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Playing Around

A quartet of current exhibits show art can be fun and challenging

Separation is also a theme in Gary Hill's Tall Ships. In this work, the viewer enters a long, dark hallway along which blurry points of light glimmer; as you proceed, the blurry points become human beings, who appear to walk up to you as you pass by. By the time they reach you, these black and white figures are nearly life-size, and they simply stare searchingly at you for a few seconds, then turn and retreat to their original place, sometimes throwing a hopeful backward glance. Though technologically advanced, this piece is simple and elegiac, fraught with the ambiguity of any human encounter. At the end of the hall, a small girl ventures to meet the visitor, arms raised in a gesture that at first seems like a shrug, but then becomes a questioning request that one has the urge to respond to. But there is nothing to do but eventually retreat.

Retreat is an option many might select when confronting Mark Flood's aggressive, intentionally bad paintings at Brasil. In many ways, Flood is a marginal yet crucial figure for the art world, one who expresses its preoccupations, obsessions and anxieties. His paintings -- or lack thereof, since one piece in the current show consists of teen magazine pinups and other images tacked to a bare stretcher and titled Painting I intended to make -- are combinations of bitter honesty, selective laziness, sublimated desire and perversely festive glitter. Many appear to be abstract paintings washed over with solid white or black paint. One, on which Flood has left a narrow strip of abstract marks, is a flow chart for an art career in which jaunty arrows mimic the partly revealed gestural abstraction. One potential path is "make art, no gallery, store art, don't get paid." SUCCESS, written in large, celebratory letters, is also part of the chart, but it is isolated on the far side of the gulf of abstraction, and one can reach it only by way of a "scuzzy gallery." The ultimate question, it seems, is why make art at all, if these are the available options?

Flood asks that question not only with respect to the art world's celebrity machine, but also in the face of impending world calamity. One of his larger paintings has a simple off-white ground with the following scrawled across it: "PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN RAC/1. Massive Die-offs, 2. Acknowledge ongoing eco-deaths, 3. Proliferating group suicides* (*without despair), 4. Proliferating mob violence..." The litany ends with "7. Rebirth in the Arts," a prediction that may be entirely sincere, or it may be cynical sarcasm -- after all, Flood himself makes art, even if he questions his activity. "I'm not a cynic; I'm just not an idiot," Flood has said -- and only against such a shockingly astute view of the world could paintings fail in their resolve to be paintings with such brutal honesty.

A fourth current show that's worth a look is DiverseWorks's "Romper Room," an import from Thread Waxing Space in New York City. "Romper Room" purports to feature the work of artists who "look at the zone in which art and play collide." Unfortunately, that translates into a show of artists who deal with play literally rather than conceptually -- which means that they photograph toys, reconstruct toys, mutilate toys and make their own toys. Much of the art in this show looks destined to be photographed for the cover of an indie rock album, if not for the fact that even indie rockers are probably over Barbie by now.

Still, there are a few bright moments, among them Pam Lins's disemboweled Nerf Football Flower (didn't you always want to rip a Nerf ball apart?); Takashi Murakami's paintings of a mouthless, wide-eyed Japanimation gal who's first pictured suited up in a bulletproof superhero suit, then shown naked to the world; and D'Nell Larson's BUMP. One of the few pieces in the show that actually encourages play, BUMP consists of twin bicycle-powered swans that glide like miniature parade floats when you climb inside one and pedal.

"The zone in which art and play collide" sounds like a fun place, a place where the serious becomes fun and the fun has an edge to it. It sounds like a kinetic place, too, an exploratorium for the senses. Yet none of the exhibits that make up "Romper Room" accomplishes the creation of that place as well as does Yayoi Kusama's Dots Obsession. After you've been staring at the yellow ceiling for a while, you can look out the glass front wall of the gallery and see dots everywhere, even on the lawn, suggesting that the zone where art and play collide can be projected onto any zone -- once, that is, it's burned into our minds.

"Dots Obsession" will be on view through November 2 at the Rice University Art Gallery, 6100 Main Street (Sewall Hall), 527-6069. "Being and Time" will be on view through October 5 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 284-8250. Works by Mark Flood will be on view through October 9 at Brasil, 2606 Dunlavy, 528-1993. "Romper Room" will be on view through October 25 at DiverseWorks, 117 E. Freeway, 223-8346.

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