By Laura August
Anna Mayer’s first solo exhibition in Houston, Forms of Inheritance, opens with a photographic mural printed on cotton canvas and splayed across a wall facing the entrance. Flames pour from chemical storage facilities, black smoke billowing thickly across the sky. A small patch of trees at the front of the image is blithely green, doomed. The label identifies the blaze as a 2009 petroleum fire near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and yet the scene is so eerily familiar that I want to insist it must be Houston.
In 2019, three major petrochemical blasts happen in the Houston area within a month – a 2016 Houston Chronicle report notes the increasing number of these events: between 2014 and 2016, the city averaged one explosion every six weeks. In 2017, Harvey became the third 500-year event in three years. And, for a week in February, most of Houston is without power or water during the region’s worst winter storm in 30 years, an effect of the state’s privatization of the energy industry. “I live in a permanent disaster zone,” tweets a friend, as if sending an emergency flare into the Internet skies, hoping for rescue.
Moving against Houston’s normalized cycles of petrochemical “progress,” which discourages the remembering of its catastrophic effects, Forms of Inheritance: The Work of Anna Mayer mourns losses at an unimaginable scale. And yet Mayer deftly sidesteps the finger-pointing of disaster politics, the ways that descriptions of storms and explosions direct blame without offering space for other affect (grief, hope, shock). Instead, the work describes the entanglements of capitalism with our treatment of the earth, finding an impasse between the processes of healing and the difficulties of remembering. She squares the magnitude of our losses within a national cycle of acquisitive, expansionist, possessive belief systems (hence a photograph from the US territory of Puerto Rico, instead of the too-obvious Houston explosions). How might we grieve, Mayer asks, when public debates still question whether our losses are even real?
This is Mayer’s first exhibition in a craft institution, and the context provides a strangely satisfying frame for her conceptual work. The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is a non-collecting institution in Houston’s Museum District, situated almost directly under a major highway intersection. Opened in 2001, the center hosts a craft residency and a dynamic exhibition program dedicated to craft objects, functional or not, from neon to basketry. Craft historically has a domestic function, and craft objects are often made by women; these are things to be touched and held, objects that animate daily life, and are accessible to normal folk. Perhaps, given craft’s intimacy and egalitarianism, Mayer’s inclusion at this institution signals that her work is also meant to be in and of our lives, objects made in dialogue with the local. There is, certainly in Houston, an everyday-ness to the questions that Mayer asks about survival and remembering, about the emotional processing of recent disasters, and about the ethical and ecological implications of capitalism.
Near the exhibition’s entrance, Mayer has piled objects on a broad, low platform. Here, as we face the mural, she folds items of clothing and fabric, layering the stacks with photographs, ceramic objects, teacups, funeral fringe, and other residues of her process. This installation, Seeping and Squandering (Earth Should Return – Houston) is at once a studio archive, a cipher for the exhibition, and a memorial space; its logic of gathering rather than discarding informs Mayer’s entire process. Pieces fold into one another, materials are reused and repurposed, and memory becomes a site for understanding the overwhelming sense of dread and grief that feels so present in the city, especially in recent months. The caption lists the items in the collection: … sweatsuit made of recreated Victorian era mourning wear print; artificial gardenia and leaves; roll of trash bags; shavings from the making of ceramic funeral fringe; Mourning Wear t-shirt design; framed discarded “melancholy” vinyl …
Seeping and Squandering precedes the fabric mural of the fire in Puerto Rico which faces the entrance; turning to the right, at the back of the gallery, Mayer has included a second mural, enlarging a friend’s cell phone photograph of the sunset over Los Angeles on the first day of the Woolsey Fire in 2018. Both of these fabric photographic surfaces betray a significant detail when we move closer: they are scarred by tiny puncture wounds. Mayer has used the cloth to wrap dinnerware inherited from her family and smash it. Hammering the porcelain heirlooms into tiny shards, she presses their remains into the surfaces of the unfired clay sculptures. Here, remembering is also re-constitutive of the object itself; to re-member allows a new form to emerge from the wreckage. I think maybe Mayer could be Houston’s angel of history.
