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Show of Flow

Twenty-five years of "Perspectives" stream together into a stunning CAMH retrospective

"There was a bad storm, a big ship, and all kinds of people on the ship, I remember some of them got sick, they were kind of throwing up or something. I don't remember the colors. That's all I can say."

These words appear at the beginning of Sophie Calle's recollection of Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The original painting was stolen in 1990, when two men wearing police uniforms tricked their way into the side door of Boston's Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum. The work was never recovered.

But Calle won't let us forget it. In her 1991 work Last Seen…(Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee), she presents a photograph of the spot on the wall where the painting once hung, as well as another panel with her memories of the work typed out.

Cue the maggots: Sam Taylor-Wood's A Little 
Death isn't as still as it seems.
Courtesy of White Cube, London
Cue the maggots: Sam Taylor-Wood's A Little Death isn't as still as it seems.
Rodney Graham's Vexation Island
Rodney Graham's Vexation Island

Details

Through January 9; 713-284-8250
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose

The Storm was Rembrandt's only marine painting, and Calle's recollections are just as fluid as its waves. As she barrels through talk of the buffeted boat -- which bore Rembrandt himself as the 13th apostle -- her recollections flow and blur. She's not even trying to be objective. At the end of the narrative, we learn that she first saw the painting on the lid of a five-pound box of candy.

Calle's work is up at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for "Perspectives@25: A Quarter Century of New Art in Houston." The Rembrandt re-creation wasn't in her 1994 "Perspectives" show, but, like many of the other works featured in the CAMH's stunning retrospective, it is similar to the work originally presented by the artist. The museum is giving us a fresh look at some familiar faces.

Fluidity pops up all over the show. Robert Longo's drawing of a curling wave greets you at the front, while Aaron Parazette's nod to the Surfrider Foundation logo is tucked away in the back. Nancy Burson offers up a morphed amalgam of the human race: Characteristics from all ethnicities flow together into one beautiful face. And Dario Robleto gives us some crates filled with bottles of homemade potion.

The CAMH has no permanent collection, and its "Perspectives" series has always been focused on chugging through exhibitions fairly quickly, so such an overwhelming sense of flow is fitting. It's also fitting in that contemporary art is constantly evolving. Gone are concrete notions of absolute ideals. Truth and Beauty have been de-capitalized and brought down to earth.

At first glance, Sam Taylor-Wood's A Little Death looks like a classic Old Master still life. A dead rabbit hangs upside down from the wall, its head resting on a wooden table. But this 2002 video work isn't as still as it seems. The animal slowly begins to decompose through time-lapse technology. As maggots start to feast, it becomes clear that Taylor-Wood has devoured old-school notions of art and regurgitated them for the new millennium.

Vernon Fisher offers up a revamped version of Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. When Géricault premiered his work to Parisian society in 1819, onlookers stared at it with fascination and horror. Just three years earlier, the real-life Medusa had gotten stuck on a sandbar, and many of its passengers found themselves on a makeshift raft. Chaos ensued, and tales of cannibalism were one of the few things that made it back to shore. Géricault's painting depicted the castaways clambering on the tattered raft, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine what happened next.

In Fisher's 2002 work, Raft (After Géricault), a World War II image of three men on a raft is splattered with blue paint. Next to the image is a blue silhouette of an old ship, placed between parentheses. Fisher often screws around with text and punctuation in his pieces, and the parentheses in this work, coupled with those in its title, let us know he's cannibalized the work of his predecessors.

The flow keeps going in Rodney Graham's Vexation Island. Filmed in Cinemascope, this 1997 short features magnificent shots of a Caribbean island. You can hear the waves crashing throughout the entire exhibition space. A blue and yellow parrot sits on the knee of Graham, who is dressed as a pirate. He has a large welt on his forehead and is passed out in the sand. Very little action takes place until the pirate awakes and looks up at some coconuts hanging from a palm tree. He shakes the tree and a coconut falls. He gets bopped on the head and passes out again. Encore.

On loan from the Menil Collection, Eric Fischl's Savior Mother, Save Your Love(r) is similar to the works presented in Fischl's 1987 "Perspectives" show. This 1984 painting is rife with cool colors and unsettling mystery. Next to a floating lawn chair, two people try to save another from drowning. As you stare at the calm waters, a couple of questions spring to mind: What made the one protagonist lose her breath in the first place? And why is everyone naked?

The "Perspectives" series has produced some duds over the years -- hey, no one's perfect -- but none of that is represented here. There's a lot of continuity between the works; it's almost as if each piece has a partner or two somewhere else in the room. You've got reworked masterworks and reflections on memory. You've got new media and old. You've got flux, flux, flux. It makes for one helluva show.

You can reach Keith Plocek at keith.plocek@houstonpress.com

 
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