On ‘In Play’ and the power of public art

Houston artist Joseph Havel led an engaging conversation on the transformative power and joy of public art Feb. 12 in the Hudspeth Auditorium at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Havel, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Glassell School of Art, discussed his installation, “In Play,” which sits on the front lawn of the Glasscock School’s Anderson-Clarke Center and was donated by Rice alumni Leslie ’69 and Brad Bucher ’65, two Houston arts patrons.

Joseph Havel, right, discussed the creation of his "In Play" installation with Houston arts patron and Rice alumnus Brad Bucher '65. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

“What Joe (Havel) has been able to do is create a space that says, ‘I don’t want you to just walk by it, I want you to walk into it,'” said Bucher, who joined Havel in the conversation that ranged from the careful, laborious process of creating “In Play” to the varied role and meaning of public art in Houston and beyond.

Installed in spring 2014 at the newly built Anderson-Clarke Center, “In Play” is composed of five sculptures cast of bronze using a fabric form. The permanent sculptures are in two groupings that suggest dialogue — one on the southwest corner and the other on the northeast corner of the center’s lawn. The sculptures convey a lightness in their positioning; they appear to hover over the grass, as if they could be easily nudged or rolled. Consistent with the subject matter of Havel’s complete body of work, they invite intimate inspection, contemplation and a rethinking of the ideas sculpture can communicate, he said. “The place for you is between all of these things, in which you have to deal with yourself.”

With his installation in full view through the auditorium’s expansive windows, Havel stressed the role of artists as public risk-takers in a society where risk is more and more limited. “One of the great graces … of a public art program is this public presentation of unknowing inquiry and wonder that we get to have,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that activates much more than any design element.”

Havel's installation was in full view through the Hudspeth Auditorium's expansive windows

Over the course of several months, Havel cast each sculpture with bronze using a fabric form, confounding the material nature of the sculpture. At first glance, the orb-like pieces appear heavy and dense as traditional bronze sculptures. In fact, their hollow and intricate construction challenges the viewer’s expectations, where upon closer inspection detailed traces of the original cloth and lace forms are apparent on the surface. The surface patinas were applied with both hot and cold coats. The darker orbs were buffed to reveal flashes of their metallic base surfaces while the white orbs remained untouched. They were then coated with two layers of a sealer and a matting agent, and then they were waxed to protect their surfaces.

In installing “In Play,” Havel shunned spectacle and theatrics, he stressed. “I wish … for my work to be a special everyday experience, not a spectacle that separates itself from you,” he said. “I don’t want you to think of it as the other. I want you to think of it as an extension of your everyday.”

Havel’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States and Europe and is in the collections of many museums, including the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

“We are so pleased to have these playful creatures to see and enjoy every day,” Dean of Continuing Studies Mary McIntire ’75 said of Havel’s installation. “They have become a part of who we are at the school. They also signal the strong relationship between Rice University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Their location, just inside Entrance 8, which, by the way, is the most heavily used entrance on campus, also alerts people that we value public art at Rice and that they will see more public art elsewhere on the campus.”

Rice Public Art Director Molly Hubbard, who together with Rice Public Art Assistant Director Emily Stein helped shepherd the installation project, said the close relationship between the Buchers and Havel made the project a success. “It (the installation) was their (the Buchers’) brainchild,” Hubbard said. “As Brad has told me on more than one occasion, he thinks of Joe Havel as a brother. It’s just a great relationship. You know how these things start with a conversation.”

The event was sponsored by the Glasscock School and Rice Public Art.

To view a Rice News video about “In Play,” go to http://youtu.be/zkcWS4cpsTY.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.