Founded in 1948, the Art League is one of the oldest non-profit visual arts organizations in Houston and is the first alternative art space in Texas.
But for some time, the Art League has generated relatively little interest amongst either the art crowd or the general public. Perceived (fairly or not) as more of a kaffeeklatsch for local artists of mediocre talent and ambition than as a dynamic organization with interesting programming, the Art League has, for over 30 years, quietly gone about its business of housing classes and exhibitions in a grouping of nondescript white houses in the Montrose. Over the years, there have been many abortive attempts to tear down those houses and make a grander architectural gesture; and it seems, finally, that this most recent attempt is actually going to come to fruition. To celebrate, the oft-disregarded Art League has sponsored what is the most exciting installation in Houston in recent memory.
They asked Dan Havel and Dean Ruck to do something fun with two little houses, scheduled for demolition to make way for a big fancy new building. Havel and Ruck’s transformation, titled Inversion, takes two of the Art League’s decrepit bungalows and literally blows a hole through the houses in a gesture that seems to turn them inside out. The exterior wood siding of the houses has been torn off and placed within the void. The siding has been laid in parallel strips that sometimes expose the natural wood but more often show off the painted face of the siding.
The result is an almost organic, funnel-shaped vortex, a wildly dynamic conversion of two otherwise completely static buildings. The funnel’s larger open end faces towards Montrose Boulevard, slowing pedestrian and car traffic to a crawl of gawking rubberneckers. An overwhelming urge to climb into Inversion is offset by a fear that the work is on the precarious verge of implosion. From the correct angle, the viewer can see completely through the work (and perhaps the only flaw with Inversion is that the funnel points curiously towards an exterior waterline of the adjacent building, rather than a blank wall). As the viewer makes his way around the building, open areas and windows allow him to see glimpses of the framework that supports the funnel. At the termination point in a small open courtyard, the viewer can turn and gaze back through the work towards Montrose Boulevard. Here at the termination point, the viewer fully realizes the scale and complexity of the work. In addition, the artwork has the effect of bring exposure to the often-overlooked Art League Houston.
Inversion hearkens to other projects, notably the work of Tara Donovan, shown locally at Rice University Art Gallery in 2003. Donovan recombines objects into organized ordered forms. Inversion combines the material use of Donovan and the ephemeral quality of Andy Goldsworthy, who creates lines, voids, and geometric forms with objects in nature, then photographs these ephemeral compositions and leaves them to fall apart.
Inversion will be demolished in early June to make way for a new Art League building, and the only record of the work will be in photographs and memories. Like the O House, an earlier work by Havel, Ruck, and Kate Petley, Inversion is a work of rare quality, made all the more visceral for its impermanence. By seemingly turning these buildings inside out, Havel and Ruck have reveled the essential framework that supports a building in the real world, while at the same time creating another reality where gravity and inertia do not apply.
Images courtesy Art League and Ace Gallery.
Matthew Kelley is an architecture student and writer living in Houston.