Arts / Galleries

Stunning Art Exhibition and Soho House Pool Party Bring Surface Tension to Houston — Humans In Water Defy Ordinary Art Expectations

Manjari Sharma Keeps Enthralled Viewers Guessing

BY Haley Berkman Karren // 10.10.23

Just over a year after moving into its first brick-and-mortar location at 4411 Montrose, Houston’s Assembly Gallery is ushering in the fall season with Manjari Sharma’s Surface Tension, a stunning exhibition examining humans’ relationship with water.

Despite many pools being public, Sharma considers them a space where a private act between the figure and water can occur. In each photograph, the artist isolates the lone body in the pool, either nude or partially nude, the face and identity obscured, as they submerge themselves in water. The form of the body across the water — and across the work — is paramount.

The photographs on view in Surface Tension are printed on thick watercolor paper that is not typically used for photographs. Assembly boldly chose to display the works framed but without glazing, so that no plexiglass or reflections would interrupt the viewer’s interaction with the art. The texture of the watercolor paper — which in itself represents water — combined with the sumptuous details of bubbles, ripples and reflections on the water in the images, makes for a stunning effect.

<em>Untitled</em>, 2019 is a standout piece. The ripples in the water and the play of light and shadow appears almost like stained glass. The largest piece in the exhibition at 40 x 60 inches demands close viewing.
Manjari Sharma’s Untitled, 2019 is a standout piece. The ripples in the water and the play of light and shadow appears almost like stained glass. The largest piece in the exhibition at 40 x 60 inches demands close viewing.

Sharma has expanded her practice to include video for the first time, with two video pieces on view in Surface Tension. Unlike her photographs, the videos depict multiple people in the pool at the same time and show their faces. Sharma also partnered with Assembly to release her first non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on the gallery’s platform dubbed Assembly Curated, through which viewers can purchase works.

The opening weekend was exciting for many reasons – the down-to-earth artist herself was in Houston for the reception, happily engaging with visitors. Independent curator Bridget Bray held a discussion with Sharma, which further illuminated this work as well as her previous series.

The pool at the opening reception for "Surface Tension" at Assembly Gallery, in partnership with Soho House (Photo by Haley Berkman Karren)
The La Colombe d’Or hotel’s pool at the opening reception for Manjari Sharma’s “Surface Tension” at Assembly Gallery, in partnership with Soho House (Photo by Haley Berkman Karren)

Even more alluring, however, was Sharma’s remarkable site-specific installation at the La Colombe d’Or hotel’s rooftop pool, which occurred after the opening reception at the gallery.

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In this installation, a video of swimmers engaging with water in a pool was beamed onto the surface of the hotel’s pool, creating layers of meaning. Although it was a slightly windy night, the installation came together beautifully. The video might have been softer than intended in the moving water, but it added to the ethereal nature of the work.

That night, viewers were in for another special treat — one of the swimmers from the video slid into the pool, swimming over her own moving image. The doubling of her body created layers of visuals and added to the performative nature of the work.

This installation, which is part of the Surface Tension series, was presented in partnership with Soho House, a private social club with locations around the world. Houston is part of the club’s Cities Without Houses membership, which lets creatives connect with other members in cities that lack a permanent Soho House location. Although a Soho House opened a few years ago in Austin, this evening was the club’s first event in Houston, so it is possible that Bayou City is in consideration for a Soho House of its own in the future.

“Surface Tension” is on view through November 4 at Assembly Gallery. Learn more about the exhibition here.

Author’s note: Haley Berkman Karren is an art advisor, appraiser, independent curator and writer. She is also the founder and director of Karren Art Advisory, specializing in modern and contemporary art, photography and digital art.

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