebration.

Natural light coming in from the 24-foot floor to ceiling windows causes the bright colors to reflect their pattern across the hardwood floor.

Piñata Inspiration

Apparently, it was perfect timing for the artists as well. Having shown work all around Europe, Asia, and Oceania it was finally time to make a trip to the States, and thanks to Davenport, they had the perfect opportunity.

“They had never shown in the United States, so of course they weren’t quite sure what to make of Texas. We worked it out and in November of last year, one of the group, Marcia Nolte, came and we took her on a site visit by showing her as much of Houston as we could cram into two days — from the Third Ward, to Airline Drive to River Oaks — to really give her a sense of the diversity in the city,” Davenport says.

“At one point, while we were driving down Airline Drive, Marcia stopped the car. There are all these piñata stores along that drive that we had sort of casually pointed out, because we are so used to seeing them, but she had never seen a piñata in her life or anything like it.”

“We walked along the strip and you can see the piñatas in all stages — some just barely covered in newspaper and others streaming with vibrant colors.”

“She was intrigued by those and when she went back she took a bunch of pictures to convey her own experience of visiting Houston and her impressions of what Houston ‘was.’ In the end, [the artists] weren’t trying to emulate a piñata, but more were using it as inspiration and as an interpretation of what they felt emulated Houston.”

“For them, somehow, this ephemeral and colorful material helped portray the diversity of Houston.”

Davenport told us: “Other artists I’ve had in the past are fascinated by the iconic pieces of Houston like the rodeo, so the fact that they went all over the city and stopped on this idea of a piñata … fascinated me.”

How It’s Made

As the name Crêpe Paper Carpet implies, the piece is composed entirely of crêpe paper, but instead of being strewn across the floor as one would think a carpet should, this piece is a freestanding wall that spans the width of the room.

Davenport says of the process, “Within a two-week marathon, the meditative and laborious process of precisely cutting and stacking each piece of crêpe paper resulted in a mesmerizing wall of vibrant color that was inspired by the piñatas and specifically designed for the space.”

Each piece of paper was cut using a custom-made press and hand stacked by the Dutch artists. (Some of the leftover scraps of crêpe paper were even donated to a local artist.)

Fishing wire runs through certain points throughout the wall to make sure the piece does not get knocked over, but the artists made sure to keep the freestanding essence intact. The lack of concrete support adds to the fascinating illusion as the wall resembles a wave lightly lapping at the shore as portions ever so slightly dip.

The piece provides a different experience at varying distances — from the faint whisper of the wave to the delicacy of fringed ends of the paper observed up close.

The artists have succeeded in reimagining the prosaic, crêpe paper in a way that is unexpected and completely separate from its function.

The artists intentionally used the fringed edges of the paper to add to the texture to the pattern.

Window Washers Needed

So far, the biggest challenge the Moody has faced is the constant cleaning they have to do along the windows of the gallery due to curious faces pressing against the glass to get a look before being invited inside.

“It’s an honor for the Moody that they chose us to show their first installation in the United States and exciting because this piece epitomizes what the Moody is all about — experimentation.”

“Nothing is off limits for these artists,” says Davenport.

“Personally, I think it is always important to keep the freedom of thinking and doing at the forefront. Freedom is the kernel of it all and that is exactly what the Moody hopes to facilitate and inspire.”

Read more about the Moody Center and We Make Carpets’ “Crêpe Paper Carpet,” on view through September 8, here. All exhibitions at the Moody are free and open to the public.

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