Journey into Light

People who live in a car culture like Houston have a unique perspective on the world: They see it in passing. A quick glimpse and it's gone. The transitory nature of this experience raises questions about that world beyond the windshield. The most commonly posed query inside a moving vehicle has to be "Did you see that?" For the past month, that question likely has been asked countless times as motorists whizzed past two locations: the Whole Foods Market on Kirby Drive and the eastbound lanes of Memorial Drive near the Houston Police Officers Memorial. Two things may have captured your attention, no matter how briefly, at these sites: a momentary flickering in the headlights and a sign that explains the phenomenon as a work of art, Reflecting Tips, an outdoor installation by Sharon Louden.

The roadside installation (both locations are a single work) is part of "Shift," an exhibit organized and presented by DiverseWorks, featuring the New York-based Louden and Chicago artist Kathleen McCarthy. Reflecting Tips consists, in total, of about 2,500 wires, three to four feet high, painted white and topped with reflective tape. The wires are stuck in the ground and grouped together like clusters of flowers or reeds. By day, these funky groundlings look like refugees from a secondhand garden ornaments shop, as they humbly cling to their patch of dirt. After dark they awaken, flickering in the headlights of passing vehicles, gleaming briefly before retreating back into the darkness.

The companion piece to Reflecting Tips is Fairies (all works are 2001), located at DiverseWorks's main gallery. But before you can encounter Fairies, you have to walk past the truly enchanting works: Kathleen McCarthy's contributions to "Shift."

Entering DiverseWorks's warehouse space, you are greeted by Entry, ten paired columns, 18 inches in diameter and made of monofilament, that reach from floor to ceiling and span the length of the entryway gallery. Crisscrossing lights refract in the clear fishing line and create halos that rise on a diagonal across the columns, playing off their vertical movement. They become columns of shimmering light that expand the narrow gallery and open it up. Monumental and yet as light as, well, light, they provide a dramatic introduction for what follows.

In the main gallery, two ghostly monofilament suspension bridges arch across the width of the space, wall to wall. Extended Structure is also lit by spots, only more precisely, so that depending on where you stand, whole sections of the sculpture disappear into the ambient light. Shift your position, and those vanished sections swim back into sight as others disappear. As your eyes follow the struts supporting the arch up into the vault of the gallery's ceiling, you realize that the bridge and its struts are mimicking, not quite exactly, the ceiling and its supporting beams. If you hadn't thought about it before, you suddenly become aware of the tension (and the effort -- look at those little knots securing the struts to the arch!) required to hold this gossamer structure in place.

At the rear of the main gallery, behind a temporary wall, is Fairies. Thousands of dark curved wires are strewn through the space, resembling a large thicket; Louden ties this work into her outdoor piece by scattering the same reflecting tips throughout the bed of wires and placing them in two main groupings. Instead of car lights, three lamps, one at floor level and the other two a few feet higher, intermittently shine on the sculpture.

Despite its title, Fairies feels heavy and inert, particularly when compared to the radiance and light of McCarthy's work. It might work better if the room were darker. Or perhaps not. The tape is reflective, not luminescent, and it doesn't hold light in the darkness. When the lights are on, the reflective tape gets lost in the general glare. Either way, too light or too dark, the sculpture just doesn't convey the midsummer's night magic that seems to be Louden's intent.

Reflecting Tips has similar conceptual problems. Of the two roadside installations, the one on Memorial Drive works better. The piece is located on the convex side of a curve, so the headlights of an oncoming car strike the reflectors more directly, resulting in a quick, solid flash; at Whole Foods, they're not close enough to the road to register in a car's beams. What's more, for this work to be effective, at either site, you have to know the art is there. If you can see the sign (which basically says, "Watch Out for Art"), you aren't seeing the piece the way it's intended; if you see the work the way it's intended, you need prior knowledge that it's a work of art. Another inherent contradiction: If an artwork is to address the elusiveness of experience, the subtle shift from one moment to the next, it has to draw you into spending time with the idea, to consider the fugitive moment and to pose questions a bit deeper than "What the heck was that?"

By contrast, McCarthy's monofilament sculptures engage the mind by delighting the eye. You want to spend the time necessary to follow where these shimmering works lead you. The columns of light draw your attention, diagonally or vertically, up to the rafters, making you conscious of space you usually would ignore. And the bridge sculptures, shifting between tension and fragility, between the visible and the hidden, lead you to contemplate some of the more intangible aspects of reality.

On opening night, someone trying to take pictures of the bridges was overheard to say, somewhat wonderingly, "It's like the camera knows something's there, but it can't quite tell what it is." That's it exactly.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Devine