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Marfa Sightings: UH Artists, French Counterparts Find Inspiration in West Texas Desert

CotA graduate students explored the town’s landscape and history.

Nestled in the heart of the West Texas desert, the town of Marfa is a vibrant arts center set between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. Home to Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation and the non-profit arts organization Ballroom Marfa, the town is a haven for minimalist and contemporary art.

Through a partnership with the Nantes School of Art, the UH College of the Arts (CotA) sent graduate students to Marfa for a two-week artist residency program last summer as part of the 2016 “Deserting the Site” symposium. Five graduate students from each school participated in the residency program, called “Plot Manifest,” creating artwork that blurred formal boundaries and explored spatial, temporal and historical elements of Marfa’s landscape.

“The West Texas landscape is pretty dramatic—desert, tremendous storms, mountains,” said Abinadi Meza, director of CotA’s Interdisciplinary Initiatives program and associate professor of art. He said that he was excited to introduce students from both schools to Marfa because “a change in environment stimulates new ideas.”

His words rang true for UH School of Art students Tracey Ceniceros, Trey Duvall, Alton DuLaney, Jonathan Read and Elise Weber. Ceniceros documented her journey to and from a secret location where she installed large-scale text in “The Joke on Antelope Hill.”  At the end of the residency, she presented her photographs and handwritten notes as intentionally obscure “directions.” With the sculptural work “Desert Enantiomorphs (38˚ North),” Duvall set out to investigate the impact of the desert over time on the physical states of his materials—sand, soil and clay. DuLaney was also interested in the effects of the intense desert environment on natural materials and created a time-lapse video of text written in water evaporating into thin air. Read created a bright, bold and sculptural work titled “Myths of the Wild West: Marfa 2016” and Weber, using manipulated photographs of a Judd sculpture, addressed ideas of masculinity associated with the Minimalist art movement in her piece “Impressions.”

This January, the Galerie des Beaux-Arts de Nantes showcased the work from all ten “Plot Manifest” artists-in-residence with its Marfa Sightings exhibition. The exhibition, which opened January 17 in Nantes, France, provided UH students a unique opportunity to share their work on the international stage, said Dr. Rex Koontz, director of the UH School of Art. “[Marfa Sightings] is so important for our graduate students because they are entering a global art world,” he said, adding that he looks forward to the future of UH’s partnership with the Nantes School of Art. “It’s exciting and gratifying to work with [the Nantes School] to advance our students together.”