Visual Arts

For Great Art, Head to the Houston Permitting Center -- Seriously

Some of the best artworks in Houston right now can't be found at a gallery or museum, but a government building.

When the city decided to turn an old rice warehouse at the end of Washington Avenue into its new Permitting Center, it also set aside money for new art works to adorn its walls. Mary Margaret Hansen won the commission, and recruited nearly a dozen other artists to help her fill the space. The end result makes for great art that pays homage to Houston's people, landscape, history and present, and has been winning over avid art and architecture fans alike since opening to the public this past fall.

Rarely can you describe an art show as an adventure, but the works scattered throughout the Houston Permitting Center's five floors make for a thrilling, sometimes frustrating, but totally rewarding experience. One of the most impressive works -- Dick Wray's four-story exterior elevator tower -- scales the entire building. Though you'll have to maintain some distance to appreciate it, as the black cutout needs to be seen from a distance to make out its subjects. Stand too close, and it's unintelligible.

Most of the works can be found on the first floor, most notably "Torrent" by Havel Ruck Projects. The high-energy sculpture is made of recycled materials, including street signs, indistinguishable metal scraps and even musical instruments. The piece, appropriately, sings. Also on the first floor is "Remnant Reverie," a hanging forest of hand-painted, burlap coffee bag chimes by Kaneem Smith. The artist even encourages you to touch them. Go up a couple of flights, and you'll find graffiti paintings by GONZO247 that depict the "information highway" and a sunset. They're giant, vibrant works that make the walls come alive.

And, of course, there's Hansen's work. One of her many "text walls" here, which use the white paint of hallways and waiting rooms as her canvas, is "Overheard." This one makes for great water cooler chatter; its text is comprised of real conversations the artist jotted down at the old permitting building, with such gems as "These are my choices?" and "I have lingering doubts" encased in plastic thought bubbles.

The fact that this piece is obstructed by chairs draws an immediate distinction between museums and galleries, where the sole focus is on art, and public buildings, which merely reserve some space for it. Other works don't fare well either, obstructed by columns, lit poorly by the whims of the changing sunlight, or hung on scuffed walls. Worse, some works, without any oversight, might not even be functioning. On a recent visit, a multi-screen installation by Serene Lin Bush that shows the live Houston sky and a real-time display by Metalab Studio that represents the activity of the building weren't turned on. Furthermore, there's no respectful quiet, as the center's employees chat with co-workers and visitors are constantly called by number, DMV-style, to be helped, nor a helpful map to show you where each piece is located. Of course, that's all part of the adventure -- a scavenger hunt of modern Houston art, made by some of the city's best artists working today.

The Houston Permitting Center is located at 1002 Washingon Ave. Open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 832-394-9000.