Nov 28, 2011

REVIEW | Working in the Abstract: Rethinking the Literal, Glassell School of Art, Houston, TX

Susie Rosmarin, Blue Gingham, 1999, acrylic on canvas

METRORail trams slide dangerously close by as I zigzag my way through Houston's museum district in search of the Glassell School of Art, supposedly located next to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum, but where exactly this glass tiled building exists I cannot say.  After a few wrong turns down one-way streets and a few harrowing escapes from seemingly inevitable collisions, I look to my right and see gleaming glass tiles.  This must be it.  I hook my car into the parking lot and confidently tell the security guard that I am here to interview the Curator for the Working in the Abstract exhibition.  He buys my lie and allows me to park in the student parking lot without worry of being towed.
Really I'm just here to see the exhibit, to review it for this blog, and to hopefully get a fresh take on abstraction through the paint brushes of Houston based artists.  The lie was just for the free parking.  And I think fast on my feet.

I am energized before even entering the building: not only because of my love of abstraction, but because the outside of Glassell is all shiny glass tiles broken up with industrial, factory-like machines looming from behind and from the left side of the building.  This place looks like an art building.  Competing architecture designs surround me:  to my left is a church steeple hidden behind other peculiar buildings; to my right is the Tradition Bank Plaza: square glass windows and brick meet each other in international functionalism.

I allow myself a few moments to take in the architectural splendor around me and then I'm through the double doors of Glassell and am immediately blasted in the eyes by a large Susie Rosmarin painting: tiny blue squares of dizzying size and color stop me in my tracks yet propel me into the building, inviting me to see what else lies within the white-washed studio walls.

A concrete staircase rises to my left as I pass beyond Rosmarin's painting.  I have entered into a second section of white walls, and the globular cluster of abstract paintings by Pat Colville present themselves to my right.  Warm and cool mingle in her work, with several paintings arranged on the wall like an indecipherable language:  Colville's paintings are a geometric problem solving device, a Rubik's Cube on canvas.

A functional concrete column stands at the far end of Colville's wall with the words "Photo Lab" painted on the side: an arrow points down another hallway:  this is one of the areas where the Glassell art students use for their classes.  Did I mention that Glassell is an art school for adults?  The school offers many of the same courses, albeit a much smaller curriculum, that Texas State University offers.  Students are able to obtain a "Certificate of Achievement", and many of these courses can be applied toward a BFA at the University of St. Thomas.

Lights from the second story draw my attention upward; a security guard ponders my reason for note-taking.  I ignore him.  A contract worker near the security guard is painting one of the upper walls white, his large brush gliding on the surface...a painter in his own right.

I am aware of the industrial air tunnels that surround the upper wall, pumping noise into the exhibition.  Into the next room I go and to my right is the work of Terrell James.  James' oil paintings are beautiful; swirling colors of green and red collide together in a cramped space:  the motion and energy on his canvases are surrounded by the static whiteness of the walls.

Michael Kennaugh, On the Other Shore, 2011, oil on canvas, 62"x108"
I turn to my left and stop in my tracks.  Only two painters whose work I've seen in person have ever made me feel like I should give up painting:  the Fauvist painter Andre Derain and the American Abstract master Willem de Kooning.  I should probably add Michael Kennaugh to this list.  His paintings are a mix of de Kooning, early Pollack and Kandinskian influence.  His paintings are too much to look at: On the Other Shore is one of the most amazing paintings I've ever seen.  Kennaugh's paintings are at once out of place (a man among boys) and yet  are positioned within the gallery so as not to overwhelm the other artists' displays.

I walk on and again am confronted with Susie Rosmarin's dizzying work of brilliant colors.  Eh.  After Kennaugh's artwork, I'm less impressed now; yet her work is much more tightly controlled than the rest of the artists on display, and this contradiction actually adds to the exhibition. 

David Aylsworth, Watching Little Things Grow, 2010, oil on canvas

Onto the next room of rectangular white walls I go and am presented with the paintings of an artist named Brooke Masterson.  She has a series of 12"x12" acrylic paintings, all untitled, against the left wall. Again, I feel as if I am reading text: from left to right her paintings hang in deep blue and purple hues.  Interesting in their simplicity, Masterson's paintings offer a stark contrast to the painters behind her.  To compliment Masterson's simple monochromatic paintings, David Aylsworth inhabits the opposite wall with canvases of soft warm colors painted in geometric simplicity.  His most impressive work by far is Brain Concussion, 2011 (image unavailable): a large canvas, the circular red oil pops off the canvas and out from the walls that surround the painting.

I pass into the next room and arrive at the end of the exhibition; the lime green chairs on my left remind me of the ugly simplicity of Bauhaus design, and behind an administrative desk on my right sits a woman who introduces herself as Esther Kyle.  I ask her (after introducing myself as a Texas State Student and art blogger) if the Curator, Patrick Palmer, is available for comment.  She says he isn't, but asks me to wait one moment and disappears into a hallway behind her desk.

