The shirt labels in Fleece work well together.
The shirt labels in Fleece work well together.
Courtesy of the artist and Dunn and Brown Contempo

Curtain Call

The first time I saw "Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture 1996-2006" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I'd wandered into the middle of a dance performance. Havel's bronze sculptures were fenced by black stanchions, and a modern dance troupe was emoting around them in an event co-sponsored by KUHF. Admittedly, I saw only the last two performances, but let me just say, if Saturday Night Live were to spoof modern dance, it would look like that. And the performance was deadly serious, without a hint of irony. There was a lot of artistic walking around combined with pointlessly affected movements. Modern dance really has to be amazing or it just looks ridiculous. Mark Morris would have bitch-slapped the whole lot of them.

Things turned ugly with the costume changes. The scrawny male dancers, one with eyebrows plucked far more finely than mine could ever be, were clad in pale lavender bike shorts. They disappeared behind an exhibition wall and came back wearing flesh-colored jock straps under sheer white pants. I'm not fucking kidding. Look, I've taught life drawing, which means I've seen a whole lot of people naked that nobody wants to see naked. I've got a strong stomach. But when the grand finale came, the dancers bowed deeply to the crowd to my left and then turned and bowed to the five people opposite me, thereby mooning me and the 20-odd people standing next to me -- and eliciting a collective wince.

Several hours later I became violently ill and wound up spending three days in the hospital. Sure, the doctor said it was food poisoning, but I'm not so certain...


"Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture 1996-2006"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

Through June 18.

Admittedly, it was a bad introduction to Havel's show. After I was released from the hospital, I made a point of going back. The exhibition is beautifully installed, taking full advantage of the sweeping expanse of the entire second floor of the Mies van der Rohe-designed space of the Caroline Wiess Law Building. With tonal ranges from dark gray to chalky white to pale lavender, Havel's sculptures come together to create a lovely, airy environment.

Havel is probably best known for the sculptures he makes by casting drapery in bronze. He usually gives them a frosty white patina, making their weightiness seem delicate. (He did the curtains on either side of the entrance to the Audrey Jones Beck Building.)

The drapery pieces are some of the strongest in the exhibition; perhaps the most striking is a site-specific work Havel did for the show. For Fallen Reich (2005-6), Havel took the sheer white curtains that run along the window walls of the Law building's second level and extended them out into the space. The curtain rod spirals out into the gallery, and the curtains become longer, ending in an elegant, diaphanous pool of fabric.

It's a really great piece, but it does highlight some of the shortcomings of Havel's bronze curtains. As you look through the gallery, you notice the repetitive verticality of the drapery pieces. They all seem to have been hung the same columnar way and feel lank. I started wishing for more adventurous approaches to draping and arranging the material. Admittedly, there are technical -- and financial -- constraints to what can be done with bronze casting, but artists like Bernini pulled off elaborate bronze drapery in the 17th century. While Havel doesn't have a pope as patron and understandably may not have baroque tendencies, his formal approach still could be more varied.

The issue of repetitive verticality arises in another series, in which dress shirts are twisted into columns or strung together arm to arm, then cast in bronze. Taken together, all these works seem formulaic. And while the shirts themselves are an interesting idea, trying to tie them into the rest of Havel's work becomes problematic. They share a fabric constant with the drapery, but they have other conceptual connotations that don't jibe with the formal simplicity of the drapes. They stand in for people, symbolizing "white collar" males and the conformity and constrictions of the collar itself, but Havel's use of them doesn't really address those connotations.

From the shirts, Havel went on to collars and shirt labels. In a tiny work, Fleece (1997), he stitched together a variety of collected shirt labels into a loose, sagging grid, leaving the needles dangling below. All those brand names collected from secondhand shirts work well together, like an accumulation of individuals. But in later works, Havel goes on to commission his own labels with his name at the top like a manufacturer's, and words like "desire" or "bruised" embroidered below. The custom labels are a tangent, and the words pretentious and artily enigmatic.

Havel seems to be aiming for a grand statement. It just doesn't work. His art is really about formal issues, but he seems to feel that isn't enough, which is why he tries to throw in other references. He's director of the MFAH's Core program, and maybe daily contact with young hipster artists makes him feel that he needs more than a formal approach to be current. (Of course, his employment by the very institution that's giving him the largest exhibit, area-wise, ever accorded a Houston artist is another issue in itself. It's one no doubt discussed by other Houston artists with equal or better rsums.)

I believe artists have to play to their strengths. Havel has a knack for form and space; he works well with his subtle ranges of color. Aren't those talents enough to make art from? But adding in another layer of complications, he references other artists in many of the sculptures, among them Josef Albers and Richard Serra. And in Bruised (2004), boxes of Havel's "bruised" custom shirt labels are laid on the floor in a grid in reference to minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. The lavender tones are nice, but what do custom-embroidered shirt labels have to do with Carl Andre?

Why all these art references? They just don't have anything to do with the work -- except in the most circuitous way. Havel should stop trying to make his art more complicated than it needs to be. There is no sense of conviction in the choices he's making. A lot of artists today seem to feel that working solely from formal issues simply isn't enough. That is ridiculous.

Because of his close working relationship with the MFAH, Havel was able to orchestrate the installation of his show. He did a marvelous job, and it is really a piece of art in itself. It's another of Havel's strengths -- and those should be the focus of his work.


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