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At Texas State, an exhibit of contemporary art ponder the big questions

An electrifying exhibit, "Substainability" questions how we shape our lives

Luke Quinton
Hannah Raymer, an assistant at Texas State University's Gallery I & II, sets up the installation of 'Untitled (Placebo)' with pieces of candy. Gallery I & II, Texas State University

What is sustainable in the context of a lifetime? Environmental catchphrases surround us, but if we revisit the root of the word, to "sustain" once meant a great deal more.

The Latin root meant to "hold," and associations abound: to maintain, to endure, to support.

At the heart of Texas State University's electrifying new exhibit, "SUBstainability," we're asked to consider not the life cycle of products that we use but rather how we shape the cycle of our lives. How do humans maintain and endure? Process memories, struggles and desires? How do we rise above grief and loss?

Beyond the exhibit's opaque title, some answers are clear.

The iconic piece at the literal center of the gallery is Felix Gonzalez-Torres' "Untitled (Placebo)," 700 pounds of pineapple candy in foil, forming a rectangle on the floor.

The work is a stunning meditation on loss. "Please Take One," bids the invitation on the wall. And the candies, all shiny and vibrant, are a visceral presentation of joy, a response to the death of the artist's partner, from AIDS. The candies represent "an excess of pleasure," Gonzalez-Torres said before his own death, also from complications from AIDS. "I didn't want it to last, because then it couldn't hurt me." By offering the candy as a gift (the flavor of the candy can differ in each installation of the piece), the interaction forces an end to mourning.

On loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art, the candies are only the first in a dramatic collection of first-tier modern works and future classics.

Jeanne Quinn's "A Thousand Tiny Deaths" is the exhibit's most dramatic work. Partially enclosed in walls, two openings reveal a collection of black porcelain vases at varying heights, held from the ceiling. Except that they're not.

Peeking out of each vase is a balloon, in bright orange, yellow or red, tied to the ceiling with black string. Physics majors can predict the result: As the air lets out, each balloon slowly loses its hold on the vase, and they become porcelain rubble on the floor, on an unpredictable schedule.

"The shattering is not just this jubilant thing, but also about loss and breaking and not being whole anymore," says co-curator Andy Campbell.

What remains is a metaphor for death, or perhaps a symbol of life and the soul. Or maybe, staring at the litter of beautiful black porcelain and fizzled balloons, you might come up with insight of your own. It's a stunning work.

More subtle, but perhaps more profound, are Eve Andree Laramee's "Four Hearts (The Microcosms of Doctor Know)," which consists of a display containing four glass hearts, varying in shape and scientific accuracy.

They seem delicate, which only enhances their beauty. "I wanted them to be transparent, I wanted to emphasize their fragility," Laramee says during a visit to Texas State last week. "I wanted them to be completely pure. They represent four manifestations of love."

One is closest to an actual heart, another is a flaming heart, a third is a funnel (the heart that receives) and the fourth is bottlelike. There is something poignant about the sublimely smooth lines of the clear glass.

Laramee, who, coincidentally, taught with Gonzalez-Torres, calls him "a galvanizing force, beloved by his students." And her work from the same period also deals with death in the life cycle. It was "a time in my life when I was dealing with a lot of loss," she says. "Both my parents died. Numerous friends of mine were dying or had died from AIDS."

She had an opportunity to work with glass blowers, and thought "This is perfect, because it's a way of breathing life into an object, and sort of capturing a moment in time."

But the show also is invested in adding more joy to one's life.

Alex Da Corte's "I'm Like So Happy To See You," is a hilarious reconsideration of tired birthday messages, and Mark Mumford's monstrous wall sticker declares in emergency red that "THERE OUGHT TO BE MORE DANCING."

And just under the surface of the exhibit's most spectacular works is a bevy of dynamic smaller pieces that demand attention. There's Chris Sauter's bedsheet with galaxy-shaped stains, Ian Bogost's Atari game that rewards stillness, and Sarah Sudhoff's photos documenting sorority culture and rituals.

Dario Robleto's miniature altar creations mash up absurd yet seemingly important objects like the tape that recorded a now-extinct bird, with paper made from the pulp of soldiers' letters to their mothers.

Robleto's works echo the thoughts by co-curator and gallery director Mary Mikel Stump that sustainability "isn't a linear movement, it's actually more of a circular movement."

"This is going to speak to you in a circular way. It's not a lecture," she says.

Without the back story for each of the works, the life-cycle connection is not always easy to discover, but there are enough pieces of overwhelming power and complexity to reward multiple visits.

"SUBstainability"

When: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 1

Where: Gallery I & II, Sessoms and Comanche streets, Texas State University, San Marcos

Cost: Free

Info: (512) 245-2611, www.finearts.txstate.edu/Art/gallery.html