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"In Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture 1996-2006"
2006-03-26 until 2006-06-18
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Houston, TX, USA

In Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture 1996-2006, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents the first major museum exhibition to focus on the Houston artist’s investigation of sculptural form and meaning. The exhibition, opening March 26, 2006, features 35 works that underscore Havel’s mastery of transforming the domestic and mundane into the poetic and timeless. Central to the installation is Fallen Reich, a site-specific intervention Havel will create to disrupt the openness of the curtain-lined upper galleries of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, which were designed by legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The exhibition will be on view in the Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street, through June 18.

The MFAH organized the exhibition with guest curator Peter Doroshenko, director of the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, Northern England, and former senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Alison de Lima Greene, curator of modern and contemporary art at the MFAH, is the Houston coordinator of this project.

Havel first came to Houston in 1991 to join the staff of the MFAH’s Glassell School of Art, where he has served as director since 1996. During the ten years surveyed in the exhibition, Havel’s sculptures and drawings have been exhibited extensively in Europe and in the United States, including at the Whitney Biennial 2000. One of his signature works from the decade is Curtain, two large bronze panels commissioned by the MFAH to frame the doorway to the Audrey Jones Beck Building, which opened in March 2000.

“Joseph Havel sees art in everyday items that most of us rarely give a second thought,” said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. “In his hands, shirts, bed sheets, and drapes mutate from the ordinary into something otherworldly. The museum is pleased to present this survey of Havel’s work at this juncture in his critically acclaimed career.”

Havel uses common materials in his art— white dress shirts, curtains, tablecloths—to reach out to a broader audience. He deftly addresses the technical and artistic challenge of translating limp fabric into flamboyant bronze sculptures and delicate constructions that quietly suggest movement. In a process that the artist has described as uncovering “the activity of still objects,” the meaning associated with the items is both amplified and changed, a psychological shift that challenges viewers to reassess what they know and what they feel.

he white dress shirt first appealed to Havel as medium through which he could address complex biological, historical, economical, and sociologic issues in his art. The shirts represented repression and the male middle-class masquerade, considerations to which he could personally relate. He began to buy shirts in quantities at thrift stores and used them to create such works as Spine (1996), a delicate, floating tower of buttoned-up white collars connected by monofilament. He also cast pairs of shirts in bronze, as in Laundered Pair (1996), in which the two garments are balanced, sleeves outstretched, in a kind of bodiless acrobatic pose.

Through his work with shirts, Havel found the labels offered another avenue of artistic investigation, one also laden with multiple associations. He used the labels to construct modernist grids that reference color field painting. The first small composition, Fleece (1997), made from labels cut from used shirts evolved into large-scale wall and floor pieces constructed of labels Havel had printed with words of his choosing: “Lust,” “Lost,” “Present,” and “Enough.”

The label pieces were in some ways a transition from Havel’s shirt sculptures to his curtain sculptures. When the meaning carried in the shirts started to seem too overtly political, Havel began looking for a medium in which he could address “less easily defined social and gender issues.” Drapes allowed him the freedom to work more abstractly, and he found their reference to Western European paintings appealing. Curtains and Drape (both 1999), two freestanding bronze sculptures included in the exhibition, were shown at the Whitney Biennial 2000.

Fallen Reich and another work conceived for the exhibition, Torn and Twisted Curtain, respond specifically to the 20-foot sheer curtains that shroud the wall of windows in the Mies van der Rohe galleries of the Law Building. Torn and Twisted Curtain began as a pair of silk curtains that through manipulation and direct casting became a 16-foot bronze composition balanced on a knotted foot. With Fallen Reich, Havel imagined what would happen if a steel curtain rail fell and crashed 50 feet into the gallery, yards of fabric spilling onto the floor.

“Joseph Havel has investigated both the breadth of minimalist practice and the associative power of the object, delving into the concept of passage and drawing upon the history of art, literary conceits, and the mundane stuff of everyday life,” said the MFAH’s Alison de Lima Greene. “The exhibition galleries are arranged to encourage our visitors to have a series of encounters with Havel’s work. At once humbled and exuberant, his sculptures have a theatrical resonance unique in sculpture today.”

A Minneapolis native, Havel has a BFA in Studio Arts from the University of Minnesota and an MFA from Penn State University. His sculptures and drawings have been exhibited extensively including recent exhibitions at Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie in Paris, Dietch Projects in New York, the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Kiev, the Huntington Beach Art Center in California, and Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston. He has received numerous awards including a national Endowment for the Arts Artist Fellowship in 1987, a Tiffany Fellowship in 1995, and a 1998 Purchase Award from the French Ministry of Culture. His work is included in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu.

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