Over four days in August 2017, a trillion gallons of water flooded into Harris County. In Pearland alone, a suburb just south of Houston’s Beltway 8 outer loop, a record 9.92 inches of rain fell within 90 minutes. The violent winds of Hurricane Harvey reached upwards of 132 mph upon the storm’s initial landfall and torrential rainfall peaked at close to 60 inches in some areas.
Flash flooding begot extensive damage once the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs west and north of downtown Houston, reached full capacity and underwent controlled release, spilling water out into neighboring homes. People were rescued by boat, fled on foot, and waited out rising water levels with the hope that eventually, finally, soon the rain had to end. When the sun finally came out, Houstonians looked upon a fractured, waterlogged city that has slowly, and not equitably, marched towards recovery.
Though Hurricane Harvey’s grip on the city’s psyche has loosened slightly, it is never far from memory — making perhaps now an ideal time to start experimenting with how those memories take form.
“Sky Loop,” Virginia Lee Montgomery’s new exhibition at Houston’s Lawndale Art Center, brings the storm into focus with a softer lens, telling a dreamlike reconstruction of the artist’s experience during the hurricane at her childhood home in Houston’s Memorial neighborhood.
VLM, as the artist is often referred to, plays in the abstract, referring to her video work as both “niche” and part of a subgenre that infrequently translates into the greater public sphere of contemporary art. And while that perhaps rings true with former video pieces, like the artist’s “Honey Moon” and “Pony Cocoon,” the exhibition “Sky Loop” pulls from a library of images that includes both VLM’s original video of the storm as well as the media footage that is now indelibly part of Houston’s collective history.
The easily recognizable media footage is mutated and imbued with a new visual syntax. In the show’s eponymous work — one of four videos in the show — a collage of images creates a disorienting path through the Hurricane Harvey’s lifecycle. In an early frame, a small herd of deer appear in the middle of a flooded roadway, fulfilling their idiomatic namesake by looking utterly confused as to where to go and what to do next — their disorientation transitions into flashing shots of flooding, storm patterns, and a drill boring through the clouds.
Long shots of the Buffalo Bayou, the slow-moving river that flows through Houston, are punctuated with the chirps of birds and hum of insects. VLM emerges on an inlet, roughly pushing sand on the ground, perhaps towards something that no longer exists in the wake of the storm.
Later, VLM rides behind her mother in a canoe; they are surveying their neighborhood by boat. Homes are unreachable by foot, with water up to the doorstep and even windows. Quiet shock reverberates between them — and subsequently back into the audience — as the sound of moving water and cicadas fills the gallery space. “Sky Loop” ends with honey dripping through the frame, covering images of VLM’s mother, the city of Houston, and the planet with a gold, viscous sheen. VLM’s eye (and the subject of the video “Sky Eye,” which flanks the other gallery wall) emerges, watching over the storm, before the video loops and again, destruction unfurls.
The exhibition also contains sculptural elements, including “Head Stone,” which first debuted in 2016, and “Mom’s Canoe.” A contrast of texture “Head Stone” features a 20-lb. river rock nestled atop five memory foam mattresses. Audience members are invited to nestle up next to the rock and feel the soft tug of gravity at the piece’s core. “Mom’s Canoe” puts the vintage aluminum canoe, filled with sand, of the “Sky Loop” video into the gallery in a new format, giving audience members the chance to recreate VLM’s on-screen kinetic use of sand on their own. Both sculptures provide a nice contrast to the stimulating and rapid-fire video, offering a slower pace of movement, which is to say, very little at all.
For fans of VLM, “Sky Loop” as an exhibition is a natural extension from the themes — rebirth, isolation, observation and obfuscation — that have become notable in her work. But what renders most distinctive about the show is the earnest and personal portrayal of a storm that is often taken in its totality. Millions of Houstonians had similar, or worse, experiences with Harvey — and in the end, their stories transformed into an amalgamation of loss.
Here, with “Sky Loop,” Lawndale invites its visitors to find the intimacy in the changed landscape and human toll of the storm, while keeping an eye towards an optimistic, if not also precarious, restoration for the city.
“Virginia Lee Montgomery: Sky Loop” continues through March 29 at Lawndale Art Center, Houston, lawndaleartcenter.org