Guardians of Houston: Jorge Marín's "Wings of the City" Are Breathtaking in Their Humanity

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A winged angel holds a dying woman. Though her eyes are closed, she is still alive, as in desperation one arm clings tightly to the angel. His expression is a complex mixture of sadness at her anguish and perhaps of resignation as to the inevitability of death, while showing his concentration on the comfort that his arms can offer.

The wings are magnificent in their detailing, yet he chooses not to fly but to offer what solace he can. And we sense that he knows that it is not enough. It is a heart-breaking metaphor for the human condition.

While abstract art can inspire or intrigue or awe or terrify or delight, it usually cannot involve a viewer deeply in its emotional power or create a sense of identification or of unity with the art.

Such is not the case with the works of Jorge Marín, whose "Wings of the City" installation at Discovery Green has nine sculptures scattered throughout its premises. Some of the sculptures are powerful, some playful, some enigmatic, but all are filled with a love for and an appreciation of humanity that is breathtaking and admirable. Though they represent a higher order of being -- most are winged -- they have retained their humanity.

I found most moving Abrazo Monumental (abrazo is Spanish for "embrace"), the pietà-like sculpture of the angel and woman. Abrazo Monumental is one of six warrior sculptures, the most powerful of these being Archi-valdo, at the northwest corner of Discovery Green. The figure here is the most heavily muscled, squatting on a globe in the position favored by gargoyles. His hands and feet are placed together on the globe, thickly veined. He is an example of manhood at its finest. He wears a mask, and I took him to be the leader of the band of angels, serving here as a sentinel ready to warn the city if danger approached.

I felt safer for his presence, as it is clear that these winged figures are benevolent and on our side, not the angel Lucifer fallen from Heaven. Angel Perselidas is also winged, with a skullcap and a hawk mask. He stands perched on a globe, perhaps resting from a long and arduous journey. Both hands here seem relaxed, at ease. I sensed that he, too, was a sentinel, but off duty at the moment.

Another sculpture, El Tiempo, shows a wounded soldier, his face intact but his head shattered and missing. His arms are severed as well, yet he remains watchful and alert, resolute, courageous, kept alive by his dedication and his need to protect the city. The sculpture is beautiful and heartrending. Though only a fraction of him survives, his wings are intact, so we do know he's a winged warrior. It is clear that we are eternally indebted for his patient suffering and owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Bernardo Oriental Monumental is enigmatic. The strong figure here is winged, with the hawk mask, and is wearing a World War I aviator's helmet, as though he were the pilot on a monoplane. His hands are placed behind his back, in the position they would be in if someone were to bind them. There is mystery aplenty here -- has he been captured, or is he perhaps just waiting patiently for his flight plans? We hope for the latter.

And the sixth warrior sculpture? It is of you. Titled Alas de Mexico, it consists simply of two large wings mounted on a pedestal, up three steps. There is an open space between the wings where a visitor can stand and make the wings his own. This is encouraged, as is the taking of photographs of yourself as a winged creature. I termed it a "warrior sculpture" because of the wings, but it is playful indeed, and early on a Saturday evening, it was very active, with visitors waiting their turns at eternity.

Some visitors were solitary, some carried infants, some held their pet dogs and some whole families were photographed sequentially, one at a time. All the participants looked wonderful, transfigured by their giant wings. I asked a stranger to photograph me, and he did; he never sent the photo, but I will return to recapture and record my visit. I hope that by then some local entrepreneur is vending or renting hawk masks, so I can complete the impersonation.

There are three sculptures that are not winged: Split Monumental, Equilibrista 90 Monumental and Hombre Universal Monumental. Split Monumental has a gymnast with a hawk mask and short hair, balancing on his hands on a globe. It is playful yet mysterious. A viewer senses that the strength of the gymnast would permit him to hold the position for an extended time, and that he then would revert to another such graceful demonstration of strength and balance.

Equilibrista 90 Monumental is much the same, a masked gymnast supporting himself with his hands on a globe, this time with his legs stretched straight out in an elegant line. The sinews of his strength are apparent. It may be that these are scouts, keeping themselves fit for the coming battle to save the city.

The third wingless sculpture, Hombre Universal Monumental, is a special case, as the genitalia of the male figure, not exposed in the other eight sculptures, are shown here, and the placement and appropriateness of this work have been questioned by some. It's near the splash pond on the northern side, where children go, and this has evoked special criticism.

Children, of course, go everywhere in the park. The sculptures are usually placed at or near corners of the park, facing passing pedestrians and automotive traffic. Hombre Universal Monumental needs to be seen against the sky, since it is an open sculpture, and would lose much of its power with trees as background; being placed by the pond permits this. One sculpture, El Tiempo, is located on a grassy knoll, but placing Hombre Universal Monumental there, while it would have provided the sky, would have made it even more visible, even pre-eminent. In my view, its placement by the pond is appropriate, even judicious and necessary, for the work to be appreciated.

The work shows a man standing on a large open ring of metal and holding onto it at its top with outstretched arm. Within the circular ring is another circle, smaller, and within that a third even smaller, but none touching the figure. The rings suggest to me scientific exploration at work, as in the search for the atom, and also suggest the delicate balance of this universe, or at least of this planet, with human beings possibly slated to follow the dinosaurs into extinction.

The sculpture is not of course animated, but the impression lingers that the rings will spin, perhaps when dusk settles in, and a journey of exploration will begin. Though not winged, the figure does wear the hawk's mask, suggesting responsibility -- perhaps he, too, is a scout for the winged warriors.

The work is clearly an homage to and an echo of Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of the Vitruvian Man, probably the best-known drawing in the history of art, which shows a man with arms outstretched, within a circle. This man is naked as well, and the tribute to da Vinci would have been spoiled if Marín had elected to conceal the genitalia.

Perhaps Marín's winged angels do exist, in an alternate universe. Humans can perceive only four dimensions, three of space and the fourth of time. While some scientists disagree (no surprise there), many others have come to believe that there are ten dimensions. The angels may represent an alter ego, a better person who walks invisibly by our side, and whom we have the capacity to become at any given moment -- should we care to.

In any case, I feel safer with these bronze creatures guarding our city. And I feel enriched by having been able to spend some time with them. You will as well, if you can visit their temporary habitat before they fly away to save another city.

But why not keep two of the Winged Warriors in Houston? Of the guardians, two are not wearing masks: El Tiempo, whose guardian is wounded, and Abrazo Monumental, whose guardian is comforting a dying woman. The sculptures are multiples, available in limited editions. If generous donors were found, it might be possible to keep these two in Houston and have new ones shipped from Jorge Marín's atelier to join the traveling exhibition. El Tiempo is priced at $91,000 and Abrazo Monumental at $71,000, and they're available through the Meyer East Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with additional costs for shipping and customs. Art patrons, think about it.

"Jorge Marín: Wings of the City" Through February 8, 2015. Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney, LaBranch at Lamar, daily 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., 713-400-7336, discovery green.com.

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