Feature

Byzantine Things in the World

This exhibition teases out a variety of the meanings of the word “Byzantine.”

The Menil Collection, HoustonThrough Aug. 18

This exhibition teases out a variety of the meanings of the word “Byzantine,” said Chelsea Weathers in Artforum. Relics of the Byzantine Empire compose only about a fifth of the nearly 160 objects on display; the rest “range broadly across time and media” but echo the iconography of the medieval works in ways that suggest how byzantine our own way of thinking has become. “No doubt the deliberately promiscuous curatorial choices will be frustrating for some viewers”: One gallery’s grouping of three works—Sueño, Kiki Smith’s 1992 print of a prostrated man; an 1810 oil painting called A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo—A Fact Which Occurred in America in 1809; and a figurine used in African manhood rituals—makes you wonder what these objects could possibly have in common with the Byzantine Empire or one another. Yet “a byzantine frame of mind embraces ambivalence,” and the works’ commingling generates a “visual, almost bodily impact.”

That’s much of the point, said Molly Glentzer in the Houston Chronicle. Guest curator Glenn Peers was intent on bringing out the material energy of the Byzantine art objects—their power as “made things”—so he frequently pairs them with non-representational 20th-century art that underscores that power. Like the simple dual stripe of Barnett Newman’s 1950 painting Untitled (Number 2), the erect saints of Byzantine iconography “force the viewer to relate” and to be “fully present.” Elsewhere, the moon-like craters in Yves Klein’s gold-leaf painting Untitled, Monogold help “play up the tactile qualities” of gold’s use in a small reliquary box from circa A.D. 500 Macedonia. The links between objects are open to interpretation. If you visit the show on more than one occasion, “you may not even think the same thing twice.”

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