IMAGE: Installation view of Michael Crowder’s Retro-spectacle at Wade Wilson Art. Photo: David A. Brown.
HOUSTON — Houston artist Michael Crowder’s Retro-spectacle transports viewers from 2013 to 1913. Crowder transforms Wade Wilson Art into a velvet-lined cabinet of curiosities, viagra facilitating a perspective into the past that calls into question what contemporary art can be.
The first room features works from Crowder’s Refined Crude series. Wooden shadowboxes fitted with delicate glass drills, story actual crude oil encased in Plexiglas, look and layers of slate rock line the walls. The deep black of the oil and blue gray of the slate adds to the richness of the simple color palette of deep red, mahogany, and ivory. Cleverly, each title reflects the price of the crude oil at the time he made the piece. Refined Crude hints at the delicate balance between the environment, politics, and economics surrounding the commodification of crude.
Two anomalies in the first room are inspired by the human body rather than black gold. The largest piece in the room, Machina Respiratio, is an antique bellows connected to large glass gears that “breathes” at the rate of human respiration. Body of Work: Part 2 is a small set of drawers displaying an anatomically correct knee made of lead and glass. This piece references a knee surgery the artist had undergone, and proved to be the most personal and intriguing work in the room.
“This piece changed how I made art,” Crowder says of Body. “I decided that I wanted to make work the way I saw the world, not work that looked like ‘contemporary art.’”
A lush velvet curtain frames a wall of faux books in the second room of the exhibit. Fashioned like a 1900s Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”), every artwork features glass butterflies made via pâte de verre, a glass-making technique that originated in ancient Egypt and was revived by Daum studios at the turn of the 20th century. The technique is deceptively simple: finely crushed glass is mixed with a binder to create a paste that is set into a mold then fired. The delicacy of Crowder’s pâte de verre hints at the fragility of his subject matter.
In Crowder’s most narrative piece, Historia Naturalia, he invokes a caterpillar’s metamorphosis through three glass sculptures strategically placed around a bronze tree branch. In an elaborate diorama, a glass caterpillar climbs onto the branch, a cocoon is formed, and a butterfly emerges. Unlike the entomological feel of the butterfly collections, Historia Naturalia successfully conjures the wonderment of the historical cabinet of curiosities.
Precursors of modern museums, Renaissance cabinets of curiosities evolved into institutions such as the British Museum and the Mütter Medical Museum in Philadelphia. Crowder invokes the feel of these early rooms in Retro-spectacle, but his main goal is not to engender academic discussion. Instead, Crowder instills an inquisitiveness for how art is created and understood. His work questions whether seemingly archaic modes of craft and classical beauty can find their place in contemporary art.