Art Fit for a Museum, or an Airport Terminal

"B.C." by Jonathan Leach
"B.C." by Jonathan Leach

Putting art in an airport is almost a defeatist goal -- people are too busy getting to someplace else to pause and reflect on an intricate painting or abstract sculpture right in front of them. But that doesn't mean Houston isn't going to try.

The Bayou City is joining the ranks of cities like Seattle and Chicago, which have large public art collections, through an effort currently under way to build such a collection for the city's two main airports. Through a partnership between the Houston Airport System, City of Houston, and Houston Arts Alliance, the city started curating a permanent collection of museum-quality photographs, paintings and sculpture by regional artists that can be rotated throughout Hobby Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport that go beyond political homages and the more prevalent airport images -- advertising.

The installation isn't happening until later this summer and into the fall, but the public can get a preview of some of the selected works in an exhibition currently up at the Alliance's gallery. The ten on display are hardly a majority of the collection, which consists of more than 30 commissioned and donated works so far. For starters, the gallery space won't fit them all, and some pieces just logistically didn't work -- they were either too big or too fragile or were being prepared for installation. But if this sample is any indication, there is a freshness to the works that go beyond the provincial, "easy" or obvious.

"Device" by Jeffrey Forster
"Device" by Jeffrey Forster

Katrina Moorhead's Map of Incomplete Listing of Uninhabited Islands of the World does deal with an obvious topic -- travel -- but there's a tongue-in-cheekiness to it, as she's marked uninhabited locations on a print of a map that's been beautifully detailed in watercolor. These are not places you're likely to be traveling to today, but it does suggest that there is still some uncharted territory out there to be explored. On the hometown front, Dixie Friend Gay's Bayou painting brings some requisite Houston pride with a highly detailed swamp scene, complete with a nearly camouflaged gator.

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Jonathan Leach adds some much-needed pop to the proceedings with two works -- B.C., a Plexiglas box painted with neon acrylic that's so straight and perfect, it looks like tape, and Mainline, a pink, geometric painting in acrylic and spray paint that depicts a hectic cityscape -- loud billboards and zigzagging lines. Randy Twaddle has another city snapshot with "Grid Your Lines," a fascinating composition depicting black, twisted power lines set against a light brown sky, made using ink and coffee stains.

On the sculpture side, the show features intimate, small works -- a curious choice for a space that will demand big to catch your attention. One, Jeffrey Forster's Device, is a strange little green industrial-looking relic that looks like it's been left to rust and corrode, though incredibly, it's made out of ceramic. If this doesn't catch a harried traveler's attention, nothing will.

One of the best works isn't even going to be shown in the city's airports. Texting Finger by Howard Sherman is a stand-in for a much larger work, The Healthy Skeptic, that was too large to display in the small gallery space. But it's a good representation of Sherman's heavily coded, abstract paintings.

It's a fun, diverse collection, but I do have one gripe. Sure, the point of this exercise is to bring pieces outside of their usual museum or gallery context. But given how difficult it likely will be for even frequent fliers to track down all the works once they're installed in the airports, it's a shame this exhibition doesn't include a greater number of the works selected, or, barring that, a digital or print guide of this exciting new collection handy for gallery-goers. It'll help make the collection seem as big, important and impressive as it really is.

"Layover: Houston Airport System Portable Art Collection Preview" at Alliance Gallery, 3201 Allen Parkway, runs now through August 24 with an artist's reception on August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. For more information, call 713-527-9330 or visit www.houstonartsalliance.com or http://www.fly2houston.com/AirportArt.


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