On 30 years of art production

Artist and Rice alum Michael Petry captivates during Campbell Lecture Series

The life and times of one of the world’s leading contemporary artists took center stage in the Rice Media Center during the School of Humanities’ 2015 Campbell Lecture Series April 7-9.


Over the course of three evening lectures, Michael Petry, a witty, Texas-born multimedia artist, author and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, London, displayed his gift for storytelling to show the personal and professional influences and artistic collaborations that have defined his career for more than three decades.

On opening night, Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway introduced Petry as “without question the most famous artist who has graduated from Rice University.”

Indeed, since earning his bachelor’s degree at Rice in 1981, the El Paso native has made a name for himself as an internationally exhibited artist of large-scale installations. “He’s had exhibitions as far north as Norway, as far south as South Africa, as far west as Palm Springs and as far east as Lithuania,” said Houston gallerist Hiram Butler, who regularly exhibits Petry’s work at his gallery and also gave an introduction of Petry.

In his first talk, titled “Growing Up Public,” Petry presented an overview of his works and discussed them in reference to his time at Rice (1978-81) and how these initial influences continue to be reflected in his work. “In a way, what I’m doing in this talk is time travel and, unfortunately, my space ship only goes in one direction, which is backward,” he said.

At Rice, Petry double-majored in mathematics and art. From the first moment he stepped onto campus, his distinctive flair stood out. Sporting an Afro hairstyle, Petry arrived at Sid Richardson College wearing “bell-bottoms and five-inch platforms,” he said. “It was really something to behold. I was actually the only person at Rice with platform heels at the time. It was exciting and it was fun.”

He was outspoken and daring in pursuing his early artistic interests. “When I was at Rice, I was kind of the bane of the school,” Petry said. “I would go at night into the public spaces and I’d make an installation and I’d just put it up without any permission. The next day I would hear from various members, ‘Who put that (expletive) up?’ And then they’d go, ‘Michael, take that down.'”

After graduating, he moved to England, where he’s lived ever since — long enough to acquire an endearing hint of a British accent. He earned degrees from London Guildhall and Middlesex universities while rising to acclaim as a leading avant-garde artist and curator. “Sometimes you know where you should be, and for me it was Europe. I needed to be there artistically,” Petry said.

His work has crossed different media – installation, sculpture, performance and video – and touched on various themes, ranging from sexuality and identity to celebrity and science and mythical allusion. His 1999 video installation at Rice Gallery, “The History of the World,” consisted of a mound of 72 tons of sand, which was illuminated by the flickering light of a large-scale video projection overhead. As visitors stepped on the sand, the projected image shifted and changed.

“When you go and see some of my work, how you respond to it is the honest answer to the question, What is it? It’s whatever you think it is. Art is a dialogue; it’s not a lecture.”

“Art is a dialogue between me, the things I make and the people who view it,” Petry said in summing up his craft. “When you go and see some of my work, how you respond to it is the honest answer to the question, What is it? It’s whatever you think it is. Art is a dialogue; it’s not a lecture.”

Wednesday’s talk, “Reading a Life,” focused on Petry’s writing. He’s written several groundbreaking books sprung from his projects, including a daring artistic exploration of homoeroticism in the arts, “Hidden Histories: 20th-Century Male Same-Sex Lovers in the Visual Arts,” which was published in 2004 and is considered the first major survey of the subject. The latest is “Nature Morte,” a coffee-table book with a hologram on its cover. It’s based on an exhibition Petry curated that opens in Norway in June and will travel across Europe.

He finished Thursday with “The Art of Ethics,” in which he discussed institutional sexism, racism and homophobia and how they’ve affected artists, institutions and audiences.

A Houston exhibition of Petry’s latest work, “At the Core of the Algorithm,” will open April 11 at Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom St., and be on view through May 30. The large-scale, glass installation, completely remade from its recent showing at GlazenHuis in Belgium, is based on an algorithm devised by Petry, in collaboration with highly skilled glassblowers, and derived from the mathematical notion of the multiverse.

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a gift from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell ’34 through the Campbell Fund. Each year, the series brings a distinguished humanities scholar to campus to give lectures on a topic of broad humanistic interest. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lecture is later published as a book. Previous Campbell lecturers include Robert Pinsky (2005), Ha Jin (2006), Alix Ohlin (2007), Stephen Greenblatt (2008), James Cuno (2009), Zadie Smith (2010), Stanley Fish (2012), Patrick Summers (2013) and Robert Wilson (2014). 

About Jeff Falk

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