Michael Crowder's "Retro-spectacle" Is Two Exhibitions In One

Curation is a funny thing. Where there was once a white, wide open space -- take the first floor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Caroline Weiss Law building, for example -- the addition or subtraction of a door, a color or a drawn curtain can alter a gallery space completely -- where there was once a great hall greeting visitors to MFAH's Law building, there is now a looming white wall, obscuring from (non-paying) viewers James Turrell's currently showing retrospective. Such is the current case at Wade Wilson Art, known for its blinding white walls and white open space.

Not for the next seven weeks.

Wade Wilson Art has recently opened "Retro-spectacle," a two-part, past and present exhibition by Houston-based artist Michael Crowder. The "Retro" is Crowder's retrospective: innocuous glass and crystal mixed media pieces hanging in the front part of the gallery, followed by the "spectacle," a fabulous three-dimensional installation in back. The two-in-one exhibition is separated by two white walls, drawn open by a dramatic "red velvet" curtain. What Crowder has done, essentially, is transform the once vacuous Wade Wilson into two rooms.

To the untrained eye, walking into the back of "Mariposa mori" is like walking into a Shakespearean book collection and Darwinian laboratory at the same time. In fact, Crowder's intention is to frame his pieces in a historical, 19th century museum setting -- hence, the transformation of Wade Wilson Art into a dark, cozy nook. Those deep burgundy curtains reveal a faux bookshelf, which is actually wallpaper pasted onto the walls -- another clever act of curation. In the center of the installation and on its walls are a "19th century collector's cabinet of curiosities," according to reception programs, containing hundreds of glass butterflies. The glass butterflies are par for the course for Crowder, who regularly uses "frail" objects such as chocolate and sugar for his mixed media artwork.

Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. Crowder explains his artwork a flyer from the opening reception:

"The butterflies are made in a method called pate de verre, which translates to 'paste of glass.' Itself a 19th century French creation, pate de verreis at its simplest melting glass particles together. The variation on this technique that I have developed is to use very small particles of glass roughly the size of grains of sugar and to heat them to a precisely controlled point where I can melt and fuse the particles together, but still allow them to retain an open crystalline surface texture. The effect is almost impossibly delicate and fragile looking, as a butterfly wing should be."

By framing a set of books and butterflies in and amongst dark burgundy curtains and mahogany cabinets, "Mariposa mori" arouses a mood of intelligence and luxury. The dark color scheme and the enclosed installation also invokes a mood similar to that of the butterflies before flight. Common knowledge explains that butterflies spend a portion of time in a cocoon before emerging. Likewise, by walking inside of "Mariposa mori," visitors immerse themselves in a cocoon filled with books and butterflies -- the latter, it is assumed, as inspiration. When they leave, they too are butterflies, only their wings are the intelligence they gleaned while soaking up those books.

Up close, the glass butterflies look frail, as if they could crumble and fall apart at any moment, giving the impression that even though they are aerial, they are not invincible. Crowder explains that the butterflies have been drained of their rainbow colors for a "ghostly" white. An adult butterfly lives approximately one month; we are all mortal.

It is very hard to define what's "Retro" about the pieces outside of the installation; like "Mariposa mori," they are also mixed media and made up of frail objects. "A Sense of History Reprise (Oval Painting)" and "A Sense of History Reprise 2 (Large Painting)" look like porcelain dinnerware, but are actually made from the same pate de verre used to create the butterflies. The use of pate de verre is found on other pieces as well, and the outside also makes use of the burgundy color theme; painting the walls in the dark red hue emphasizes the hanging pieces, which are done in hues of either ivory, burgundy or mahogany.

The dash connecting "Retro-spectacle" is more than mere decoration, then; it is a line that connects Crowder's past work to his present.

"Retro-spectacle" will be on view through October 25 at Wade Wilson Art in the 4411 Montrose Building. Visit wadewilsonart.com for more information.

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