Masters of the Universe

Since relocating to Houston in January, the formerly Austin-based gallery Art Palace has been a cool, quirky addition to the Isabella Court Inman/CTRL Gallery block near Alabama and Main. Its two previous shows at the new location demonstrated a penchant for popular culture (particularly sci-fi) and a whimsical sense of humor. There's a lightness to Art Palace's approach that keeps it approachable.

Its current show, "Cosmos," is a joint exhibition of work by artists Emilie Halpern and Eric Zimmerman that once again joins pop culture with space imagery, but it also throws in an intellectual, philosophical element on the level of heady sci-novels like Stanisaw Lem's Solaris or Carl Sagan's Contact. Sagan is the author most represented here. His Pale Blue Dot features prominently in the show's one collaborative piece, You Are Here (Endlessly), in which both artists' voices are heard over dual Califone cassette players reading the book's first chapter, "You Are Here." The players are laid upon a circular "space blanket," a golden reflective material used in space missions. It echoes the UN greetings and whale songs emitted by the "golden record" aboard Voyagers 1 and 2.

Halpern contributes mostly photography to the exhibit, and it's a little hit-or-miss. There's a personal narrative at work in Halpern's photos, and without an awareness of it, some may seem simply banal. For example, her photo June 29, 2055 is an image of stars not unlike the ones taken at observatories. But it's actually a constructed image, part of a star map for the estimated date of Halpern's death. See, that bit of info helps.

Halpern's most striking photo is Feather Lips, a close-up black-and-white image of a female mouth with tiny yellow-and-­orange feathers fanned across the bottom lip. Though I've never seen it before, it already seems iconic. It screams "album cover." Another photo depicts Yoko Ono with two parakeets perched on her hand. Is Halpern making a pitch to the record industry?

Beyond a vaguely space-oriented thread, though, there isn't much to connect the content of Halpern's photos, which makes her contribution ultimately confusing. One mixed-media piece, an actual meteor fixed with magnets to a leaning pane of glass, is simple and clever. But I'm not sure what to make of Cosmos — 703 sheets of blank photocopy paper on a pedestal. I looked it up, and Sagan's book is only 384 pages.

Zimmerman delivers the brains and muscle in this show, and his hard work is evident. Four large-scale drawings square the room, each containing a play on the phrase "You Are Here" and juxtaposing three unrelated images. The detail is astonishing; they look, at first, like prints. The Velocity of the End (From Here to There) features the words "FROM HERE TO THERE" in forced perspective, along with a 1953 Studebaker at the Bonne­ville Salt Flats, the first atomic bomb crater in the New Mexico desert, and views of the night sky from the base of a tower. Zimmerman seems to be playing around with reference as a way to distill existence into insignificance. Sagan was fond of pointing out humanity's unimportance in relation to the universe.

In a curveball move, Zimmerman picks Clint Eastwood as the icon of his cosmos. There I Was (Nothing Is the Rule, Something the Exception) prominently features Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales with his signature squint, pistols in hand, cigarillo in teeth. Hovering next to him is Pieter Bruegel's Tower Of Babel, a clever riff on the modern towers depicted in the other three pieces. And, of course, after consideration, Zimmerman's nod to the Wild West isn't such a strange correlation to space exploration.

One of Zimmerman's most interesting works is a re-creation of typed transcription of words spoken onboard Apollo 11 (particularly the first words spoken on the Moon). Zimmerman drew the text freehand, and it's a somewhat obsessive piece. Though the work doesn't have the detailed imagery of the others on display, it's still easy to sense the concentration and dedication it took to complete. It's as if Zimmerman has created an alternative artifact for the real one, which is probably framed and displayed in a government building somewhere. Which one is more powerful?

A look at this show isn't complete without checking out Zimmerman's audio element titled After Rodchenko (Points in a Constellation). He's created a two-channel recording of various speeches and music relating to the cosmic theme. Many of the recordings are from the Voyager Golden Record. There's Carl Sagan reciting "You Are Here" in the right ear while the Apollo 11 lunar landing plays in the left. While listening, peruse Zimmerman's books documenting all the inspirational imagery that went into this body of work. The 35-minute recording ends with Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" heralding Harry S. Truman's announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima. Good, bad and ugly — it all adds up to something (and nothing) in Zimmerman's universe.

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Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze