Houston, the local press delights in announcing, is positively blessed to be included in this summer’s James Turrell extravaganza also happening at LA’s LACMA and New York’s Guggenheim. It is a major boon to the growing strength of Houston’s art infrastructure to be named in the same breath as those museums, but I just wish that Houston’s Turrell show had been better executed.
The pieces themselves, all in the Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection, are magnificent and varied examples of Turrell’s work and rival the collection of light works on view at the LACMA’s Turrell retrospective. The MFAH’s exhibition of them, however, is embarrassingly lackluster.
Of course, I’m a little ruined for having seen the LACMA’s phenomenal Turrell retrospective earlier this summer. There, the museum has taken great care in the display of Turrell’s pieces: the moment you enter the exhibition hall, the lighting is very subdued and the walls have been arranged, labyrinth-like, to gently guide you through the show so that each piece emerges from the darkness like a revelation of light. The experience was like being in a glowing, sci-fi trance on another planet brimming with strange wonders. The LACMA never breaks the spell: the lighting is consistently dim and little information is divulged within the show about Turrell’s methods of construction. Each piece exists as a puzzle to be unraveled, with time and care, within the mind of the viewer.
Houston’s Turrell show is entirely lacking in the mystical quality that made the LACMA’s so compelling. The MFAH was not nearly as careful in its presentation choices and the exhibition, in fact, feels sloppy. The pieces are arranged, in seemingly no specific chronological or thematic order, in small antechambers built into the main exhibition hall, which, unpleasantly enough, faces a major construction area in the Museum’s Cullinan Hall. Granted there is no actual construction during exhibition hours, but emerging from each of Turrell’s subdued and minimal environments into a visual mess of scaffolding and plastic sheeting makes for a less than cohesive experience. Not only is the main hall a construction site, but it’s a relatively well-lit one to boot. The hall’s massive windows are only half-heartedly covered with thin curtains, allowing enough of the glaring Texas sun in to make the transitions between Turrell’s rooms jarring.
I am also disappointed in the MFAH’s patronizing labeling. Almost every entrance point includes an explanation of how the piece inside was constructed, diminishing the wonder and mystery of Turrell’s work before the viewer has even had the chance to experience it. Turrell’s Wedgework, a version of which was on view at the LACMA, is absolutely ruined by with its inconsiderate labeling. As the piece was installed at the LACMA, with a minimal label giving only title and date, it emerged from near total darkness as a glowing sci-fi set, seemingly continuing on and on forever into the blackness of the museum’s far reaches. I was, for a minute or two, absolutely unsure if the expansive environment in front of me actually existed or if it was a hallucination brought forth by Turrell’s mastery of light. The answer of course was both, but it was intensely thrilling and fun to observe my brain slowly piecing together what was actually happening in that room. The LACMA’s Wedgework was absolutely one of the most disorienting and original experiences I’ve ever had, in a museum or elsewhere.
The MFAH, in my mind, ruins its Wedgework by blatantly spelling out how the illusion is created at the entrance. Granted, I had already seen a similar piece not too long ago so my experience this time around was not as strong as someone seeing the technique for the first time, but giving explicit instructions for deconstructing the mystery is tantamount to sabotaging a first-time viewer’s experience of the piece.
I feel that the MFA missed its chance to be counted among the nation’s great art museums—this show should have been their moment to pull out all stops and put on a breathtaking show with the phenomenal array of Turrell’s work in its collection. Instead, the show will only be remembered (if at all outside of Houston) as the underwhelming dud of Turrell Fest 2013.