going greek, going home

It’s 105 degrees and humid in Houston today; the kind of swampy weather that encourages you to stay indoors watching television in a  crisp air-conditioned suite. Naturally, I couldn’t do that on my last day; I had to go out wandering, despite the weather. I’ve been nothing if not surprised by Houston over the past few days, so it seems only fitting that I would chance upon a breeze and some shade in nearby Market Square Park. In the middle of the park I also found Niko Niko’s, a Greek food shack that’s something of a Houston institution. Purporting to serve the best Greek grub in town, there was no arguing with my crunchy and savory falafel, served with tzatziki and a fiery red sauce. In fact, that pretty much sums up my brief Houston experience: no arguments here – and a nice side of sauce. Despite a climate that’s eerily similar to Southeast Asia, I wish I could stay a little longer. I’ve quickly grown quite fond of H-town, a disarmingly little big city that’s subverted more than a handful of my ignorant notions about Texas.

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at the theatre: houston’s alley

Who’d’ have thunk my little trip to Houston would turn into such a cultural orgasm?  I had few expectations coming down here and most of them revolved around craft beer and indoor shopping -  so far I’ve had neither.  What I have had is a feast of fine art. Now it’s finally time to take in some performing arts.  My friend is at the Alley Theater performing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which I’ve never actually seen on stage before. (the Wendy Hiller film, yes; Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, many times, of course, including a brief stint playing Colonel Pickering in the 9th grade.) What is oddly made crystal clear to me while watching the Alley’s entertainingly lush production is just how perfect a musical adaptation My Fair Lady really is.  Sure, it cheats a little for the sake of a happy ending but ultimately it doesn’t simply add songs to Shaw’s play, it augments the discourse on English class structure and the emancipation of women while packaging it up as romantic entertainment. Those subversive underpinnings are what this production nails quite strikingly: Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are both fools,  mutually dependent and inextricably linked. Perhaps that’s why modern audiences always seem to yearn for them to go off into the sunset together. Touched as he was by his own lackluster love life, Shaw railed vigorously against the implausible success of the couple’s Romantic love, yet he, too, got it all wrong: Henry and Eliza do belong together, if for different reasons. It would take another forty years – and the arrival of both Rex Harrison and Sartre – for us to figure out exactly why.

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twombly from above

The Menil Collection encompasses multiple buildings spread across a campus of carpeted lawns.  In addition to the main collection and Rothko Chapel buildings, there are three site specific light works by Dan Flavin at nearby Richmond Hall, a Byzantine Fresco Chapel designed by M. Menil himself to house two thirteenth-century frescoes in a consecrated setting for the Church of Cyprus, and in collaboration with the Dia Art Foundation, the Cy Twombly Gallery, housing more than thirty works by the abstract painter and sculptor.  I must confess that I don’t have any particular connection or attraction to Twombly’s work but the structure itself, designed by Renzo Piano, is hushed, cool and reverent – a perfect setting to contemplate Twombly’s abstractions.

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the busy world is hushed

Conceived and founded by those fabulous de Menils, Rothko Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an ecumenical non-denominational sanctuary. The tranquil grounds contain an unprepossessing octagonal brick Chapel and a public plaza where artist Barnett Newman’s colossal Broken Obelisk sculpture rises from a large, rectangular reflecting pool. Recognized as one of the great artistic achievements of the latter twentieth century, as a work of religious art it is firmly on a par with Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary or the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel by Le Corbusier. Widely known for his color field paintings, Mark Rothko had long yearned for the opportunity to create a total art space, to shape a complete environment where his paintings would be seamlessly integrated into the structure and purpose of the space that housed them. The Chapel commission granted the artist the unique freedom to create such an environment. Working closely with architect Philip Johnson, Rothko designed a sunlit octagonal space to hold a suite of fourteen majestic paintings in deep velvety blacks and purples, cultivating a spiritual quality of reverence and intimacy. As a non-believer the power of the Chapel as a sacred space is a bit difficult for me to grasp at first. Fitted with little more than a handful of benches, it’s a place to meditate, worship, pray, or experience the transformative power of art. Call it what you will, it’s a rare bird: a place where at least briefly the busy world can be hushed in abeyance of something larger.

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the menil collection

A few blocks away from MFAH, in a quiet residential neighborhood, the Menil Collection anchors a cultural enclave of shaded streets where unassuming bungalows sit side-by-side with art filled chapels, artist pavilions, and outdoor sculpture. It’s the distinctive – and decidedly eclectic – vision of Houston philanthropists John and Dominque de Menil, whose private art collection forms the bulk of the museum. As modernists, the de Menils recognized the formal and spiritual connections between contemporary art and the arts of ancient and indigenous cultures, so while at first it might seem curious to pass through a gallery hung with Surrealists into a room full of carved statuary from Oceania, intellectually it makes perfect sense once considered. What appears at first to be slap dash has actually been meticulously planned. That spirit of intellectual provocation is one of the things I most love about this curious collection. Another is the fact that the de Menils enjoyed close friendships with many of the contemporary artists whose work they collected, including Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, Rene Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko; meaning much of the American postwar Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism hasn’t simply been collected, but commissioned.

