High Over Houston

by Catherine D. Anspon

From Above: Photographs of Houston by Alex Maclean
Menil Collection
September 7, 2000-January 7, 2001

It's ironic, but it often takes someone from the outside to see what is in front of us. This was very much in evidence at the Menil's recent exhibition by Alex MacLean. Jointly presented by Menil and Rice Design Alliance (RDA), From Above was co-curated by Susan Davidson of Menil and William Stern, architect and RDA board member.
Davidson and Stern adroitly accom­plished what could have been no easy task. They culled and edited from more than 1,500 images taken over the skies of Houston by the Boston-based photog­rapher during a two-week period in fall of 1999. The resulting exhibit, a showing of a little more than two dozen color prints, stood as a cogent and compelling body of work whose ramifications far exceeded the art world context of the Menil's museum setting.

For MacLean is a unique talent, straddling dual careers of science and art, photographer and aviator combined.
Indeed, MacLean, whose work appears in three books covering diverse aspects of the American landscape, poses diffi­cult questions about our urban and suburban experiences, specifically relationships with the land in the late 20TH century. While his photographs are technically perfect and visually accomplished, they also offer a matter-of-fact critique on environmental and land-use practices that are hard to ig­nore. Thus, it is almost impossible to imagine MacLean's photographs gracing the walls of a collector's home; they have more to say than that. For this reason — the work's tremendous importance and global vision — the Menil's exhibit was prescient and memorable.

Beyond the museum walls, however, From Above took on another life, gaining considerable momentum and enlarging its audience by virtue of its alliance with Cite's, the esteemed and enlightened architecture and design review of Hous­ton's RDA. Indeed, its cover in this past summer's issue reflected more than a mere magazine feature. Besides devoting considerable editorial space to MacLean's Houston series (three essays focusing on the exhibition), Cite's replicated FromAbove glorious and pristine color, in effect becoming an adjunct to the Menil and thus serving as a complete catalogue of each photograph in the show. How­ever, beyond the idea of a museum exhi­bition catalogue, the magazine greatly expanded the influence of MacLean's work. In certain aspects, Cites coverage of the photographer reminded me of Andy Warhol's interview and the Pop master's clever way of infiltrating the mainstream with his magazine cover paintings, a sort of Trojan horse effect launched toward popular culture.
In another way, MacLean's solo turn at the Menil suggested another recent exhibition, also photographic in content and at the same institution: Paul Hes­ter's haunting and elegiac The Elusive City. Both artists address the issues of life in the iist century, using Houston as an apt and telling canvas. While Hes­ter's perspective is ground level (and he, too, is a master of editing and pulling out frames and subjects poised in tran­sition), he shares with MacLean a poig­nant, particular interest in the contrast between the built and the natural. Indeed, the point most strongly underscored by MacLean's urgent urban imagery — and one noted by architects and city planners have pointed out for decades — is the idea of Houston as an ephemeral city, always and continually in flux, possessing an uncanny ability to shed its skin and metamorphose.

Although some of this transformation may actually be good, the slow con-cretization and wanton strip centering of the city pose alarm. Nonetheless, this ever-present pulsating activity, versus the often static and decaying cities of the Northeast, makes Houston seem vital. Consequently, and even surpris­ingly, MacLean's images leave the viewer almost hopeful.

In the case of art that sometimes anticipates socio-political ideas, from Above is prophetic in mirroring the real­ity of Houston at the threshold of a new century. As such, MacLean's work fore­shadows the presence of a new urban dialogue that lifts us above the devel­oper-driven rampages of the last 100 years. The photographer's apt aerial documents may additionally serve as catalysts toward a renewed consciousness about life in a great American city at the turn of a new century. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Menil's exhib­it coincided with the publication of Good, a collection of essays gathered by two Houston-born protagonists (arts activist Toni Beauchamp and interna­tionally known artist Mel Chin) present­ing 20 different voices directed toward the 21ST century from Houston, Texas.
Thus, From Above takes on larger meanings than an ephemeral photogra­phy exhibit and consequently its impact may be expected to linger longer. Part love letter, part session on the psycholo­gist's couch, MacLean's unwavering eye captures the beauty in the banal and the ugly in the glorious in a matter-of-fact style that is subversive and utterly disarming. Bland and ubiquitous shots such as Frame Construction, Sugar Land assume a heroic perspective, evoking a mythic city rising from the reddish dirt in the gleaming afternoon sun. Similarly, Prairie Development, a bird's-eye pespective of West Houston, has us gazing toward the endless prairie while a manicured, treed patch of green looms in the foreground. The details are precise: the viewer can even pick out the presence of individual swim­ming pools, yet the triumph of the high­ly artificial landscape over the real seems to signal progress. We'd almost like to be among the air-conditioned suburban comfort of this development versus the dusty inhospitableness of the endless hot and sun-baked earth that these suburbs are rapidly overtaking. In contrast, the veiled lushness of Tree Canopied Neigh­borhood, Montrose hardly seems to belong to the same urbanscape. Mac-Lean excels in rendering the flat abstrac­tions of the prosaic and the ordinary without sacrificing detail. The resulting color photographs hover between the real and the surreal, as in such images as Striped Parking Lot, Texas City Oil Refinery, and Highway 288 Apartment Complex.
From the chemical plants and ship channel of the south to the ersatz shop­ping and residential subdivisions of Katy, the rebirth of downtown and the slumbering structures of the Fifth Ward, MacLean presents the amazing and ambiguous hybridity of the country's fourth largest city. His individual images and subjects carry the power of fable. MacLean's light, the golden arch of mid­day sun, seems to portend the possibility of luminous optimism — even disarray acquires the charm of spontaneity via the photographer's meticulous lens.
In conclusion, Alex MacLean's From Above perfectly captures the coexisting tensions present in Houston at the new millennium: a metropolis of the future, multicultural and transcultural, the West melded with the new South, semi-tropical, port, medical nexus, aerospace and high-tech center. MacLean's telling photographs shed light on our pertinent and pressing design and city planning issues of the 2isr century, while docu­menting strange dichotomies and con­flicting chords of the Space City's urban fabric, all exquisitely and beguilingly amplified by the artist's unearthly aerial perspective.

Catherine D. Anspon covers Houston's art scene for Papercity as well as a variety of national and Texas-based publications including Artnews, Art & Antiques, Houston Citysearch.com, Exposicion, and Artlies. Anspon is working with photographer Jack Thompson on a book on contemporary art in Texas.