Sunday, June 7, 2009

Culture Club...Part 1

My Wife and I have tried to take in a bit more culture this year. After Seinfeld last week, ok, maybe not that cultural but it was in the theatre district, this weekend we visited the Museum district.

With the economy the way it is, people are looking for cheap alternatives for weekend activities and a quick google search gave us a few ideas for free things to do in Houston. In the first of an occasional feature, I bring you a review of the things we discovered.

First up, we selected The Menil Collection, a collection of art, and artifacts collected by John & Dominique De Menil.

The Menil Collection is actually a series of buildings all within a short walk from each other. The main building houses exhibits that include historical artifacts believed to originated anywhere up to 15,000 years ago, to more contemporary paintings and sculptures, via the surrealist movement.

There are both permanent and temporary exhibits so there will always be something new to see. Artists featured include Picasso, Andy Warhol, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Man Ray & Yves Tanguy.

A slightly disturbing temporary exhibit is "Measuring your own grave" by Marlene Dumas. While fairly interesting and provocative, it's probably not suitable for the faint of heart, or children.

Even the building itself is a work of art, designed so that all exhibits are lit up by natural light, shining through the specially designed roof.

We walked around the main building for about an hour and 15 minutes before moving on to our next stop.

The free standing Richmond Hall is home to the permanent Dan Flavin Installation. This former grocery store is now an open hall, 128 feet by 50 feet across, empty but for a series of coloured neon lights along the walls.

I must admit I found myself looking around asking "is this it?" when we first arrived. Surely there is something more than an entire building with just a few different coloured lights around it? It turns out there wasn't. I wouldn't recommend making a trip especially to this exhibit, but as it's just a couple of minutes walk from the others it may be worth a look in just to see what the fuss is about.

We were the only visitors to this exhibit and I think it was a bit optimistic for the gentleman on the door to suggest we come back.

Our third stop was the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. While not too interesting from the outside, this building houses a beautiful, though very small, glass chapel. There is also a intricate dome featuring Jesus surrounded by angels, and another featuring the Virgin Mary.

Our fourth and final stop was the Rothko Chapel, designed American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko and commissioned by Dominique De Menil. This is a strange little chapel as there are no religious monuments inside except for copies of the Bible, Qu'ran, Torah in the entrance.

The walls are adorned with large black or purple canvas and the pews are arranged in a circle so there is no single focal point.

The Rothko Chapel has featured talks by Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter and is a place designed for quiet contemplation.

All four buildings form The Menil Collection and are located in a quiet residential part of the museum district.

Entrance to all is free, although donations are invited. Even parking is free and accessible so this is well worth a visit no matter what your budget.

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