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the light inside

James Turrell’s site-specific installation at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Light Inside, connects the museum’s two main buildings in a trippy tunnel of light that will keep you off-balance. Best known for Roden Crater, a massive earthworks work-in-progress outside Flagstaff, Arizona that’s being turned into a naked eye observatory, Turrell’s work plays with our perceptions of light and space, creating fascinating illusions of mass and weight where none exist. Is it any wonder he got his college degree in perceptual psychology?

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the finest of fine art

When a city finds itself wet with wealth the way Houston is dripping in it, there’s often an eagerness to be ostentatious about its display – as if somehow all that money can mask a lack of taste or instill some fragile sense of self-worth where none exists. Yet contrary to any preconceived notions, The Bayou City – despite the highest concentration of Fortune 500 HQs outside of New York and all that Texas tea – is downright demure. (Amongst Houstonians I learned that in the Texas hierarchy it is, in fact, Dallas that is looked down upon as the vulgar upstart) To my surprise, Houston has more in common with New York City than I could have anticipated:  a dazzling city skyline, civic pride bolstered by a confident sense of its own superiority, and most notably a cultural cup that overfloweth with expensive good taste – and even more, great art. Much like our own Museum Mile, Houston boasts an area where the chief museums reside. The creatively named Museum District is home to Rice University Art Gallery, the Holocaust Museum, Houston Center for Photography, and Houston Museum of Natural Science among a handful of others. First among equals is The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which consists of more than 60,000 works of art from the Stone Age to the present day spread over two main-campus buildings. If 60,000 sounds like a lot, consider this: there are 380,000 items in the Louvre Collection and more than two million at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What MFAH lacks in quantity, however, it more than makes up for in quality. Like a high-end Tokyo fruit shop, nearly every piece on display is an example of aesthetic perfection. The small room of Greek and Roman antiquities holds maybe two dozen items, yet I found myself in there for over an hour admiring the figure of Gorgons intricately carved into handles of a perfectly preserved krater, a jug used for mixing water and wine in Ancient Greece. Who needs an exhaustive show of ten thousand pottery shards when you can have one idealized object? The Egyptian collection is displayed in an area at the top of an escalator to the second floor. There are maybe seven objects in total but each is a wonder: the intricately decorated sarcophagus of Pedi-Osiris, an astonishingly unblemished wood and bronze funerary Ibis, a delicate headpiece of myrtle, hammered out of gold. This ethos continues throughout the museum, most notably when it comes to American and European paintings; Church, Eakins, Cassatt, Singer Sargent, O’Keefe, Seurat, William Merritt Chase, Remington, Picasso, Pissarro, Courbet, Turner, Motherwell all are represented by style-defining, textbook images. A real discovery are the canvases of Remington, better known for his agile bronzes. He paints a harsh and unforgiving portrait of the American frontier, in studied contrast to the inherent romance of his sculpture. Wealth turns out to be a great public benefit: MFAH is the most civilized of civic institutions. Instructive yet efficient, it will sate you – not exhaust you. That’s the kind of leisure only lots and lots of money can buy.

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lounging at the lancaster

Houston is huge. Not only does a population of 2+ million make it the fourth largest city in America but its zoning-free urban sprawl occupies an area half the size of Rhode Island. So I guess I lucked out in choosing to stay downtown at The Lancaster. The perfect balance between history and luxury, The Lancaster hotel is Houston’s oldest, continuously-operating hotel, as well as the city’s first boutique hotel. (It’s also the only hotel in town still owned and operated by descendants of the original developer, Michele DeGeorge) Occupying a landmark building on the corner of Texas and Louisiana avenues in an area commonly referred to as The Theater District, it sits directly across street from the theater where my friend is performing. The central location turns out to be one of the best in Houston, within easy walking distance to all the downtown area attractions and just a few blocks away from the city’s Metro, too. Plus, with downtown doubling as Houston’s central business district, the weekend neighborhood vibe is relatively low-key and relaxing. I can take it at my own pace – which is good considering the mercury is expected to hit an egg-frying 105 degrees.

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i know what you’re thinking

“Houston?!?!?” Well, trust me, I’m as surprised and bemused as you are to suddenly find myself in Texas, a state I’ve pretty much boycotted since Karla Faye Tucker got the lethal needle back in 1998. Yet when I discovered that a good friend of mine would be performing in a play at Houston’s respected Alley Theater, I thought a long weekend jaunt to a place I’ve never had any desire to visit would be a great excuse to continue a tradition begun last month in San Diego – exploring cities I know little to nothing about because friends happen to be there acting in plays. It’s as good a reason as a toss of the I-Ching or a dart thrown at a map, I reckon. Plus, as you can tell from the photos: Houston’s South of the Border bona fides means I won’t go wanting for an honest plate of ceviche (or fish tacos!) anytime soon.  Hale and hearty Houston, seat of Harris County, Texas and fourth largest city in America, I come without a map – or a clue for that matter. I’m unarmed and eager for a weekend’s worth of honest exploration.

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hazy, hot & houston

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