For those who have traveled to the memorials at Neuengamme and Buchenwald in Germany, and to Auschwitz (established by the Germans in Poland after they invaded that country at the start of World War II) , the magnitude of the atrocities weighs heavy on the heart. For one such pilgrim, Houston-born Michael Roque Collins, those memories have been channeled into works of art, on display now at the Holocaust Museum Houston in the exhibit “Sojourn in the Shadowlands.”
His large-scale oil on linen Post Symbolist landscapes portray both shadow and light, as if to demonstrate that the cleansing rays of the sun can break through just at the moment when all seems lost.
Moonstones at Midnight was inspired by the SS vegetable garden at the Buchenwald Memorial, with the sea of rocks basking in a lunar glow. In many of Collins’s paintings, his deviation from the figurative causes the viewer to rethink the subject matter, often perceiving something more dark and sinister. In this large-scale diptych, the stones take on the appearance of bleached skulls, turning the scene into something even more horrific than the deprivation of food for captives.
There are two riveting mixed media pieces in the show, both collaborative works with Hanz Molzberger. The first, entitled Broken Walls, is fashioned as an abstract fence or barricade that serves as a frame for a double-sided painting, and which contains seven shards of misshapen glass printed with photographs. The images reference rail scenes, such as the tracks ending at Buchenwald Memorial, as well as the tracks of the brick factory at Neuengamme Memorial. The European rail network was critical to the Nazi planners’ “Final Solution;” the coordinated effort involving German government state organizations and ministries that transported millions to extermination camps and killing sites by the fall of 1944.
Walking on Ashes was created separately by the two artists and then merged, with Collins creating a composite banner with images of thousands of shoes at its base – all that was left of many of the prisoners – with the upper segments of the banner devoted to burnt images containing abstract skeletal apparitions. The banner can be unfurled even more, depending on the height of the installation site; the reverse features the faded image of a rail line. At its base, Molzberger has created steel forms, arranged like an oversized campfire, but this time the kindling consists of rail ties. It is surrounded by flattened bronze fragments, representing the melted watches, jewelry and gold teeth of the victims, with a sound art component of flames to tie it all together.
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Other works in the exhibit include black and white photography painted with oil, which creates an effect of a distant, dreamy memory. Brick Oven, with its gradual transition from shadows to light, abstractly references the final doorway; while 20th Century Totems utilizes a blood red paint on this image of electrified fences. The Chute captures the site of the infirmary building at Buchenwald, where bodies were dropped prior to incineration; while Last Breathing’s mysterious lighting depicts the brick factory at Neuengamme.
The remainder of the large-scale oil paintings are beautiful to behold, in spite of the dark subject matter. From Jacobs Ladder lifting upward to heaven, to the burnt orange watchtower of Hunting Blind, to the symbols of loss in Three Ruins, the exhibit is an important reminder of both the evil and good that exist within humanity, especially with current groundswells of darkness in Darfur and the Middle East.
“Sojourn in the Shadowlands” continues through March 13, 2016, at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline, open Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m., 713-942-8000, hmh.org. Free to $12.