The 5 Houston Museum Exhibits You Must See Before Labor Day, 2016

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The new arts season is quickly on its way but before the summer exhibits close there are several “must-see” shows. The exhibits focus on contemporary art (true, the Houston Museum of Natural Science's "Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas" covers the religious icon over the last several hundred years, but it's fair to say she's a prominent figure in today's pop culture) and range in tone from reverential to provocative. We love them all. 

Prices range from fan-friendly free (thank you Contemporary Arts Museum Houston!) to a pricey $35 for special admission (before you bash the Houston Museum of Natural Science, remember the "Virgen de Guadalupe" exhibit chronicles more than eight centuries of history and the apparition of the mother of Jesus). 

Do yourself a favor and avoid the dreaded "I wanted to see that!" head slap in September and catch these five shows before they close. 

By the way, these shows are listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

"Mark Flood: Gratest Hits" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston 

Rice University graduate and Houston resident Mark Flood will tell you he's  one of the “least important artists of the 20th century.” Curators at the  Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston where his "Gratest Hits" exhibit is currently on display through August 7, call him "one of the most successful working artists today." That apparent disconnect reflects Flood's attitude toward the meaning of success in the contemporary art scene. We're pretty sure Flood doesn't mind the financial aspect of his success as an artist; it's the effect on the art work that the often insane fame that accompanies such a high-profile career that he finds objectionable. 

Bill Arning, CAMH Director and organizing curator for "Gratest Hits" calls the exhibit "a visual roller coaster ride," which includes "many moments of extreme visual beauty, cheek by jowl with crude humor and aggressive, roughly-rendered texts." It's the first ever museum survey of Flood's work. 

One landmark piece in the exhibit is Flood's Eat Human Flesh painting. In the late 1980s, Flood was working on provocative pseudo-advertisements that were meant to cause discomfort in the viewers. One painting read "EAT HUMAN FLESH" and featured the face of a smiling boy. Flood gave the work to a musician friend and it ended up hanging over the sofa of some punk rock fans/suspected drug dealers. It happened that these particular fans/dealers were being watched by authorities. The place was eventually raided by officials and the image ended up on the local news, supposedly evidence of the fans/dealers dark doings. Bam, Eat Human Flesh was instantly famous.  Unfortunately, the painting was lost while in police custody and has never been seen since. (Flood has since made multiple copies including the one seen in "Gratest Hits.") 

As is the norm for CAMH, the exhibit has an interactive element. Viewers can vote for their favorite work by placing a large Like painting in front of it (see the image above).  Two of Flood's assistant's spray painted the word "like" on to some 5,000 pieces of canvas for the exhibit. Museum staff member Connie McAllister tells us response to the Like paintings has been enthusiastic.  People "are really getting into the interactive component of the exhibition," she says.

You can move a Like painting to anywhere in the museum, but don't try to leave with it. Flood has put guards on notice that Like paintings at previous shows were taken well beyond the exhibition space (translation: people stole them). 

There's only one event scheduled before the show closing on August 7. That's a mega-event on July 21 which includes a screening of Flood's film Art Fair Fever, a signing of the "Mark Flood: Gratest Hits" color catalogue that accompanies the show and a discussion with Bill Arning and Stephanie Mitchell, Executive Director at Lawndale Art Center. Get there early - the museum is expecting a large turnout. 

Avoid the Saturday and Sunday crowds and visit the exhibit on any weekday. Remember the museum has no designated parking lot so plan on circling the block a couple of times looking for street parking. (Most people find parking within a two to three block radius.) Admission is free but the museum will happily accept a donation at the door. 

Regular visiting hours for "Mark Flood: Gratest Hits" are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. Through August 7. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose. For information, call 713-284-8250 or visit camh.org. Free.

