Artist’s Blocks

Street Art to invigorate Downtown Houston

“The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.” — Lewis Mumford.

"mas que la cara" by Zach Lieberman and the collective YesYesNo

“mas que la cara” by Zach Lieberman and the collective YesYesNo

I love walking in Houston — in its quaint neighborhoods dotted with sidewalk cafes and boutiques or in its verdant parks.

   But walking in downtown is not my favorite thing. To me it looks like an urban canyon, with an agglomeration of towering buildings and an incessant flow of cars running in all directions. There is little to attract the eye at the street level besides an occasional advertisement in a store window.

However, all this is going to change. The Downtown District has recently announced plans for a year-long public art and neighborhood redevelopment initiative. The Downtown District Public Art Committee and Weingarten Art Group have jointly curated a program called Art Blocks. It consists of four temporary art projects that will be installed throughout the three-block stretch of Main Street, between Walker and Dallas Streets, between March 1 and March 1, 2017.

"Tumpet Flower" by Patrick Renner and the Flying Carpet Collective

“Tumpet Flower” by Patrick Renner and the Flying Carpet Collective

This area of the city, known as Main Street Square, has been designated a pedestrian plaza in 2003. At that time, the plaza was given a “facelift”: a new paving, lighting and a fountain. However, during the past decade Main Street Square remained underutilized as a place of relaxation and enjoyment of city residents and visitors.

“The purpose of the Art Blocks project is to make Main Street Square a signature destination of Houston by offering people street-view or vista experiences and creating an environment condusive to scaled events and street entertainment,” commented Donwtown District representative Angie Bertinot and Weingarten Art Group representative Lea Weingarten.

New-York-based artist Zach Lieberman and the collective YesYesNo (a group that specializes in computer-based and traditional art media installations) have chosen the Sakowitz Building, a former department store at the corner of Main and Dallas streets for an interactive installation titled “Mas que la cara” (“More than a face.”) The title is a wordplay: “mas que” — “mask.” Lieberman admits that he has a long-time interest in masks as an ancient art form that all cultures have in common. However, it was specifically the mask collection at the Menil that shaped his vision for the project in Houston.

Next time you pass the corner of Main and Dallas, look at the window of the former store. You will be amazed to see your own face transformed into a mask. Digital screens installed behind the glass will momentarily capture your likeness and create a mask using modern face-recognition technology and the bank of images of historical and children-drawn masks.

One block down the street, Houston artist Patrick Renner and the Flying Carpet collective will create a marvel of artful engineering — a gigantic “Trumpet Flower.” The project is based on the juxtaposition of the organic form of the structure and the surrounding rectilinear architecture. This six-story high “flower” will cover, like a huge umbrella, the recessed area between One City Centre and its garage and will provide a welcome respite for passersby on a sunny day. “Trumpet Flower” will have a terrazzo concrete footing, a steel contour, and a canopy layered with colored wood pieces. A cantilever will connect the top of the structure to the top floor of the adjacent garage building. Sitting under the canopy, visitors will enjoy the intricate light and shadow play and also the “cathedral” view of the structural components of the work.

"Color Jam Houston" by Jessica Stackholder

“Color Jam Houston” by Jessica Stackholder

Internationally-renowned, Chicago-based artist Jessica Stackholder will take over the intersection of Main and McKinney streets. In her installations, which can be found all over the country, Stackholder marries picture-making and particular givens of the location.

“I am interested in finding out what binds things, both physically and metaphorically, and how they are slipping into other areas,” the artist says.

“Color Jam Houston” is all about surprise, excitement and discovery. The pavement of the intersection will be painted in bright, playful colors which will spill over the physical limits of the horizontal space and will creep up the lamp-posts, planters and walls of the corner buildings. “The work is woven into the place and also jams into the intersection, creating associations with such notions as a traffic jam and jamming as improvisation,” Stackholder explains. Each street corner will provide a different view of the painted space, and those who choose to climb the stairs in one of the surrounding buildings will be rewarded with an astonishing perspective unveiling from the upper floors.

The marquee on the Main Street Market, the former Dollar 25 Building, at the intersection of Main and Walker Streets, will be the site of rotating three-month long installations by Texas-based artists. Images will be realized on vinyl screens and illuminated to create an impression of a movie theater marquee.

"Lightin’ Field" by Jamal Cyrus

“Lightin’ Field” by Jamal Cyrus

More than 100 artists submitted their proposals, out of which the Committee selected four artists. Houston artist Jamal Cyrus created a facsimile of a 1970s store sign titled “Lightnin’ Field.” This work is a reference to Lightnin’ Hopkins and now nonexistant Liberty Hall, a popular music venue of the 1970s. Using fonts typical of grocery store signs from that era, Cyrus takes us back in time and pays tribute to the musical legacy of Houston when blues stars like Freddie King, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker graced the Liberty Hall stage.

"Roses and Hearts on a Blue Sky" by Nataliya Scheib

“Roses and Hearts on a Blue Sky” by Nataliya Scheib

Ukranian-born, Houston-based Nataliya Scheib brings a splash of bright colors of Ukranian folk art into the drab neighborhood at the intersection of Main and Walker. “Roses and Hearts on the Blue Sky” evoke colorful embroidered or woven textiles that used to decorate Ukranian homes. “Blue in the background is reminiscent of the Ukranian flag,” Scheib says. “My work is important for the Ukranian community who understands its symbolic meaning, and also brings distraction from the mundane for all Houstonians.”

"City Bird of Houston" by Armando Castelan

“City Bird of Houston” by Armando Castelan

“City Bird of Houston” by another Houston artist, Armando Castelan, features a gigantic bluebird, painted with an utmost realism, against the background of the same color as the wall of the Main Street Market Building. This is a trompe-l’oeil that plays tricks on our perception of space, scale and proportion. It seems that the bird is three-dimensional and the two-story building behind it is a birdhouse. In fact, all this is an illusion masterfully painted by the artist.

“The bird represents everyday life in Houston,” Castelan says. “It is bright and happy, but there also are undercurrents implied by the bird’s shadow.”

"Ay te miro (See You Later)" by M. Giovanna Valdera

“Ay te miro (See You Later)” by M. Giovanna Valdera

“Ay te miro” (“See you later”) by Dallas artist M. Giovanni Valderas is a digital banner. “The phrase stands for a cultural equity with Latino community,” Valderas explains. With its colorful background inspired by piñatas, the work serves as an alternate identity of Spanish-speaking population of Houston.

Never again will I think of downtown Houston as an urban canyon with nothing to see at the street level. The installation of the Art Blocks projects already began in late February. The Grand Opening with a citywide celebration will take place on Saturday, April 16. 

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Story by Elena Ivanova

ISSUE staff writer