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Original Art?

Works at the Menil and Texas Gallery suggest artists can still be unique -- even in imitation

But for all its postmodernly recombinants, Levine's installation -- indeed, her passive/aggressive strategies -- ultimately irritates rather than seduces. Striving for the intelligent and subtle, Levine's "Newborn" is caught up in purchasing power and hit-'em-over-the-head visuals. Levine's objects are intentionally provocative in the way they implicate the viewer and label his or her viewing a self-conscious and ideological act, but Levine's obvious pleasure in objects and commodities made more sense when I saw "Newborn" at Marion Goodman Gallery in New York last spring. Situated in an expansive space just a short sprint from Trump Tower and Cartier, the installation gave a stronger sense of the complicit nature between production and desire. At the Menil, however, Levine edges closely to aesthetic territory occupied by artists such as Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, who gained notoriety in the '80s for glamorously kitsch displays of consumer items. Packaged neatly in a compressed gallery, Levine's "Newborn" looks expensive, exquisitely graded, even effete. One gets the feeling that Levine might have to up the ante to stay in the game. Having begun with transgressive forays that virtually encircled a work of art by questioning issues of patrimony, authorship and originality, Levine this time rehashes old news of high and low, class and flash.

Unlike late modernist paintings, Levine has said her work will not "give you that kind of satisfaction; the closure, balance, harmony. They are about death in a way: the uneasy death of modernism." Although Levine acknowledges this anxiety, she has also attempted to move beyond it. She has stated, "There is a long modernist tradition of endgame art ... and a lot of artists have made the last painting ever to be made. It's a no man's land that a lot of us enjoy moving around in, and the thing is not to lose your sense of humor, because it's only art." The question here is whether Levine's new works signal her own endgame. At the Menil, "Newborn" looks more like a tomb than a nursery, the pianos like coffins rather than bassinets.

If Levine's swank replicas paradoxically call up the perfect surfaces of things in the '90s, then Richard Tuttle's works at Texas Gallery have a grubby look -- as though someone found them in a garbage pail. They are also as close to "non-art" as they could possibly be without crossing the line. Tuttle, who had his first show of painted wood objects in 1965, is part of a generation of artists that dramatically challenged accepted sculptural norms, dissolving boundaries through the use of nontraditional processes, materials and forms. The works of these postminimalists were quickly recognized as distinct expansions on strict reductivism. It was a radical movement in a radical era.

Sculpture could be a pile of stuff in a corner, hanging off a wall or lying around the floor. The point, which has been utterly lost in today's treasures-obsessed art culture, had to do with the conviction that being an artist could be the most important thing in someone's universe. It's a notion that Tuttle began to nurture three decades ago when he insinuated a strange new fever into geometric abstraction. Lithe, if piquantly beautiful, his works have always seemed at first glance simple and offhand -- a bleeding squiggle of green line on a sheet of cardboard, meandering wire, a black triangular shape with concave sides and lopped off points -- but their creaky, homemade look belies a kind of ordering and representation that is canny, and deliberately complex.

The Texas Gallery show -- his first in Houston in more than 20 years -- demonstrates that Tuttle's abilities to define by contour and color what is fleeting and seemingly inexpressible are matchless. The 13 works are composed of two series -- five mixed-media works from "Turnaround" (1987) and eight acrylic on insulbead works from his recent "Space is the Frame for the Other" -- that are hung at various specific heights as if to accommodate two levels of time.

All of the works are lean and abstract, vulnerable and self-effacing, yet strangely compelling and intense. As always, they seem to hover between painting, drawing and sculpture -- their ephemeral materials appear ready to undo themselves at a moment's notice. Yet all exude a formidable presence, as well as a clarity of construction that simply vibrates with natural, Zen-like grace.

In Turnaround V, wires with beads of glue dripping off their tips lead the eye to a series of paper hatchet shapes, creamy leather ties and "floating" maroon forms evocative of some scaly creature. Turnaround I is a sprightly, olive green plywood construction, tree-like in its configuration, that single-handedly holds an expanse of blank wall with unexpected concentration.

Tuttle is a sly master at carefully suspending his inventions within the empty space of the gallery. Despite their small scale and oddly infantlike thrust, one gets the feeling that these poetic, if slightly zany, statements are held there as if gravity had brought them to rest. Tuttle, however, deals with the sensuousness of thought rather than the sensuality of materials. The positioning of any one of the "Turnarounds" on the wall, for example, is an intrinsic part of the work. The individual piece may be turned or rotated from installation to installation, depending on Tuttle's sense of place in relation to the work. And one of the most remarkable things in "watching" any one of the works is the seemingly endless transmogrification of volume, line, surface, edge and shadow.

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