MARSHLAND depicts the diversity of Houston
Street artist Gaia has transformed the walls of Rice Gallery's installation space into a patchwork of Houston culture with a structural allusion to Rice University at its center in his new installation MARSHLAND, which opened Sept. 26.
Three walls of the gallery space are painted with layered images meant to symbolize different parts of Houston culture. Both sides of the mural are flanked with portraits of George R. Brown, influential Houston architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and Rice architect Ralph Adams Cram, all historical figures who shaped the Houston landscape. The left side of the mural is overlayed with the depiction of a traditional white marble sculpture which then merges into the modern city skyline, representing the intersection of the old and the new within the city.
The cityscape, which was painted using a series of projections, dominates the back wall of the gallery and is a colorful overlay of downtown skyscrapers that wonderfully evokes the complexity of urban development but still only depicts the most prevalent and interesting buildings. Downtown then evolves into longhorns at the back right corner of the space. According to Gaia, these cows represent the herd mentality common in big cities, both among big-business investors and among the general population.
These cattle morph into a medley of signs from different neighborhoods in Houston which offer just a glimpse into the cultural and ethnic diversity of Houston.
"[In this corner,] there's this representation of Houston and the embracing to the new [along with] the grassroots, bottom-up energy and invigoration of the diverse populations that have come to meet [opportunity in Houston]," Gaia said. "All of this comes together with these signs from all over Houston and Bellaire."
This concept of the Houston melting pot is furthered by the flock of migratory birds that come next in the mural; they reference the large populations of immigrants that have established their homes in Houston as well as the large populations of birds that actually migrate to the marshlands surrounding Houston.
The birds and their habitat are also referenced with the title of the installation, which, according to Gaia, is a reference to the character of Houston.
"Houston itself is a relatively unattractive place," Gaia said. "[But it's also an area] that's actually extremely robust and diverse. Coincidentally, [MARSHLAND] also references the middle name of the founder of this school."
Perhaps the best part of the installation is the effortless detail that exudes from the mural itself; everything from the striking details in the birds' eyes to the layering of spray paint over more traditional portraiture creates a contemporary, modern feeling characteristic of Gaia's work while maintaining the realistic symbolism of the mural.
This mural, while almost a complete work in itself, also surrounds a square of colonnades that mimic the arches seen around Rice.
Gaia said these colonnades are a direct reference to the architectural decisions of Rice architect Ralph Adams Cram.
"The arches on this campus demonstrate the Spanish Byzantine reference [Cram] imported into southern Texas," Gaia explained.
Portraits of Houston community members hang in the archways within the colonnades. These portraits demonstrate the diversity of Houston and do not only focus on prominent figures.
"[The portraits] were derived from interviews conducted with a pastiche of randomly selected individuals from faculty to staff to all sorts of students from many different backgrounds," Gaia said. "Their interviews and stories and insights will be provided in an associated text that informs visitors about the context of these individuals, which will be available in the center of the room."
The installation, with the Rice colonnades and portraits at the center surrounded by the eclectic mural of Houston, quite astoundingly captures part of the experience of being a student at Rice; when standing in the middle of the colonnades, it is easy to imagine Rice as the center of Houston itself, despite the glimpses of the much more complex and diverse Houston mural that can be seen through each of the archways.
Gaia himself is a recent graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art and speaks very much like an enthusiastic student excited about discovering his subject and material. As he ambles around the gallery explaining his artwork, his mind seems to work faster than he can talk, and he consistently jumps from one philosophical idea behind his work to the next.
Generally, Gaia works with impermanent materials and considers himself a street artist, but he said he does not view himself simply as a graffiti artist. Rather, Gaia strives to provide neglected spaces with the artwork they deserve, and he does not consider this work at all criminal.
"My work is determined by the site that it exists in, whether sanctioned or unsanctioned," Gaia said.
Gaia said he is also very comfortable with the temporary nature of his work.
"It's perfectly fine [that this will get painted over at the end of my exhibition]. Once I'm done with [my work,] I relieve myself of any sort of ego or attachment to it and let go of it," Gaia said. "I'm very comfortable with the fact that most of my work is in neglected space, so it's interesting to see how it changes over time. Once it's done, I would rather it have some sort of interaction. If not with anyone, then at least with the weather."
With MARSHLAND, Gaia succeeds in allowing his site to determine his work, as the installation clearly references both Houston and Rice life.
"[Many people's] initial reaction to Houston is often one of anathema," Gaia said. "But then people become seduced and find something extremely attractive beyond the generally unattractive surface and really become able to find Houston's wonderful diversity."
The installation will be open Sept. 26 - Dec. 8. Gallery admission and events are free and open to the public.