Texas Roundup Part 4: “The Progress of Love” at the Menil Collection

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The day after my three hour “War/Photography” marathon, I paid a visit to the Menil Collection. It’s located on a beautiful little side street with grandiose trees and well-kept sidewalks. Tow-headed little Texan kids frolic on large public sculptures jutting up out of the grass-covered park next door. It was downright serene.

The Menil is an outpost on the global Art trail, like Marfa, so far to the West. (Or the Rothko Chapel 100 yards up the street.) Flip-flop free, the Menil attracts scarf-wearing bohemians, bespectacled intellectuals, and super-skinny hot chicks. I’ve been twice now, and noted both demographics each time. (So it must be true.)

Surprisingly, the Menil is free of charge. While it draws an elitist crowd, used to paying significant sums for the pleasure of viewing high art, it is open to all. In a perfect world, this would mean that everyone would know and go, but that’s not how it works.

There was a temporary exhibition on display, “The Progress of Love,” organized by the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. (And the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Odd mix, no?) The show featured work from and about Africa, and in true Art World fashion, mixed up all the different media together. Glaring neon sculptures sat beside paintings on cell-phone bills, installations on the ground, and gelatin silver prints on the wall.

It always comes back to context, no? Photography is typically ghettoized by itself, or occasionally seen as one form of expression among many. (Really, why have we grown so accustomed to our medium sequestered from the rest?) Personally, I enjoy looking at photographs in such environs.

Just outside the gallery, one confronts a giant Valentine’s style heart on a wall, made up of pairs of custom glass night-sticks. Upon first glance, they look like nun-chucks, but are really ceremonial police skull crushers. The heart and the fist. Sex and violence. Love and power. Get it?

There was a large contingent of photography on display, and all of it good to excellent. Early on, Kelechi Amadi Obi had two color light box pieces, each showing a female warrior Queen, on horseback, rocking a big sword. (Like Jeff Wall does the Arabian nights.) The Queen was in the company of men, a hard-scrabble bunch, but seemed to rule naturally. I was hoping it was created by a female artist, but alas…

On the two walls on either side, Lyle Ashton Harris was showing pictures from the “Jamestown Prison Erasure series.” We see colorful cell walls from inside thickly buttressed prisons. Decals were depicted, Jesus, of course, but also fancy cars. Then the same walls showed the discolored phantom where the decals once stood. Existence/non-existence. Life/death. Freedom of the imagination/the oppression of incarceration.

Contemplating severity, I looked up and saw a bright yellow Volkswagen bus. Not a model; the real thing. Life-size and shiny, by Emeka Ogboh, it was commissioned for the exhibition. The vehicle had stickers on the back, with sayings like “No Money, No Friend,” “I am afraid of my friends, even you,” and “No food for lazy man.” There was also a sticker for Arsenal Football Club, based in North London, where I’ll be next week. (Assuming they let me in the country, notorious as I am.)

The door to the van was open, and there were headphones on one of the seats. There were no signs to explain whether the piece was interactive, so I slowly reached my hands out, waiting to see if a guard would jump me. (I felt like a kid playing “Operation” for the first time, hoping I wouldn’t get tased.) I placed the headphones over my ears, and heard an African man dictating a personal ad to a sexy, high-class sounding British lady. I got bored after a minute or two, and moved on.

There were many other photographs on display, most dealing with varying takes on sexuality and desire. One diptych featured a transvestite, rocking the makeup in one photo, his face stripped stripped bare in another, by Zanele Muboli. In one photo, he stood just beyond a field of tall grass, his legs scraped up. In the other, he stepped out onto a roof-deck, waiting to party, or perhaps model for a photo shoot?

In the next room we see a naked man, on a bed, looking back at the camera, teasing with sexual ambiguity, by Samuel Fosso. I thought about how hard it must be to be gay in a continent in which some countries deal with it so harshly. (I mean you, Uganda.)

That room had music piped in, a repetitive refrain, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” As many of the photographs included people in bars and nightclubs, and the theme was Love, it fit. If I were a museum guard working in that space all day, though, I’m sure I’d want to kill somebody. (Again, with the sex and violence. We’re hardwired to pay attention to both, said some guy on NPR the other day. And NPR is never wrong.)

Walking back towards the Volkswagen, I realized there was traffic and street noise blaring in that room too. I hadn’t heard it on my first time through, as I was too busy concentrating on the work on display. And, I suppose it didn’t surprise me in the least. Much as I wondered why there weren’t other sensory experiences in the “War/Photography show,” in a place like this, it took me some time to even notice.

This show, like exhibit at MFA,H, was absolutely worth a visit. When I mentioned it to my Photo World buddies around town, none had even heard of it. And most told me they hadn’t been to the Menil in ages. No surprise.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Art World experience is superior. It sticks to its non-traditional tropes as cleanly as the Photo World loves its traditionalism. Neither is better or worse. Just different. But as one who walks in both worlds, and never feels perfectly comfortable in either, I do wonder how much we’d all benefit if more people dipped their toes in unfamiliar waters.

Jonathan Blaustein

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