Beautifying Houston

Jo Ann Fleischauer's installation at Art League Houston is inspired by brightly-plumed birds-of-paradise.

By Adam Castañeda August 19, 2014

Sexual Selection
Thru Nov 1
Art League Houston
1953 Montrose Blvd.

I’m at the age where college friends are on the move, and not just in their professional and personal lives. They’re literally on the move, off and away from Houston. A common theme among these friends is that they’re looking for a city that’s more aesthetically pleasing, a metropolis that might fit better on a postcard. Fair enough, but Houston is far from the eyesore the national consensus makes it out to be. Sure, we’re not pretty-faced Austin, but sometimes you have to find your own beauty. And that shouldn’t be hard to do when organizations like Art League Houston (ALH) are providing wonderfully imaginative public art installations on a regular basis.

Last August, ALH unveiled Patrick Renner’s Funnel Tunnel, the 180-foot-long serpent of an art installation that runs along the Montrose Boulevard median. Its large circular opening and winding serpentine body make it resemble an inverted black hole, except way more colorful. The multi-hued vortex is a blast to the eye, especially for those who drive down Montrose on a daily basis. Despite its enormous size, driving past the installation is swift, ephemeral experience. Flanked by trees and floating above the green grass, Funnel Tunnel is a whimsical appeal to the imagination—but only for a few seconds.

Image: Alex Barber

You can get a much better view of the installation from ALH’s sculpture garden. It’s the perfect distance to enjoy the tunnel in its entirety without haste. And while you’re there, don’t forget to look up. Until November 1, the sculpture garden is home to an installation of its own, local multi-media artist Jo Ann Fleischhauer’s Sexual Selection. Hanging from the branches of the two large pecan trees is a flock of beautifully patterned, vibrantly colored hanging parasols.

The clusters of vivid fabric billow in the wind; those in close proximity to one another appear to be in communication, a physical exchange of swaying, fluttering, and pecking. If that sounds like a description of birds, it’s because Fleischhauer has taken her inspiration from the bird-of-paradise, a tropical species unique in that the females base their choice of mate solely on the aesthetics of the males’ plumage. The result of this beauty-based evolution is feathers that look more like works of art than tools for flight. This is in stark contrast to the normal evolutionary tendencies of nature, in which physical traits develop with the survival of the species as the chief concern. For the birds-of-paradise, mainly found in New Guinea, the aim is to find the most attractive mate to produce the most attractive offspring.

If these parasols look familiar, it’s because Fleischhauer has appropriated them from her 2007 installation at downtown’s Foley House. The Parasol Project gave new life to one of Houston’s historic homes by conveying the spirit of the Foley family through bursts of mushroomed parasols spilling out of the balcony and windows. The parasols were printed with painted MRI brain scans, suggesting the inner workings of the house’s inhabitants. The same blooms now hang from ALH’s pecan trees, but in different sizes. The patterns are mesmerizing even if you don’t know they are based on MRIs.  Lively aqua swirls around royal purple, blood orange mingles with blushing pink, and ivy green mixes with sunburnt yellow. The variations are endless, but each parasol has a flirtatious, light-hearted energy.

There is a human element as well. Parasols are manmade contraptions that shield us from rain and sun, but in Victorian times they were also used in courtship. The way a woman held her parasol signaled to men her eligibility and her interest in potential suitors. Coupled with the MRI patterning, Sexual Selection is a reminder of our own mating preferences. Not to say we’re superficial. There’s no ideal here. Each parasol is unique and beautiful in its own palette, just as no two birds-of-paradise are exactly alike.

Even if one isn’t reminded of birds, the installation is still successful in its ability to trigger the imagination. With the Funnel Tunnel only a stone’s throw away, the ALH sculpture garden is turned into a magical place of whirling floral patterns and panoramic streaks of color. At night, both the parasols and the tunnel are illuminated for an equally enchanting experience. Inversion Coffee House is in the same compound, making the garden a perfect 30-minute respite from the helter-skelter of the workday.

Beauty has been found, and it's here in Houston. 

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