“MicroCosmos” at the Menil Presents a Much-Appreciated Cold Temptation

Sculpture doesn’t have to be monumental in size to be stunning.
Sculpture doesn’t have to be monumental in size to be stunning.
Walrus effigy, The Edmund Carpenter Collection. David He.

It’s been a long, hot summer in Houston and any hint that there’s a place you could legitimately call the frozen North is welcome. By now Arctic has a lovely, icy ring. So hurray for the exhibition “MicroCosmos: Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art,” which opened at The Menil Collection last week. It takes our minds off the heat in more ways than one.

Where art exhibitions are concerned, you don’t often get a do-over. Sometimes, if you’re a real exhibition groupie, you might catch the same travelling show in two or even three venues. But once a show is over and disbursed, it’s usually gone for good unless there’s a catalog (thank goodness for catalogs, pale reflections of the originals that they may be).

So when there’s a show that you remember as a real stunner — one you didn’t pay nearly enough attention to when you could have — a neglect that you’ve regretted ever since — what a miracle it is when you have the chance at a second look, even if only a partial one. That’s where I find myself with regard to “MicroCosmos.”

Many of the objects in the show were in another one just four years ago, also at The Menil Collection, called “Upside Down: Arctic Realities.” That one was a summer show, too: I think they know what they’re doing with the cold temptation thing.

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“Upside Down” was art-exhibition theater of the first order. It was an experience as much as an exhibition. In fact, the installation, commissioned by Edmund Carpenter (the same Carpenter whose collection is now on show), who invited Douglas Wheeler to create a light and space environment specifically for it, and French sound artist Philippe Le Goff to compose a soundscape, almost overwhelmed the objects.

It was an Arctic immersion: whiteness to the point of snow blindness (you even had to put on booties to go in so that you wouldn’t scuff the white floors); a physical renovation of the gallery to make curves where walls met ceiling and floor, erasing a sense of horizon; lighting that replicated the harsh glare of what is to us an unnatural Arctic sun; sound recordings of wind and cracking ice and indigenous creatures. It gave us, as nearly as was possible, the mind-set and feel of the vast Arctic ice flows from which the objects came. I suspect they even turned down the air conditioning to Arctic levels, since I distinctly remember freezing as I saw it, but that may have been only an illusion fostered by all the rest.

So maybe it’s understandable that “Upside Down” is one of the shows I remember most vividly, from among all the art exhibitions I’ve ever seen, though I can’t recall a single object in it. How nice of them, then, to bring back even this scaled-down version of the show so I can have that second chance.

They didn’t do it just to please me, however (though it does). And it might seem curious that a major museum like the Menil would so soon do a show so similar to one they’ve done before. The occasion for the current exhibition is the recent transfer of the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art to Houston, to be housed at Menil.

Edmund Carpenter (1922-2011), an anthropologist and a leading scholar of Eskimo art, was also the husband of Adelaide de Menil, daughter of Menil Collection founders John and Dominique de Menil. Over the years, he contributed significantly to the presentation at the Menil of art from the Pacific Northwest Coast and the Pacific Islands, as well as the installation “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision” in the Surrealist galleries. The inspiration he provided was essential to the brilliant success of “Upside Down: Arctic Realities,” which he lived to see, though he died at the age of 88 while the show was still in the galleries.

“MicroCosmos” is not quite as dramatic as the earlier show (though you do enter the gallery through a black-curtained door), so the objects themselves stand a better chance to impress. This one focuses specifically on the Bering Sea area. There are scores of objects, mostly carved in walrus ivory with a few in wood (wood is a material far less likely to survive in the harsh environment). They are almost all small — the smallest, an ivory carving of two figures ridding piggyback, is hardly a quarter inch tall. Unlike the Pacific Northwest with its totem poles, the Bering Sea was not a place for monumental sculpture.

Half the items are utilitarian: harpoon components used by men to hunt sea mammals, and scrapers and other implements used by women to process the kill for food, clothing and shelter — whatever the group needed to survive. Others are probably fetish objects used in worship of some sort or rituals surrounding birth and other mysteries of life. And some seem to be game pieces used for games that have been played for millennia.
I use the hedge words “probably” and “seem to” because we can’t know for sure what significance many of these objects had to those who made them. Specialists, like Edmund Carpenter, can give their considered opinions. Which may be interesting and provocative — and will likely change with the next wave of considering specialists.

This is art made by people whose experience of, and understanding of, the world and their place in it was so completely divorced from our own that it hardly makes sense for any but cultural anthropologists (and maybe not even for them) to speculate about what the art meant to its makers. That’s true, of course, for all art not made by people almost like us, but the degrees grow ever greater through time, geography and technological refinement.

But the objects are not just objects. They’re the enduring evidence of lives not seen (at least not by us), but lives as significant to the real people who lived them as ours are to us. Ultimately, as is the case with all the art we look at, we’re left to ourselves, to our own eyes and our own connection with the souls of the objects, and through them, perhaps, with some personal connection to their makers. In that regard, “MicroCosmos” continues the theme of that other exhibition down the corridor, “Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences,” about which I wrote a few weeks ago.

For the Eskimos, according to Carpenter, “art” is a verb, not a noun, but a verb without an actual word in the language. Every man is expected to be a competent carver, which is to say a competent releaser of the form that already exists within the chosen medium. The art is in the making. The thing made, once made, is irrelevant and is often thrown away. It’s a fetish of our culture, not theirs, that places these objects in a museum.

But for us, thankfully, they are in a museum. Because they’re very beautiful. Though they’re utilitarian, whether for use in hunting, domestic work or ritual, their makers have made them with delicacy and decorated them with striking detail. The body of a seal emerges from the expanding rings of a chunk of weathered wood and then falls away as the carver finds and releases the creature in the lump. A thousand-year-old polar bear in walrus ivory is as sleek and spare as anything Brâncu?i made. A seal’s head is so subtly carved that the eyes and ears and nostrils look almost like flaws in the ivory — until, after a few moments of looking, they resolve into an animal so closely observed that it has the spark of life.

The opening of “MicroCosmos” emphasizes what a huge proportion of the gallery space at the Menil is given over to what was once called primitive art, now perhaps more properly called indigenous, or even just non-Eurocentric. It starts right at the beginning, where the massive white wall across from the Sul Ross Street entrance is completely filled by a stunning display of African masks. That wall has never looked more spectacular, and its prominence makes unavoidable an interaction with the non-Western art that’s always been part of the collection.

It also reminds us that we’ve got a little corner of Paris here in Houston, with our own mini-Quai Branly Museum and mini-Pompidou in a single building — another benefit of the decision of John and Dominique de Menil, whose art sensibilities were formed by the mid-century Parisian museum aesthetic, to make Houston their home, and to make sharing their excitement about the importance of art from all times and places one of their main missions and legacies. How nice that the next generation continues that family tradition by letting the Carpenter Collection live here in Houston, at least for now.

“MicroCosmos: Details from the -Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art”
Through February 21, 2016. The Menil Collection,?1515 Sul Ross, 713- 525-9400, menil.org.

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