We all have our prejudices, and when people start talking about "transcendence," I head for the door before Shirley MacLaine and Ramtha show up. While people may experience this kind of metaphysical reverie, attempting to describe or explain it can render it schmaltzy, trivial or dismembered. If an artwork possesses "transcendent" qualities, it is rarely the artist's stated objective but rather a side effect of an investigation of materials, processes or ideas. The loudest about seeking transcendence in their work are the least likely to achieve it.
For "The Inward Eye: Transcendence in Contemporary Art" at the Contemporary Arts Museum, senior curator Lynn Herbert selected works that evoke not an intellectual response but an emotional one. Subjective by nature, it's a tough curatorial concept to pull off: What resonates with one person won't necessarily affect another in the same way. But Herbert has good instincts; she's managed to put together a strong collection of works that, by the way, have nothing to do with MacLaine or Ramtha. Purposely avoiding lengthy wall texts, she presents the objects and then steps back, allowing the pieces to speak for themselves.
With no fewer than five sky-themed works in the show, the heavens weigh heavily in the transcendent department, functioning as a kind of screen for our emotional projections. Robert Gober's Prison Window (2000) is a white high-ceilinged room with a lofty, barred window that reveals hyper-real, theatrically lit sky -- Nelson Mandela's room with a view. Standing in the installation, it's easy to imagine the confinement is real and your only snippet of the outside world is presented as a luminous blue square, its cropped perfection numbed by metal bars. (I then began to formulate imaginary escape plans, but I doubt that was Gober's point.)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres is giving away pieces of sky. Black-and-white, 30- by 40-inch prints of a gorgeous cloud-filled sky are stacked up for the taking. The pile of copies looks like a slab sliced from the firmament. (Through repeat visits, I hope to abscond with enough to wallpaper my bathroom.) Thomas Ruff's photo of the night sky is a large rectangle of infinite blackness pierced by the points of stars, a doorway to the universe. The glass protecting the photo reflects the viewer's image back at him, intermingling him with celestial spectacle.
Continuing in the aerial genre, Robert Wilson's sculpture Blue Geese (1994) shows three taxidermied birds suspended from the ceiling, frozen in midflight. They make elegant silhouettes, if you can get over the mental image of Wilson dunking dead birds into vats of blue dye.
Nature makes a strong showing in the palpable mistiness of Lynn Davis's black-and-white photograph Iceberg #5, Disko Bay, Greenland (1988). The sensuous ice forms emerge from the dark, velvety ripples of the water. It's an impermanent object that feels eternal. Also chilling is Snowhead (1992). Helen Altman crafted a snowman head from actual snow and forever entombed it in a petite vintage freezer. The viewer peers through a window on the top of the freezer to see the spherical head with its decrepit carrot nose, held in stasis. The effect is a mixture of comedy and tragedy laced with the morbid fascination of Lenin's tomb.
Other works operate by sensory saturation. A canvas by Donald Moffett has a virtual pelt of paint. Slender dollops of black oil paint create a dense, light-absorbing fur of pigment over the painting's surface. Created in 2001, the work still emits the pungent smell of oil paint. There is no way all that paint is dry yet, but you really want to pet it. James Turrell's signature luminosity emanates from Zarkov (1998), a TV screen-shaped opening in the wall. Pure and intense blue-tinged light shifts from green to turquoise to lavender, vibrating on the white wall like a tangible form. It's as if the light from your television has been put to a higher purpose. FYI: Sticking your head through the hole in the wall spoils the illusion.
Some works alter the museum's walls directly. Charles Ray's Rotating Circle (1988) looks like a circle incised into the Sheetrock until you realize that it's a separate entity, slowly rotating. Anish Kapoor's The Healing of St. Thomas (1989) is another plasterboard incision, but this time it appears as a gaping wound. The splayed slit exposes a chalky red color, triggering associations with the blood, meat and viscera encased by our own easily rent flesh. The wall suddenly feels like a living entity.
The transience of life is the focus of Katharina Fritsch's porcelain skull. Translated as "Skull," the title, Totenkopf, literally means "dead head." In German, the word connotes a skull and crossbones. What we are viewing is a facsimile of a fragment from our own carcass. The skull is the most powerful skeletal remnant; it is the container of the matter that defines us. A femur simply wouldn't have the same effect.
The people in Bill Viola's video seem pretty close to dead, but they're actually moving in hyperslow (or is that hyposlow?) motion. A diptych of flat screen monitors presents images of a middle-aged man and woman. In glacially slow motion, their faces transform through a range of emotions. The couple seems frozen in another dimension; ordinary expressions acquire gravitas in the slowed time. We focus on the incredible mutability of the human countenance as the subjects gradually move from anger to fear, from laughter to sorrow.
In this show (as in almost any discussion of transcendence), a work succeeds when the viewer's reaction is felt rather than thought. Depending on your disposition, you can ascribe your response to anything from physioneural phenomena to the supernatural. But what's most fascinating is the power of an artwork to affect you -- whether you want it to or not.
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