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Gray Matter of Concern

Both a bang and a whimper? The CAM's long-awaited Texas show may burn bright, but it doesn't burn deep

As you walk through the CAM's front doors there's an eerie sensation of being drawn into a fire -- a 15-foot inferno, to be exact -- composed of stacked artificial fireplace logs that crackle and flicker. For some, Helen Altman's gridded wall assemblage evokes natural forms such as a burial mound, fragments of a forest fire or even the warm glow of a campfire. But to others, the expansive piece may summon primal fears that harken to flight, heat and loss of control.

Funneling you into the blaze, which seemingly burns but never consumes, are two wall panels set at angles, each bearing a large niche for the display of 21 glass beakers filled with colored fluids. Tre Arenz has molded clay female nudes and submerged them in the 42 large jars with black caps; the nudes test the waters, so to speak, for their disintegrative powers. The liquids, ranging from clear to Pepto-Bismol pink and Kool-Aid hues, are everyday fluids -- motor oil, Windex, dishwashing liquid -- and some are highly toxic. Passing by the installation is like looking at a science experiment in which specimens are collected, identified and stored. The figures decompose as floating entities or slink as dismembered heaps on the bottom. Faces are smooth and pressed against the glass by condensation crystals, bubbles or a "witch's brew" of thick green muck.

In the CAM's main gallery, you'll find a banquet table laden with 7,386 red-and-yellow Tylenol gelcaps by the Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing). You'll also find Anne Wallace's assemblage that presents parts -- roots, trunks, and limbs -- cut and bolted together. There's Patricia Ruiz Bayon's seven life-sized body casts fashioned from a mixture of palm fiber and paper, as well as Toby Topek's Dining Room Piece, a wall installation displaying found objects in glass medical jars filled with healing waters of the artist's creation and paired with limestone rocks wrapped in old bedsheets. In Thomas Glassford's sculptures, medical equipment such as tubing, trays and clamps encase or dangle from large gouxds. Nearby is Greg Reuter's grouping of five rows of ceramic heads suspended at eye level by wires from the ceiling, in addition to Bill Thomas's photographic tongue-in-cheek self-portraits exploring various methods of suicide.

Above the CAM's interior entrance is an installation by Eric Avery, a practicing AIDS psychiatrist in Galveston, featuring silkscreens of the artist's healthy blood smear painted on skin-toned paper. These abstract shapes, treated as oversized patterns, are seemingly transformed into mass-produced decorative wallpaper. Above them hover several 3-D spheres of the HIV virus that look like playful planetary orbs.

These are some of the works you'll see in CAM's highly anticipated exhibition "Texas/Between Two Worlds," which unites 15 artists from Houston, Fort Worth/Dallas, the Texas-Mexico border and a few points in between. Spearheaded by Peter Doroshenko, CAM's Engelhard curator, along with a four-person international curatorial team -- Louise Dompierre (associate director/chief curator, the Power Plant, Toronto); James Fisher (former curator/assistant to the director of exhibitons, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth); Sylvia Pandolfi Elliman (director, Museo de Arte Alvar y Carmen T. de Carrillo Gil, Mexico City); and Conrado Tostado (curator of contemporary art, also at the Museo de Arte) -- the show aims to foster a compelling dialogue among diverse artists working in a variety of media. To fully explore the range and depth of art being created in the state, the curators reviewed 6,500 slides and supposedly traveled thousands of miles throughout the state to visit 60 artists' studios.

After completing their rounds, the curators found that artists in Texas are grappling with many of the same universal issues that currently concern artists internationally. And they perceived the common thread among Texas artists as a general sense of alienation or, as stated in the exhibition catalog, "that great 'between,' that gray area which is neither here nor there but somewhere else, beyond complete understanding." Accordingly, that "gray area" conjures up an ambiguous stew of psychological, moral and sexual suggestions. There's a ring of humankind's relationship to death, spirituality and the environment, as well as allusions to medicine, high technology and Mexican culture. In the general impression it makes, the show is a trauma center -- sterile, hushed and twitchy. It isn't much fun, and there are few signs of hope or holistic impulses evident in the works themselves.

Although a few of these artists are very good, most aren't in this context, because their work seems saddled with a programmatic need for professional explaining and bodes only a return to grad-school methodology -- which may soothe museum curators but will surely suffocate viewing pleasure with its low-voltage gloom. Many of these artists are young and only the best of them avoid sophomoric clichŽs of jerryrigged work. It takes a long time to figure out what "serious" really means here. There is sometimes an antic kind of charm on view, but it's surface charm.

Emerging as the anomaly of the exhibition is Nic Nicosia's group of tinted black-and-white photographs exploring such complex themes as marriage, children and middle age. The staged dramas, which probe the darker side of domesticity, those in-between moments that address our unresolved fears and desires, are mature works redolent with undeniable psychological power.

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