Inferno Gallery sparks to life with first art exhibition under new name

What happens when the contents of a matchbox are fully ignited? An inferno.

Inferno's Gorgon logo was designed by Rice student Helena Martin.

Inferno’s Gorgon logo was designed by Lovett College senior Helena Martin.

That’s the name of the newly rechristened Matchbox Gallery, the student-run art space inside Sewall Hall that officially became Inferno Gallery earlier this semester.

Now, with a full fall programming lineup in place and a new sign installed this week, Inferno Gallery will debut its first show of the season Oct. 25. “CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA” is a project by Houston-based Venezuelan artist Violette Bule, whose work deals with themes of Latino identity and immigration. Her exhibition at Inferno explores the multilayered reality of migration in the U.S.

Originally named for its 1,600-square-foot footprint — jokingly referred to as the size of a matchbox — the gallery opened in 2009 in the former office of Rice Associate Professor Christopher Sperandio, who donated it to students after he learned about a campuswide dearth of student art spaces.

Nearly a decade later, other student art spaces have been installed, but Inferno remains the premier gallery for student art on campus.

“Rice prides itself on involving undergraduates in research, and nowhere on campus does it happen better than in the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts (VADA) and at the Inferno Gallery,” Sperandio said. “The gallery is a creative lab space that is organized and managed exclusive by undergraduate art students who run a wide range of experimental art exhibitions and immersive installation environments.”

Suzanne Zeller, a Lovett College senior and passionate patron of the gallery since her sophomore year, knew that maintaining this profile would be one of her primary goals when she took over as director at the beginning of this semester. She didn’t know, however, that a full gallery rebrand would also be on deck.

Inferno will debut its first show of the season Oct. 25, "CAN - YOU - DREAM - AMERICA" by Houston-based Venezuelan artist Violette Bule.

Inferno will debut its first show of the season Oct. 25, “CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA” by Houston-based Venezuelan artist Violette Bule.

“I met with the faculty after a few emails indicating my interest in the position, and they said ‘congratulations, you have the directorship,’” Zeller said of learning in May that she’d gotten the role. “And then they informed me during that first meeting that I had to change the name.”

An art history and VADA double-major, Zeller spent the summer brainstorming during field work in Italy, where she assisted in an ongoing excavation near the Roman Forum. The name Inferno had already occurred to her, to “connect the old name to the new name,” but the rest of the rebrand eluded her, she said.

“I was enticed by the name because of its interesting visual possibilities,” Zeller said. Even more importantly, she made sure no other gallery spaces in Houston or Texas bore the name.

But she couldn’t conceive of any other visuals or logos to accompany the new name — until she looked to her surroundings for inspiration: Rome, the poet Dante, the lasting legacy of his “Inferno” and the repeated motif in Roman art of the Gorgon head. (In Canto IX of “Inferno,” Dante enters an even lower part of hell by passing through the realm of the famed Gorgon Medusa; his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, helpfully covers Dante’s eyes just in case he’s tempted to look and be turned to stone.)

“It wasn’t a coincidence,” Zeller said of the choice to use a fearsome Gorgon head as a visual representation for the Inferno Gallery. “While I was studying in Rome this summer, the motif of the Gorgon kept coming up, and I was visually drawn to it for its versatility and power.”

Zeller ultimately commissioned Lovett College senior Helena Martin, a fellow VADA student, to design a Gorgon head based on one Zeller discovered in the drawings of Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s “Inferno.”

“Helena didn’t just copy the original drawing, she reinterpreted it herself,” Zeller said. Martin’s work captured an array of visceral emotions seen in the snake-headed woman’s screaming face: rage, terror, grief, even a hint of ecstasy. Art is, after all, about provoking emotions.

Inferno director Suzanne Zeller, a Lovett College senior, was tasked with renaming Matchbox when she took over in May.

Inferno director Suzanne Zeller, a Lovett College senior, was tasked with renaming Matchbox when she took over in May.

“While I love art that is created purely for its aesthetics, art that carries social meaning and can generate dialogue on social issues is very important, especially at this time in our country,” said Zeller, who wants to showcase minority artists, immigrant artists and feminist artists for that very reason.

“Our next two shows of the semester are from Lindsey Douglas, a Rice VADA major with an entrancing interactive sculptural show, and Dana Suleymanova and Rachel Wilkins of the University of Texas at Austin, who are bringing us an innovative take on art and mixed media,” Zeller said.

Sperandio, the professor whose former office space is now in its 10th year of hosting professional artists from around Houston and the country, offered his own compelling reasons to engage your emotions at Inferno.

“A piece of advice for everyone reading this: Experiencing culture boosts brain activity and can lighten your mood,” Sperandio said. “The next time you feel exhausted from writing that paper or studying those equations, skip the line at the coffee shop and instead head to the student gallery for a quick pick-me-up.”

Moreover, Sperandio said, art can offer something even more life-altering than a jolt of caffeine. “It also has this added benefit: You might just see something that will change your life.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.