There's a joke the curator Walter Hopps once told about Hiram Butler Gallery that goes something like this (and I'm horribly paraphrasing): If there were three items in the gallery, are you afraid it would be too cluttered?
It's funny because the gallery has a penchant for sparse, minimalist shows that leave much of the white wall untouched. And its latest show lives up to those standards, with work that is equally minimal, too.
In his solo show, Houston artist and Glassell School of Art director Joseph Havel has just two pieces in the gallery's main room. The more prominent, and colorful, even in its monochromatism, is Hope and Desire, which also gives the show its name. It consists of ten Plexiglas boxes densely stuffed with carefully arranged shirt labels embroidered with the words "hope" and "desire." There are upwards of 30,000 of them to each box, with each box alternately consisting of shirt labels labeled "hope" and "desire." Thanks to the white edges of the labels, the labels form blue lines that run up and down, across and diagonally, like some Sol LeWitt line drawing done in fabric.
Havel has worked with shirt labels and Plexiglas boxes like this before, but the ten used here make it the largest of this scale yet. It's visually striking, too. The labels read like blue and white paint until you get up close to confront it and the illusion is gone. The messages in the labels are also mostly hidden, save for some that are revealed along the edges of the clear frame or are out of place in the line, like a happy accident.
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The second piece in the show is Architecture, a tower of cast resin that replicates the collected papers of Sigmund Freud. The stack consists of seven casts of the set of books, as well as the original model, now destroyed, making it 5'7" tall -- which by some lucky math is also the height of Freud himself.
The cast leaves the imprint of the books' volumes and author like a ghostly shadow, which is quite fitting, as it's meant to be referential. By using Freud, Havel is speaking to the influence of the thinker on Modernism. Hope and Desire is also said to be inspired by The Dream Songs by John Berryman, a work that expresses Freudian concepts. There's much art historical, cultural and personal information to read here, but even if it all doesn't come across, both works are still really satisfying formally to look at.
There are additional works in cast resin by Havel on display in the gallery's back room. These include the use of a Bible and a dictionary as models and are a bit messier, imbued with a sense of process -- sheets of resin, for instance, still jut out from the sculptures, itching to be shaved off. These works were rightfully kept out of the main room because they didn't quite jibe with the clean simplicity of the Architecture and Hope and Desire. It would have been, simply, too cluttered.
"Joseph Havel: Hope and Desire" at Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom Street, runs now through January 26, 2013. For more information, call 713-863-7097 or visit www.hirambutler.com.