Teen-Curated Show at the Menil Collection Examines Environmental and Social Change

By | April 4, 2016

Something about the black and white photograph caught Eli Winter’s imagination right away. A solitary teenager on a bicycle seemed to be riding in circles in a dry concrete culvert, oblivious to his bleak, semi-rural surrounding. “To me, there’s a really ominous feeling about how the environment is being degraded,” Winter said. “I think it’s about our relationships as humans to the environment.” Learning that the photo was shot on the Blackfoot Indian reservation in Montana added another layer of complexity. “It looks just like any American suburb, but knowing that it’s an Indian reservation completely changes the meaning.”

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Tom Arndt, Blackfoot reservation, Browning, Montana, 1978, printed 2012. Gelatin silver print, 11 13/16 × 17 5/8 in. (30 × 44.8 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of David and Mary Parker. © Tom Arndt

The photograph, “Blackfoot reservation, Browning, Montana,” which was taken by Tom Arndt in 1978 (above), is one of the 19 works currently on display in Root Shift: Photographs of Stasis and Change, a new Menil Collection exhibition curated by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston’s Teen Council. Made up of students from local high schools, every year the Teen Council researches, designs, and curates an art exhibition that is then displayed in a Houston museum.

This year’s Teen Council comprised 12 members, including Winter, a senior at Carnegie Vanguard High School. To tie in with the 2016 FotoFest Biennial, the Council decided to curate an exhibition based on the Menil Collection’s photographic archive. They began in October with over 3,000 images, reviewing them one at a time in long, sometimes contentious meetings. “Overall, there was mutual agreement for about 60 percent of the photos, and then there were 40 percent where someone would really want to keep a photo, or drop it,” said Alex Rodriguez, a senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. “So we would have a debate, with everyone stating why they thought it should stay or go.”

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Frederick C. Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, Greenwood Baptist Church, East Texas, from the series Texas, An American Experience, 1976. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 13 13/16 in. (24.1 × 35.1 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of the artists. © Frederick C. Baldwin and Wendy Watriss

The idea behind Teen Council is to introduce teenagers to the world of museums and contemporary art, said Teen Council coordinator Jamal Cyrus. “The program isn’t necessarily focused on people who are artists, but just art enthusiasts,” he said. “It’s all about finding ways to bring teens into the museum, show them how museums work, what the different departments are, and also what the local arts community is like.”

After months of discussions, the council finally narrowed down the number of photographs for the show to 30. But when they tried modeling how the works would be shown, using a scale model of the Menil, they quickly realized that they would have to make a further cut. “We thought we could have a lot more photos,” Winter admitted. “We were striving for 30, but we were just trying to squeeze in too many photographs, and making so many pairings that it wasn’t feasible.”

Making the final cut were works by well-known photographers like Walker Evans, Richard Misrach, and Edward S. Curtis, as well as lesser-known figures like Elliott Erwitt and Édouard Boubat. One of the most powerful photographs in the show is by Frederick C. Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, the co-founders of FotoFest. This seemed only appropriate, since many of the exhibitions photographs play off this year’s FotoFest theme, “Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet.”

As explained in the exhibition brochure, which was written by the Teen Council, “Humans no longer coexist with the earth, but subjugate it. And we as teens have become so mindful of the worlds we carry inside of us that we often forget to repair the world around us, the world in which we live. We no longer write cursive but type, no longer keep diaries but post blogs, no longer develop photographs but upload them to social media. Yet the impulse to document remains.”

Root Shift: Photographs of Stasis and Change Selected by CAMH Teen Council. Thru April 24. Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St. 713-525-9400. menil.org

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