Yesterday, I saw Lawrence Weschler speak at the Getty about “convergences” a phenomenon he explores in his new book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. In his lecture, Weschler presented us with a parade of various incarnations of repeated patterns and motifs in visual culture. Some of these were intentional, others were unintentional or coincidental; sometimes the connection was so obvious as to scream “copy!”, while other times I was struggling a bit to see the connection that Weschler saw. Whatever the nature of the convergence, the question these phenomena pose to us is essentially a question about being human, and how we make meaning through connections.
Weschler also famously wrote about some of these concepts in his book about the Museum of Jurassic Technology here in L.A. This past weekend, I was in Houston where I visited The Menil Collection, another collection full of convergences from across cultures that reminded me of the MJT. After Weschler’s talk, I understood why I was having this connection.
In this intimate museum, John and Dominique de Menil intended to present their huge collection that includes modern art (primarily of the Surreal persuasion), as well as quirky ancient antiquities, medieval paintings, and cultural objects from Africa, Native Pacific Northwest Coast cultures, and Polynesia. In the permanent galleries, the art of each of these different cultures is segregated into its own space. But the de Menils were clearly interested in the convergences between these “primitive” cultures and their own; and their friendships with some of the modern artists (whose works are in their collection as well) speak to the influence that this collecting practice had on the development of modern art.
A few small exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection make the connection/convergence. “Witness to a Surrealist Vision” is a one-room cabinet of curiosities filled with objects in the Menil collection that were similar to those that some Surrealists collected. Yupik masks, Hopi Kachina dolls, and Ecuadorian headdress, stood next to a 7-ft high horn from a narwahl, a medieval suit of armor, and devices of wonder from Europe, such as stereoscopes and thaumatropes. Another exhibition, “The Body in Fragments” brought together works modern and primitive that present, literally, the body in fragments. A tiny European finger reliquary was placed next to hands form Africa, and a Syrian phallus, and across the room stood a disembodied leg in a boot by Matisse. Love it.