Shiny Happy Creatures

For the current show at DiverseWorks, the 14 members of the organization's Artist Board Visual Arts Committee have each chosen one artist. The idea, according to the catalog, was that the diversity of the committee would lead to a show that lives up to DiverseWork's name; the result is a science fair-like assemblage of work, hung unimaginatively (or, one might argue, democratically) around the perimeter of the warehouse gallery, with one sculpture assemblage heaped in the center of the floor as if waiting to be installed. This kind of show may indeed provide an "overview of the current Houston art scene" (as the catalog asserts), but it offers no curatorial structure. The catalog doesn't even include basic biographical information on the artists. Even the name of this low-budget season-filler, "ABC: Artist Board Chooses," focuses on the method of selection rather than the works themselves.

The good thing about the "ABC" format is that it allows Artist Board members an opportunity to select underexposed artists, which many of them did. The ones who followed that path fared so well, in fact, that it might have been smart to make underexposure a criterion. If nothing else, it would have helped avoid overlapping other shows, as happens with Elizabeth McBride, one of the more established artists in "ABC," and also the focus of a current two-person exhibit at Sally Sprout Gallery.

With the exception of Rice University artist-in-residence Whitfield Lovell (who was selected by Rice University Art Gallery director Kimberly Davenport), all the artists in "ABC" are from Houston. Like McBride's repetitive abstractions in decorator colors, the New Yorker's four works on paper are painfully trite. They are well-rendered, daguerreotype-style portraits of African-Americans, but each person is pictured standing in the palm of a giant hand, a United Way-style symbol of community and support.

In light of the various agendas at work, it's inevitable that the work in "ABC" varies widely in style and sophistication. Delfina Vannucci's punky Prozac-victim installation of photo IDs, GRE scores, letters from her psychiatrist and assorted other paraphernalia is the high point of the show. The viewer is asked to contemplate the "Delfina Vannucci" sketched out without consent in these documents, each footnoted by the artist's toast-dry comments in red or black rub-off letters. A resident alien in the U.S., some of Vannucci's comments are in Italian because, as she explains, "I'm fucking sick of having to adapt." As she remarks with Eeyore-like dignity on her age -- "I'm 31 and I can't change that" -- as well as the "teenage boys I couldn't have then and can't have now," Vannucci is discomfortingly confessional and mournful to the brink of self-pity. But her most evocative work doesn't depend on the written word: 30 tiny plastic doll shoes are each filled with a pastel pill, psychoactive drugs taking the place of the doll/person. A particularly funny part of her installation is The Catcher in the Rye with Holden as a Girl, a paperback copy of the classic novel with tiny gender corrections glued over names and pronouns referring to the narrator and his (her) classmates. Occasionally, Vannucci misses a pronoun or two, revealing the whole project as a futile attempt at redress, as flimsy and vulnerable as the identity the artist invites us to inspect.

Another standout, Kristina Marrin's Nadja Rug, exceeds Vannucci's needlework in its labor-intensity. A more calculated and detached examination of identity, the piece is a hooked-rug portrait of supermodel Nadja Auermann, whose deep-pile head floats in an otherwise empty grid. Marrin is a master pointillist, using pink, blue, fuchsia and green yarn to create an appropriately glamorous, if fuzzy, cast for Auermann's scornful countenance. The hours spent working to produce this homely "rug" are a tribute to the model, who spends a similarly copious amount of time perfecting her face for fame.

Mario Perez's work similarly whets the appetite for more. Of the three paintings of his included in "ABC," one, Paisaje en Abstracto (Landscape in Abstraction), is particularly interesting. Inspired by the kinds of paintings sold off the backs of buses in Mexico, this clumsy landscape is mucked up by drips of varnish. Perez has painted abstract rectangles hovering over the scene, like Magritte-style businessmen or modernist aliens landing on traditional turf. Also worth mentioning for their technical virtuosity are the sculptures of Troy Woods, whose smoothly hewn wooden forms, stretched between or hung from industrial metal harnesses, are possessed of a tense but lyrical grace.

Much of the work in this show, though, is plagued by formal decisions that serve no purpose other than to make a piece look "arty." Sheila Pree's black-and-white photograph of a rose isn't more interesting because she chose to block out a portion of the image by painting over the glass. Likewise, there's no compositional reason why Carol Gerhardt's abstraction, Sacred Cow and the Madonna -- You Can't See the Milk, should have been done on three separate canvases laid side by side and framed together. And Lynn Foster's Jumping to His Real Dad would have been just as powerful if its two images (of a boy leaping into a pool toward an uncomfortable-looking man) had been printed on one sheet of paper each, instead of four sheets grouped edge to edge and shellacked over with a drippy medium.

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