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DiverseWorks surveys Texas painting -- good and not-so-good

"New Texas Painting," curated by DiverseWorks visual arts director Diane Barber, presents work from 14 Texas artists. Regional surveys are often problematic, and with broad categories like "new," "Texas" and "painting" as the organizing principle of a show, it's bound to feel disjointed. But regional surveys do act as a barometer of art being made in a particular area at a particular time. Barber's sampling encompasses figuration and abstraction, as well as painting that leans toward installation.

Right as you walk in the gallery, you're confronted by a Francesca Fuchs wall painting. In her recent show "MOM" at Texas Gallery, Fuchs debuted a new body of work with breasts and nursing babies, the images simplified into abstract forms. Nipple (2005) is just that, a giant pink nipple surrounded by scattered black lines of hair with a smattering of what looks like chest hair in the center of the wall. (I'm assuming it's a guy nipple, but I suppose it could be a woman with an excess of testosterone.) As in her images of nursing, Fuchs took a close-in and intimate subject and flattened and abstracted it. In "MOM" Fuchs showed large works on canvas, but this wall-based painting works especially well. Something about having an unbounded image emphasizes the abstract qualities of the work.

The standout of the show is the big, ridiculous Cuckoo Clock (2005), crafted by artist and writer Bill Davenport. Davenport is a master of clever trompe l'oeil still-life paintings, but in a recent work he built a giant dungeon door out of carved Styrofoam panels. According to Davenport, the tough part of that work was "getting the ogre behind the door." For this show he's created similarly comic, dark, over-the-top 3-D work. His joyfully absurd Black Forest cuckoo clock is lovingly detailed and painted with a campy faux-bois finish.

"New Texas Painting" is extra-heavy on figuration. Standing Man with Dead Person and Volcano (2005) by Seth Alverson has a self-explanatory title. The man rests his hand on a cane (or a sword?) as he stares dramatically out into the distance. His head is too big, which makes it all even weirder. A smoking volcano is visible in the window behind him, and at his feet is a body that could be his twin. Alverson suggests an improbable narrative, and it works well with the cheesy hyper-realism of his painting style. He clearly loves paint and loses himself in things like the patterned wallpaper, the chartreuse folds of the dead man's shirt and the glossy wood grain of the floor.

Also included in the show is Angela Fraleigh, a former Core Fellow who started out making good "bad paintings" -- portraits and kitschy romance novel images. Then she began breaking up the images with gestural abstract forms, smears and splotches of paint. The examples I saw always looked like she was trying too hard to do something new and it really wasn't working. But in of you from(2005), she seems on her way to resolving the issue, using pools of glossy, translucent color that break up the image without muddy obliteration. It's a much more successful intermingling of figuration and abstraction.

Ali Fitzgerald's odd, kitschy Wild West montage is grubby and strange -- and not in a good way. Sally Scull and the Soiled Doves (2005) is kind of a Western grotesque, roughly painted and peopled with, among other things, frontier and saloon women from history. Their actual stories are a lot more interesting than the paintings Fitzgerald is making about them. And while her shaped canvas is a good strategy, the composition goes to hell in the painting's center.

Joey Fauerso's large-scale work Into the Woods(2005) is really mediocre. It depicts a scene with three shirtless guys standing with their hands up. Behind them is a stream with what looks like some kind of water tower in it. Trying to make a really big, complicated painting is an appealing challenge, but Fauerso's image isn't strong enough to sustain the scale. It feels like he's just illustrating from a photograph. His earlier, small portraits with nonexistent backgrounds were much more manageable and successful.

Also making a change in his work is William Betts. Betts came on the Houston scene with lushly colored abstract striped paintings created with technology of his own design. In his new series, View from Panopticon, Betts is using dots instead of stripes. While dots in painting date back to Seurat's pointillism, these neatly spaced ones reference digital pixilation. The paintings at DiverseWorks look like they were taken from grainy surveillance video, maybe of the London bombers? It is an interesting idea but doesn't work well visually; the images aren't that interesting. Pale and depicting hazy figures, they just look like low-resolution pixilated images. The stripe paintings were solid crowd-pleasers, and it's admirable that Betts is continuing to push his work and not resting on their success, but the new series needs sorting out.

Two artists in the show present paintings in a quasi-installation format. Heyd Fontenot is known for his trademark paintings of little naked people with big heads. In Titty Baby Folly (2005), he presents more of these paintings against a wall painted with stripes in retro shades of blue, gray, mauve and ocher. He surrounds them with deer heads and clusters of satin prize ribbons in matching colors with nipple-like centers. The whole trophy/naked people thing is a one-liner. While the overall effect is nicely decorative and helps shore up the paintings, it makes you ask, Why even include the paintings? Why not do everything on the wall?

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