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Shiny Happy Creatures

In 1991, when she appeared on the Houston art scene as a Glassell School of Art Core Fellow, sculptor Sharon Engelstein's knack for distinguishing herself in group shows quickly earned her recognition as a rising star. "Shiny and New" at Texas Gallery is her first major show in Houston in three years, and it does not disappoint. If anything, it's one of the best solo shows by a Houston artist this season. The pieces share many of the concerns of Engelstein's previous biomorphic work, which isolated or mutated parts of the human anatomy. The well-dressed deformed and the offhandedly horrific are still her specialties. Only now she has turned to highly stylized and modified animal shapes, pleasing to the eye, disturbing to the psyche and pleasing to the eye -- in that order.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by a receiving line of creatures -- a mama bear standing more than six feet tall, two cubs and a small otter. They're dressed in theatrical costumes -- mama in a sheer nightie, the otter in a splendid red velvet cape. Though certainly droll, these are no furry Disney creations. They are abstracted mannequins, fashioned from the foam forms taxidermists use to give shape to skins and coated with a sheen of oil enamel paint. Beside the fact that they are wearing clothes, there is something a bit off about them -- they have the too slender look of a wet dog, and one cub has only three legs.

Many artists have used animals in their work as a stand-in for the human form, exploiting their metaphorical power just as Aesop did in his fables. Both personable and personifiable, Mickey Mouse, Mr. Toad and Rover invite our psychological and emotional projections. We can feel tremendous sympathy from or for them without their batting an eye. But Engelstein's models -- eyeless and, because taxidermists have no need to stuff the ears of a skin, earless -- are exaggeratedly inscrutable. As such, they both invite and confront the viewer's tendency to project. The not-quite-right self, which tries on various identities, is reflected in these not-quite-right creatures, so uncomfortable in their own skins that they have shed them for more civilized attire.

Engelstein's work is driven by her attraction to highly suggestive abstract forms, whether invented or found. She has ordered objects not only from catalogs of taxidermy equipment, but also from catalogs of industrial appliances and sex toys. She then modified what she received with meticulous care. In this show, her nine glamorously hued Untitled (Sequined Forms) languish and writhe in a group on the gallery floor, organic shapes sausaged into dense skeins of sequins. Some are small taxidermist fauna such as skunk and mink, with truncated haunches where their legs should be. One looks like the trussed whole chicken you buy at the grocery store -- it would be at home on a platter of deviled Faberge eggs. The work is almost swallowed up by its seductive decoration, which is, of course, Engelstein's point. She wants the viewer to covet these bejeweled but maimed objects, to approach the amputee in the evening dress and ask for a dance.

Not all the work in "Shiny and New" is successful. Bloated Elongated Leg Foot, a narrow, gold-satin stuffed sock that hangs from the ceiling nearly to the floor, is neither as eerily familiar nor as mysterious as the other pieces. One Arm, a gray lace pillow with a prosthetic arm attached at one corner, has a dated, surrealist look. And Bear Rug, in which Engelstein has attached the head and feet of a cub to a thin pillow of luxe brown lace, is a contemptuous one-liner. Because of the implicit cruelty of the taxidermy supplies, Engelstein achieves more when she's willing to break her detachment and identify with her subjects. In Self-Portrait with Manicure, Pedicure and Borrowed Scarf, a small bear shyly presents grafted-on human hands for inspection. The piece is reminiscent of a William Wegman photograph in which one of his Weimaraners sports bright-red nails and a bottle of polish -- dressed up, but not going out. And as in Wegman's work, the autobiographical connection (animal-as-self) is clear, not only because of the title and human parts, but because of the empathetic approach of the artist.

The artists who reinvigorated sculpture in the '60s did so because they believed in its artistic autonomy -- instead of two-dimensional, illusive representation, sculpture was three-dimensional presentation that occupied the same space as the viewer. The greatest achievement of Engelstein's sculptures is that they take that idea one step further. By sexily asserting their physicality, they remind the viewer of his or her own physical nature. Tiger Tail, one of the show's most playful pieces, is a giant, fake-fur "tail" whose 12-and-a-half-foot span halves the room and leans up against one wall. Like some kind of bachelor-pad bean bag chair, its mockingly phallic, soft form invites full contact. One could easily read Engelstein as a feminine feminist, co-opting the traditional desirability of the female nude (the amputee) in her work. She retains womanly beauty only to laughingly twist its form into something fleshy yet repulsive. But still, her morphed, incomplete anatomies compel us to acknowledge our own wholeness and presence -- to leave our minds and reenter our bodies, as animal as they are.

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.

DiverseWorks is threatening to make this rudderless exhibit a yearly occurrence. If they do, it would serve them well to set up stricter parameters for what is and isn't included. Or else more active interaction could be fostered between board members when making their choices, in the hope of creating a dialogue between the selected works. The annual juried group shows at Lawndale Art and Performance Center and Blaffer Gallery already do a good job of showcasing the diversity of Houston's art scene. Without a more specific goal in mind, there's no need for DiverseWorks to jump into that territory.

"Shiny and New" will show through June 29 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden Street, 524-1593.

"ABC: Artist Board Chooses" will show through June 29 at DiverseWorks,
1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.

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