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Demystifying Contemporary Art for Contemporary Audiences

Blaffer Art Museum gives students the chance to experience contemporary art first-hand at the University of Houston.

The words “contemporary art” may be daunting to some, but Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston is dedicated to making it accessible to all. 

“We want to start conversations and help people realize you don’t have to be an expert to connect with the work,” says Katherine Veneman, Blaffer’s curator of education. “Every viewer brings their individual knowledge and vantage point, and that allows them to connect in surprising and personal ways.”

This is something UH undergraduate student and self-taught artist Venus Adum experienced when she started working at Blaffer. Though she admits to feeling confused by some of the work at first, Adum now approaches each exhibition with an open mind and has enjoyed immersing herself in each show.

“Working at the museum has given me a new appreciation for contemporary art,” she says, adding that speaking to different artists has helped her understand their processes. “I’ve gained a new perspective.”

For instance, Gabriel Martinez’s solo exhibition “Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely” featured paper replicas of roadside debris entitled “Ghost Trash.” At first glance, the replicas could almost be mistaken for actual debris scattered on the gallery floor, but upon closer inspection, they revealed themselves to be works of art. Adum recalls when a UH freshman engaged with “Ghost Trash” not realizing that it was part of the show, and she had the opportunity to explain the artist’s process to him.

Martinez’s exhibition, which was on view in the fall of 2017, is just one in Blaffer’s long history of developing innovative, experimental contemporary art programs. “It’s key to our exhibition and educational program to present vanguard aesthetic concepts that resound with viewers,” says Veneman.

Contemporary art is often charged and controversial, adds Colleen Maynard, Blaffer’s director of security and visitor services, which can lead to a variety of reactions from viewers, from confused to inspired. To enrich the audience’s experience and deepen their understanding of the work, Blaffer’s curators offer free panel talks, gallery tours and in-depth scholarly catalogues in conjunction with the exhibitions.

The two shows on view at Blaffer this summer, “The Future Is Certain; It’s the Past Which Is Unpredictable” and “Immortality for All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism by Anton Vidokle,” present piece after piece that challenge viewers to examine history and perspectives in a different light through videos, sounds, pictures and sculptures. Both exhibitions draw inspiration from historical events to explore the destabilization of time itself, addressing the ways we understand and describe the past. 

In one room, the accumulation of domestic sounds emulate the hum of a supersonic Soviet jet, in another a video rewound and played in reverse encourages introspection. The work engages all the senses and asks viewers to see everyday objects in a new light.

“You always have a new experience at the Blaffer Art Museum,” Adum says. “Here you get a new take on what contemporary art is, a new understanding.” 

“The Future Is Certain; It’s the Past Which Is Unpredictable,” organized by independent curator Monika Lipšic, and “Immortality for All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism by Anton Vidokle” were originally on view at Blaffer Art Museum from February 17 – March 24, and will be returning to the museum from June 1 – August 11 with an opening reception on Thursday, May 31.