"Kusama: At the End of the Universe" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

There are few art exhibits that prompt marriage proposals but there's already been one such declaration of love this summer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's "Kusama: At the End of the Universe." (More on that in a minute.) We can thank Gary Tinterow, MFAH director, and Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of contemporary arts and special projects,  for the immersive exhibition. The two are big Yayoi Kusama fans and visited several of her installations to prepare for "At the End of the Universe." Tinterow and de Lima Greene are in good company as Kusama fans; TIME magazine named her to its 100 Most Influential People list for 2016.

The exhibit, open until September 18, follows in the immersion/interactive tradition of the museum's "Soto: The Houston Penetrable" in 2014 and "Shadow Monsters" in 2015. It features two of Kasama's signature infinity rooms. Golden lights fade in and out of darkness in Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (seen above).  Visitors stand in the room and watch as a seemingly endless void repeatedly transitions into an equally endless infinity and back again.

In Love Is Calling (seen below), soft form sculptures resembling tentacles seem to grow up from the ground and down from the ceiling.  Covered in polka dots, the sculptures change color making for constantly shifting glow around viewers.  

Kusama's two installations evoke a variety of responses from visitors. Viewers have been moved to tears by Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity  and one woman called Love is Calling  "the closest to the experience she had of deep sea diving that she had ever encountered on dry land," according to museum staff. 
There's a soundscape to Love is Calling, where the marriage proposal took place earlier this summer. Visitors hear Kusama recite her poem "Residing in the Castle of Shed Tears" in Japanese. 

Be sure to read the poem's translation which is available in English and Spanish. 

Accompanying "At the End of the Universe" is "Selections from the Museum’s Collection: Post-War Painting and Sculpture." The exhibit features works by New York and Paris based artists working from 1960 to 1990. Represented are Kusama contemporaries Andy Warhol,  Robert Rauschenberg, Sylvia Mangold, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella. The show is required viewing for Kusama fans. 

Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons are the best times to visit if you want to avoid the crowds. All tickets are timed. Miss your entry time and oops, you have to buy another ticket. No trades, exchanges or do-overs. Get a Fast Pass (for an extra $7) for quick entry to the exhibit.

Remember, tickets, including Fast Pass tickets, are selling out daily so buy in advance if you can. Tickets are available online and in person at the box office only; tickets are not available by phone.

"At the End of the Universe" tickets include admission to museum's collections and the exhibit "High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter."

Post a photo of yourself enjoying the exhibit on your social media accounts. Use the hashtag  #KusamaUniverse and you'll get a printout of your photo along with a chance to show up on the museum's online feed. 

Use the MFAH parking lot (two blocks east of the main building) for hassle-free parking or ride the METRO train to the Museum District station.

Regular visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit continues through September 18. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org.  $18 to $25. 

"La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas"

You don't have to be among the faithful to enjoy the Museum of Natural Science's "La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas,"  which runs through September 5. Yes, the exhibit focuses on the Catholic icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe believed to have appeared in Mexico in 1531, but rather than debating her validity as a religious figure the exhibit examines her importance to the Americas and the social and political environments that have surrounded her story. She's been a symbol of hope from the time of the Aztecs to today's low-riders. You've got to admit, that's longevity.  

The exhibit starts in 8th century Spain, moves through the Spanish conquest of the new world, picks up with Juan Diego, the Aztec peasant who saw the apparition, and ends with Pope John Paul II's canonization of  Juan Diego in 1986 2002. 

Highlights in the exhibit include an authorized copy of the Sacred Original Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (you'll have to go to Mexico City to see the original). There's also a page from the Nican Mopohua, a 16th century document detailing the story of the Virgin and her apparition to Juan Diego. It's written in the Aztec language. (The original Nican Mopohua is in the New York Public Library; what you'll see at the museum is the title page.)

There are lots of related artifacts, examples of the Virgin's image being used as everything from an expression of religious devotion to a political symbol, from a representation of Mexican nationalism to a pop culture icon. 

