Houston Founders at City Hall is a Showcase of Houston Art from the '20s to the '70s

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The vibrant Houston art scene didn't spring full-blown from the contemporary professional galleries, individual studios or garages of aspiring Bayou City artists, but instead built on the artists, some brilliant, who preceded them in the 20th century. Now Houstonians have a chance to savor some of these pioneers, in an extensive exhibition that primarily covers the time frame of 1920s through the late 1970s.

"Houston Founders at City Hall" is no ordinary exhibition, since it is hung at City Hall itself and is sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with William Reaves Fine Art. The exhibit addresses four distinct schools of painting: Impressionism, Modernism, African-American Realism and Abstract Expressionism. The art hangs in conference rooms and hallways throughout City Hall.

Houston Expressionism art is displayed in the Mayor's Large Conference Room, in the basement of City Hall. I especially liked a beach scene by Otis Huband, Celebrating Irrational Behavior, with intriguing juxtaposition of greens and blues, as well as Leila McConnell's The Poles of the Mountain.

Houston Modernism is showcased in the large conference room located on the fourth floor of City Hall. There are two paintings with the same title, Two Musicians, one by David Adickes, 1965, witty and amusing, with puppets, and another, by Herb Mears, 1956, with a female musician playing the flute while a male violinist waits for his cue to enter. Both are colorful and wonderful, and echo the unheard music.

The African-American exhibition has many striking sepia photographs, with two standouts. Barbara, 1964, by John Biggers, captures the face, and perhaps the soul as well, of a woman with haunting eyes that have seen the world, and seen it clearly, undefeated, but with a reserved sadness. Earlie Hudnall's photo titled The Wood Chopper, 1986, captures the essence of blue-collar existence, no matter the race: a straw hat, overalls, glasses and eyes expectant but with an experienced wariness. It is compelling.

And we have some paintings of the same scene but dramatically different: Bridge on Buffalo Bayou by William McKenna, 1936, uses watercolors to feature reflections in water, subtle browns and greens, all seen from the point of view of the water. E.M. "Buck" Schiwetz has a painting, Main Street Viaduct, 1932, that also records the same early architecture of Houston. Another bridge painting, Untitled (Bayou Bridge), an oil on canvas by Henri Gadbois, is soothing, quiet and peaceful.

Still-Life with Water Lilies by Ruth Uhler, oil on canvas, has classic grace and beauty, and a panel behind the potted lilies adds texture and interest.

Perhaps the most evocative of all is Twilight, by Paul Maxwell, a skyscape, cityscape and seascape set on the waterfront, with a sailing vessel in the right foreground. It is rich in detail, powerful in its scope, and captures quietly the invigorating energy and strength that have made Houston so successful -- and this was painted in 1957.

Bill Condon's Main Street, 1969, oil on canvas, 60"x50", is dominated by yellow, reflecting the nighttime glare of neon. It captures nostalgia for a boulevard changed forever, and demonstrates the bustling downtown commercial energy of a metropolis. It stands out as a portrait of the mood of a city.

Scrub Woman, 1976, a charcoal drawing by Adrienne Rison, echoes some of the strengths of the Mexican muralists, portraying a mature African-American woman hard at work at one of the more menial jobs, scrubbing away at a wooden floor. A moment in time, but powerful.

Mayor Annise Parker noted, "It is a special treat to see these wonderful works installed on the walls of City Hall. It is a statement about the richness, diversity and accomplishment of our city's art scene, and a tribute to these and the many other artists who have shared their time and talents with us here in Houston."

"Houston Founders" was facilitated by Minnette Boesel and Maricela Kruseman from the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, and organized by the staff of William Reaves Fine Art. Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University, and Danielle Burns, curator of collections for the Houston Public Library System, served as co-curators for the project.

Viewing the exhibit requires making a reservation, and takes more planning than is customary to visit a gallery, but the resulting pleasure is well worth the effort. Gather some art aficionado friends to form a group for a tour; they will be grateful.

Leaving City Hall through the underground tunnel, I was impressed by another painting, not part of the exhibition, this one contemporary -- Acceleration (60"x40") by Mars Woodhill, a vivid and exhilaratingly tempestuous work filled with explosive energy. I felt I was inundated by art, with art, art, art everywhere. It was a good feeling.

Houston Founders at City Hall
On display through October 1 at 901 Bagby, with a reception September 17 from 5 to 7:30 p.m., including a talk at 5:30 on Texas Modernism by Dr. Katie Edwards. Appointments for tours Monday through Thursday, from 5 to 6 p.m., may be made by contacting (at least a day in advance)Maricela Kruseman with the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs at 832-393-1099 or by email at maricela.kruseman@houstontx.gov.

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