A moment later I am shaking hands with the Director of Glassell School of Art, Joseph Havel.  A tall yet soft spoken man, he gladly shows me around the exhibit and patiently answers all of my questions.
He explains that Palmer collaborated with the artists and Mr. Havel for preparation of the exhibit.  The aim of the exhibition is to convey a "survey of approaches" to contemporary abstraction; the exhibit also presents a diverse age group of  artists.  Most of the artists have been affiliated with Glassell in some way: either former students or local artists known to the school.

Mr. Havel breaks down each artist and how Mr. Palmer chose to display them: Rosmarin for her vibrant energy, her ability to draw the audience into the space, and the breaking up of the loose forms of the other artists with her straight line abstraction; Colville for the sense of intimacy displayed in her paintings; James and Kennaugh for the large, abstracted landscapes they paint; Masterson for her cinematic and minimal qualities; Aylsworth for his "constructive geometry" and "isolated space".

Mr. Havel is not sure of the age of the building (he guesses it was built in the early 80s), but is certain the architect was S.I. Morris. His firm was responsible for the Astrodome and Wortham Center in Houston. Morris' firm is now known as Morris Architects.  Mr. Havel explains that many of the white walls are mobile and are moved around to make room for contemporary video displays on occasion.  The walls also are painted various colors, depending on the exhibition.  He offers no reason as to why white was chosen for the current exhibition, and I do not ask the question because no explanation is needed:  the space works well with the paintings it displays.

As Mr. Havel continues to talk about the exhibition, I find myself wondering if the paintings offer a fresh take on abstract painting...or even if they are supposed to. Or is the artwork supposed to continue along the veins of those abstract painters of Modernism...a painting style that saw the world in colors and lines and forms that had little to do with the reality of physical space and more to do with the emotional space of the artist and their own internal reality?  To this question, the Glassell artists are absolutely successful both as students of Modernism and as contemporary abstract painters.

After a few minutes speaking with Mr. Havel, I thank him for his time, shake his hand, and head for the exit.
Before I leave, however, I take a good look outside the back entrance and spot the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) behind a large, slanted concrete slab.  Two sculptures sit near the back entrance: one is a black, organic abstracted form; the other is a giant black sphere. They feel like silent guardians of the museum.  I return through the exhibition, and stare at Kennaugh's work again for some time, before I exit through the front door.

I thank the security guard I lied to, realizing that I didn't really lie to him after all (not really), and take my keys out of my pocket.  What the hell am I thinking?  After admiring both the contemporary paintings of artists working in the abstract and the appropriate space by which their artworks have been displayed, I have a craving for more.  Inside the MFAH is a permanent collection of Modern Abstract painters such as De Kooning, Pollock and Picasso.  It's time to say hello again to some old friends.

---Jonathan Peters


  1. I would first like to say that this was a joy to read. You use of imagery really puts the reader in the space. I wish that there were more photos of the work you are describing since I too am a fan of abstract work. I enjoy many of your silly observations but most of them seem like filler to me and not much time is spent on talking about the actual work, other then a simple few word sentence describing everything you see in the room. Though your conversation with Mr. Havel helps to break down the exhibit further then any other review I have read and i comend you for going the extra mile.

    -Josh Seaton

  2. Thank you for the comment. I disagree that many of my observations are just filler: I was reviewing an exhibition, which includes the space the work is including in. Just glancing over my blog entry, I'd say that 40-50% of the blog is about the work, and 50-60% is about the exhibition space.
    As for photos, I did link out to a few websites that had photos of either the buildings surrounding Glassell or to Glassell itself (which has a few images from this exhibition).
    The only image I wish I had been able to incorporate was "Brain Concussion, 2011" by Ayslworth. It was an outstanding painting, but I couldn't find an image of it.
    Thanks again for the comments, and the recognition of "going the extra mile".

  3. I agree with Josh, your blog was a truly enjoyable read! As a native Houstonian I completely understand your confusion in trying to find the Glassell School. Although I’m pretty familiar with the area now, the art district can be kind of disorienting to say the least! I actually took classes at the Glassell School as a small child and I have a lot of great memories there…. So I really appreciate your vivid description of the both the interior and exterior of the building. (isn’t that glass brick beautiful?) It is important to note how the architecture and design of the building come into play with the actually works of art…which you did marvelously. I had no idea there are Derain and de Kooning’s works there, I’ll have to go check it out over the holidays. Thanks for the informative and entertaining blog.
    - Laura Knight

  4. The Modernist painters are over in the museum of fine arts building next to Glassell. Derain's painting is no longer there, but de Kooning's was part of a permanent collection, I believe.
    Thanks for reading,