You're welcome to take a selfie in front of the image of the Virgin, but please note there's no flash photography inside the exhibit at all. Oh, and no selfie-sticks allowed in the museum so you'll have to make due with your arm.  

If you'll have kids with you during your visit, plan on stopping at the McDonald's inside the museum lobby. (We admit to eating quite a few Happy Meals there ourselves over the last few years.) If you're looking for a more grow-up situation, try Lucille’s (5512 La Branch, 713-568-2505) which is within walking distance. And if you're willing to drive, there are several more choices just minutes away from the museum. 

The museum's uber-popular summer camps are in session until August 12 so expect the already well-attended complex to be especially bustling. Until then, the best times to visit are mid-morning and mid-afternoon so as to avoid the drop-off and pick-up crowds. If you don't want to wait until the end of camp, Saturdays and Sundays are always good times to visit. 

The museum's parking lot provides covered parking (pay the $10 parking fee inside the museum at the ticket booth during your visit). There are also open-air parking lots surrounding the museum ("open-air" is a nice way of saying "in the freakin' hot blazing sun").

Tickets are timed. The museum is semi-flexible about visitors missing their entry time but because of the large number of visitors, it's not an all out free-for-all. If you miss your scheduled entry by less than an hour, you may have to wait until the next bunch of people gets in. Miss your scheduled entry by more than an hour and you might be redirected back to the box office. By the way, being late for timed entry is just flat-out rude. We suggest you be on time.

Regular visiting hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until August 21; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily after August 21. The "Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas" exhibit continues through September 5. The Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 713-639-4629 or visit www.hmns.org. $35. 

"H·O·P·E: Paintings by Samuel Bak” at the Holocaust Museum Houston

Samuel Bak had his first art exhibition at the age of nine. It was in 1942 and he was living inside one of the Jewish ghettos of what is now Lithuania under German occupation. The Nazis were committing unspeakable atrocities in the region, including mass murders (Bak's four grandparents and father were among hundreds killed in a nearby forest) but Bak, then as now, found the impulse to create irresistible.

Some 33 of his recent paintings are seen in "H-O-P-E: Paintings by Samuel Bak,"  on display at the Holocaust Museum Houston through September 11. Rather than grim depictions of the heartbreaking loss and pain Bak experienced first hand, the images seen in "H-O-P-E" are beautiful, dream-like paintings focused on elements of strength and perseverance.  

As the name implies, each of the paintings includes the letters h, o, p, e. Hidden among scenes of ruin, destruction and dehumanization,  the letters are sometimes fully formed and clear; sometimes fractured or partially hidden.  

Bak is now based in Massachusetts and is seen as a pioneer in art created in reaction to the Holocaust and one of the most important artists of his generation. 

You can see "H-O-P-E: Paintings by Samuel Bak" 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The Holocaust Museum Houston is open daily and the exhibit continues through September 11. Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline. For information, call  713-942-8000 or visit hmh.org. Regular museum admission is $12; admission is free every Thursday from 2 to 5 p.m.
 "Michael De Feo: Crosstown Traffic" at Rice University Art Gallery 

Closing out our list of must-see exhibits this summer is "Michael De Feo: Crosstown Traffic," which is on display until August 28.  Rice University Art Gallery commissioned the installation for its annual Summer Window series. The gallery is technically closed during the summer, but rather than leave its huge floor-to-ceiling windows completely empty, a "view-from-the-outside-only" work is installed every year. 

This year's "Crosstown Traffic" echoes De Feo images seen on New York City bus stop kiosks. He took fashion advertisements, added his own colorful elements and returned them to the kiosks. The altered images were so successful, De Feo has since hit the fashion world big time and created similar images for industry giants such as Neiman Marcus.  

Check out a short documentary about the making of "Michael De Feo: Crosstown Traffic" by Mark and Angela Walley of Walley Films online at the Rice University Art Gallery homepage

Regular viewing hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through August 28. 6100 Main. For information, call 713-348-6069 or visit ricegallery.org. Free.

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