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A Stunning Space

The new Asia Society Texas Center is a work of art itself. The downstairs exhibition space is pretty good, too.

There is a bona fide blockbuster hit at the new Asia Society Texas Center. It's not an imposing ancient Chinese sculpture or contemporary calligraphy hanging on the gallery walls, though. It's the building itself.

The Museum District center opened in April at Caroline and Southmore, following months of build-up and several enthusiastic sneak peeks before the big day. There was good reason for all the hubbub. Yoshio Taniguchi, better known as the man behind New York's Museum of Modern Art redesign, designed the $48.4 million Asia Society building, the first established home for the more than 30-year-old Houston organization, which until that point had borrowed venues all over town to host its events and leased its office space.

There's a reason the minimalist, two-story building cost nearly $50 million — there's the Jura limestone used for the exterior and interior walls and wall panels, the serene infinity pool and fog machines on the second level, the view — and reflection — of the downtown skyline from that pool, and the performing arts theater's Appalachian white oak stage and Italian seats (from the same people who do the seats in Maseratis and Ferraris).

Mel Chin's The Cabinet of Craving is the talker of the exhibition.
Nash Baker © nashbaker.com
Mel Chin's The Cabinet of Craving is the talker of the exhibition.

Now with a permanent — and stunning — home, the society is able go beyond its usual policy discussions and host film festivals, performing artists, and long-term art exhibitions. For its inaugural art show, "Contemporary Asian Art: Texas Connections," there's a modest but impressive selection of works on display.

The 13 artists cherry-picked for the exhibition by guest curator Kim Davenport, director of the Rice University Art Gallery, represent a wide geographic swath of Asia — from Iran to Japan — as well as several styles and mediums. Opening the show is a somewhat predictable, yet still welcome, inclusion — Yoshitomo Nara, the artist synonymous with the kowa kawaii, or creepy cute, Japanese aesthetic, who had a big, game-changing retrospective two years ago at the Asia Society in New York.

Nara's two works on display — courtesy of Leigh and Reggie Smith, fascinating collectors in their own right — are good representations of his canon. Both have a cartoonish quality. There's the ambiguous painting Little Thinker, which depicts a round-faced little girl with her eyes closed and a tight smile, as if plotting something. And then there's the playful, surreal sculpture Quiet, Quiet, comprised of two boys' heads stacked solemnly on top of each other, sprouting from a teacup. The works touch on both childhood mischievousness and darker themes of death.

From there, visitors will find more sculpture and paintings, as well as photography, furniture, and mixed-media works. There are only 15 pieces on view, though much of it is thought-provoking and memorable, keeping you lingering in front of it in the remarkable calm of the downstairs gallery. Huang Yan's Chinese Shang Shul Tattoo No. 6-2 Series is one such piece. It shows a man's torso painted with a classical landscape, his arms bent at the elbows. The work is such a subtle clash of tradition and contemporary practices, with the clever use of the body as canvas, to boot.

Shao Fan's project no. 1 of 2004 is another standout that mixes the traditional with the contemporary. The sculptor has deconstructed a replica of a Ming Dynasty chair, pulling the wood apart and filling the spaces with sheets of plastic, so that each individual element of the chair is seemingly floating. The magic is obvious, but it's still a neat trick.

Hohlraum, by Shahzia Sikander, who once upon a time had a residency with the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, employs the art of calligraphy, but to completely modern, abstract results (I'm beginning to sense a pattern). Text, as well as unintelligible dashes and images of animals, body parts, and objects, is delicately depicted in watercolor. It's a dense piece, full of puzzles and references, but it still manages to have a lightness that keeps it from being intimidating or too busy.

The talker of the exhibition — and one that has hope of rivaling the building for attention — is Houston-born Mel Chin's The Cabinet of Craving. It's a shocking sculpture of a giant black spider, its long, thin legs positioned so that the insect looks ready to pounce. Curiously, the body of the spider is a Victorian-style glass curio case with a porcelain teapot inside, a reference to the trade of tea and other goods between England and China. The spider's height and aggressive stance make clear that this isn't a cheerful reference.

The rest of the works in the exhibition didn't make a great impression. Surasi Kusolwong's Small Is Beautiful (Gold Floating Market) would have been a decent photograph of a river market if he hadn't uglied it up by suspending plastic fruit from the image. Intended meaning aside, it just wasn't appealing.

If you're wondering how these contemporary artists were grouped together (besides, of course, by their being Asian), there's not much beyond the show's name. "Texas Connections" means that each artist either lived here at some point or has work held in private or public collections in the state. When spelled out like that, these "Texas connections" seem pretty tenuous and contrived.

If this hometown connection was important enough to be the exhibition's raison d'être, it would have been helpful to have more background on the artists — who lived here, where? Was the work made here? As for the collectors, how did they come to acquire these artworks, and why? There are many stories contained within these pieces that we aren't privy to, but would add a whole new level to their appreciation.

"Texas Connections" will be on display through September 16. This is the first, and may very well be the last, show on the ground floor of the Asia Society, as it's unclear if the center will continue showing work there. The main exhibition space, the upstairs Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery, will feature temporary and traveling exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian American art, beginning with the current exhibition of centuries-old Asian sculptures and ceramics from the Rockefeller Collection. But given that part of the Asia Society's new mission, thanks to the space afforded by the building, is to put on art exhibitions, it would be a shame not to use the downstairs too.

The Asia Society could — and should — be the place to see Asian artwork in Houston. The MFAH currently holds that crown thanks to its modest but growing Arts of Asia collection. I think it would help the Asia Society's cause immensely to have a curator on staff, but of course, the center has only been open for two months — you can still smell the paint on the walls — and a lot remains to be seen. Certainly, Taniguchi's building will have no trouble bringing people in. Let's be sure to give them something to see.

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