Framed behind and beside these two murals, a constellation of Mourning Ware sits on pedestals painted a dark green. The arrangement brings to mind groups of funerary vessels placed in the home or cemetery: for some communities in Ghana, for example, “places of pots” are both gathering spots and forms for communicating with the dead, and I find this to be a useful precedent for how to approach Mayer’s somber installation.
The Mourning Ware take different forms, some of them bulbous and scarred with patterned impressions on their surfaces, their gently rolling curves and ridges somehow made more organic by their matte surface treatments. The Victorian ritual of mourning wear was a codified sartorial timeline for grief, and it provides a conceptual throughline to the exhibition: starting from black, mourning wear would have flecks of lighter color added, eventually changing to lavender and gray hues signifying various periods of the mourning process. Mourning Ware with Eye-Shaped Base, is thickly flecked, and its bulbous body spills over the edge of its narrow base like a wide, round muffin-top. The piece is built from black clay, white dinnerware bits pressed by hand into its surface. Mayer builds other Mourning Ware from peach-colored clay and porcelain flecks; these are bisque-fired before going through an Obvara process, in which each vessel is pulled directly from the fire and dunked into a prepared slurry of yeast, flour, sugar, and water. Like mourning costume, Obvara is an expressive blackening, a surface treatment.
The materials in Mayer’s exhibition make me think about how petroleum and clay are both marked with traces of the lost, each material’s mucky relationship between past and future transitive, affecting, receptive to metaphor. In September, I receive an email from Mayer, her annual Fireful of Fear update. In 2008, she installed twelve unfired ceramic pieces inscribed with text in the forests and canyons of Malibu, California, waiting for wildfires to finish the work. It would be a neat process proposal – ceramics fired by nature! – if it weren’t so heavy with inevitable disaster. Since 2008, several of the pieces have been fired – Mayer has retrieved four of them and believes two were buried in mudslides (three are on view at the craft center). In her email, Mayer writes, about metaphor, “I know enough to realize language and all its cooling and heating properties are needed, and will be needed, as we make sparks…” Indeed, this series of work behaves as language does, describing and pointing to a thing that will happen – has happened – somehow bridging the nightmarish and poetic, connecting sadness and rage.
Fireful of Fear waits for the next disaster, just as Houston does. And yet, the waiting does little to stem the tides of growth that leads to disaster. Historically defined by oil’s boom-and-bust cycles, Houston is infamous for its lax zoning restrictions, and the result is a constant state of re-building– almost anything, almost anywhere. I think this ethos of constant growth informs how the city processes emotions of loss, explains how reluctant Houston is toward metaphor. This city is young (b. 1837), and its expansionist rhythms move against historical architecture and green public space, maybe also against poetry. Natural disasters hasten the tear-downs of recently-built structures as they are ruined by floodwaters, and new construction invites more disasters by piling up buildings in flood zones, expanding freeways, and covering wetlands and prairie with concrete. Because our daily experiences are informed by planning for survival and escape, there is seldom time for grief-stricken reflection and the slowing down necessary for feeling. I talk to friends across the city after the most recent storm, and they are numbed by recovery. Again, they say, their voices thick with exhaustion.
Because the oil and gas industry remains deeply entangled with the funding and patronage of local arts institutions (see, for example, the $476 million expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2020, its newest building named for gas pipeline magnate and museum chairman, Rich Kinder and his wife Nancy), it is rare that an exhibition in Houston describes the environmental destruction for which the city’s wealth is so dependent. And anyway, there is a sense that these unnatural events are symptoms of something that is already well-underway, too far gone. This is the time of overlapping aftermaths, Mayer reminds me, and we agree, that accusation isn’t enough for the moment. Description, even, seems to only tell us what we already know from personal experience.
In this city of boundless possibilities, we don’t like to be reminded of the dark clouds overhead. We boil our water when we have it, we stockpile supplies, and we run endless mutual aid campaigns. We look to the highways instead of the skies. In a city more often marked by the evasive textures of good manners and future-looking optimism, Forms of Inheritance makes space for unending loss. Given the craft context, I am tempted to note that the functional object on view here is actually grief, not ceramic. Which is to say, that in this quiet exhibition, Mayer offers an unfolding memorial form, commemorating the futures that could have been. Our disasters, endless and increasing, are the things that we have made. Our storms will be what we leave behind.