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Bugs to Beauty

Mehretu maps out identity at Barbara Davis Gallery

In William T. Vollman's epic 1987 novel Ye Bright and Risen Angels, the author posits a clandestine revolution by the world's population of insects, who wage war in protest of eons of being swatted, squashed and exterminated. In the course of the story, Vollman's beetles and wasps take on the characteristics of oppressed and minority peoples -- Jews, Native Americans, blacks -- and the author's sprawling, slightly zany metaphor slowly unfolds against a backdrop of human power and domination. With an intelligent grasp of the philosophical playing field of contemporary art, paintings by Museum of Fine Arts Core Fellow Julie Mehretu function much like Vollman's engaging tale. In so doing, they assert the importance of stories in the face of a minimal tendency to restrict art to visual impact.

The backdrop of most of Mehretu's canvases, the largest of which are about seven by eight feet, is an architectural, perspectival form, often one corner of a room seen as if the viewer were standing inside the room. The walls and floor are mapped out in blocks of thin, flinty color. This backdrop suggests a space both domestic and modern, invoking the simple cube that has been so important in the art of this century. But the backdrop quickly recedes behind elegant layers of vellum-like polymer, on which Mehretu, using pen and ink, inscribes the movements of imaginary civilizations, mapping them out like a coach's instructions for a particularly intricate football play. In these diagrams, flocks of tiny symbols fight whole battles and complete major migrations; search parties venture forth and return, and families go into exile.

Mehretu's maps, on display at Barbara Davis Gallery, are part blueprint, part weather map, part topography, and each layer has a scale and population all its own. In a clever subversion of the implied purity of the cube, the walls and floor of the backdrop become continental zones of color across which march the tiny buglike characters. The symbols themselves -- swarms of eyeballs, mini-vulvas, shield-like breasts, asterisks, tepees -- are precisely drawn, as are the aerial-view plans for the buildings and bunkers through which they pass, their direction of travel indicated by tiny arrows. Though graceful, these are not expressive scrawls, but individuals with dramas that are simultaneously abstract and compelling. Maps, Mehretu realizes, are rational -- rather than personal -- encodings that have a strong hold on the human imagination.

Born in Egypt and very well traveled, Mehretu clearly addresses multicultural or global concerns, including the question of identity. But she does so gently, in a way that broadens her playing field to include the very formal concerns of color and line, which results in exquisite work. Identity, after all, is determined only by relationship to community and, by extension, narrative. Here, Mehretu's charted stories are both abstract and abstraction's foil.

Houston's art dealers have reserved summer in Houston as a time to showcase artists new to the scene, and like Mehretu, San Antonio painter Giuseppe Luciani is one of the most interesting of the July crop. Luciani's spare show in the back room of Rudolph Poissant Gallery brings to mind the garish, anatomically correct "mannequin art" that has come to the fore with the work of sculptors such as Charles Ray and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Though they address varying concerns, these mannequin pieces use the casual realness of pubic hair, paunchy stomachs and bad hairdos not to shock (as Luciani clearly understands, art can no longer shock) but to thwart the high-mindedness of abstraction. Along those lines, Luciani's paintings are the work of a bored abstract painter who wants to use his representational skills again. And just as sculptors have begun to alter mannequins to represent a specific, rather than an archetypal, person, Luciani's unflinching "portraits" of his hand, his pelvic region (broken off at the waist and thighs like statuary), the lower half of a man's head and a close-up of a woman's vagina are skillfully specific, down to the cleft of a lip or the glint of a fingernail.

Still, each body part floats like a flesh island in a sea of calm, white, glossy paint, looking like the pages of an anatomy primer. For all their specificity, they can't be attached to a personality. Instead, they are specimens, samples of personalities, with identifying labels such as Irene's Cunt or Portrait: Nate Cassie. These cropped fragments, however intimately examined, do not lead to an understanding of the whole human, but rather the overwhelming physicality of the fragments themselves. This is the kitsch of the body -- what, after all, is more predictable than a hand?

In the multi-canvas An All-American Allegory, the relationship between these strange portraits and abstraction becomes apparent. Here, Luciani took older work -- several square canvases of that white, glossy paint dotted with saucers of poured-on primary colors -- and interspersed it with canvases of Superman-style red, blue and yellow stars. Each star sports an incredibly realistic, veined penis, popping out of the center like a newly minted rock star. Next to these ridiculous phalli, the polka-dot spurts of the older canvases take on new meaning. One way or another, they are products of the body and its exuberant banality.

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