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ARTBEAT

 "The Birth of a Nation -- Yo! Bum Rush the Show" Dawolu Jabari Anderson's new works at the Art League Houston use D.W. Griffith's infamously racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation as a source of inspiration. Anderson creates large paintings on paper that are reminiscent of vintage comic book covers. Each one has the headline "D.W. Griffith Presents, The Night Rider" in vintage script and lettering, with a muscle-bound white hero in Klan-esque garb defeating menacing black men. The Night Rider brandishes a flaming cross while pursued by winged black men in "Protecting Our Aryan Birth Right from a Negro Nation." In another image, The Night Rider battles it out with the likes of Uncle Ben; Anderson has stripped any PC veneer from Uncle Ben to reveal a racist caricature. In yet another, The Night Rider dukes it out with Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who sparked race riots when he won his title in 1908 and was later jailed for associating with white women. Anderson sums things up with the headlines "The Menacing Nympho Negro" and "Only our Aryan Knight can save the heavy weight championship of the world and the chastity of our white women from the Ethiopian." The paper of Anderson's paintings is tattered and aged, and while the issues are presented in a vintage context, they aren't exactly a thing of the past. White paranoia and demonization of African-Americans continue. Remember the Katrina coverage with black people shown "looting" diapers and water, while white people were said to be "finding" necessary supplies? D.W. Griffith's spirit lives on. Anderson's images are well composed and the text is pointed and savvy. The images have spots of color but are dominated by black line drawings on the yellowed ground. Shown all together, they run together a bit a less restrained use of color would make them more dynamic. It's an opportune time for the Art League Houston to present his work, as Anderson is a founding member of Otabenga Jones & Associates, and his work and work by the collective will be included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Through March 3. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530.

"Emerging 2" The Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County is presenting its latest exhibition of recent CACHH fellowship recipients. This round includes Jamal Cyrus, a young artist and member of the artists' collective Otabenga Jones & Associates. Cyrus uses found objects - records, books, bric-a-brac and bricks - to make sculptures that combine wit and social commentary about "post-King African America." Hair - black hair - is one of Cyrus's materials of choice, and he uses it well. For the sculpture Africanismus 023 (2006), Cyrus took some massive '70s-era headphones in bright red-orange and lined them with clumps of hair. It looks like they come complete with their own Afro. At the opening, Cyrus incredulously reported that someone had tried them on, dislodging a pile of stray hair. It's a really funny sculpture about music and identity black identity and white people trying to appropriate black identity through music. Cyrus's work, as well as his work with fellow members of the collective, has been selected for the prestigious 2006 Whitney Biennial, which will open in March. Through March 1 at Space 125 Gallery, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-9330.

"Indelible Images: Trafficking Between Life and Death" This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston under the direction of Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator of Latin American Art. It's a well-chosen and provocative show featuring politically charged, often poignant works by Latin American and Latino artists. Los Angeles artist Daniel Martinez's TO MAKE A BLIND MAN MURDER FOR THE THINGS HE'S SEEN (Happiness Is Over-Rated) (2002) features an animatronic man crouched in a corner, swiping at his wrists with razor blades and laughing maniacally. Dressed as Martinez's double in the navy-blue work clothes we associate with maintenance workers in the United States, the wrist-slashing janitor becomes a metaphor for desperation spurred by socioeconomic inequality. True to its name, this tight exhibition is filled with ruminations on life and death. Mexican artist Teresa Margolles's art draws attention to the hundreds of women along the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border who have been sexually assaulted, murdered and dumped in the desert. Her DVD Anapra y Cristo Negro (2005) presents nighttime images of the desolate landscape surrounding Ciudad Juarez. Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres is represented with his 1991 sculpture Untitled (For a Man in Uniform), made at the time of the first Gulf War. Gonzalez-Torres, who lost a lover to AIDS and eventually died of it himself, was attuned to death and loss, not to mention the political climate for gay men. The sculpture consists of a mound of lollipops piled in the corner of the room. Viewers are encouraged to take away a piece, slowly disintegrating the "body" represented by the candy. Colombian artist Oscar Munoz remembers the dead in Pixels (2003), portraits of assassinated men made of sugar cubes painted with coffee materials associated with his native country. This is an extremely well-curated show built around intriguing ideas and interesting artists. Through April 30. 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

"Mel Chin: Do Not Ask Me" In his work, Mel Chin addresses political and social issues as well as science, philosophy and the environment. It's an agenda that sounds pedantic and dry, but Chin's a smart artist and his conceptual work leans toward the poetic. Take Extraction of Plenty from What Remains 1823- (1989), a sculpture in which two gargantuan white columns replicas of White House pillars crush a massive but empty cornucopia between them. It's a stark juxtaposition of power and poverty; the roughly woven "horn of plenty" is made of "Honduran mahogany, banana fibers, coffee, mud and blood," the stuff of Central America during the '80s the blood in particular. The first column ends in the jagged outline of President James Monroe's signature; the second, that of Ronald Reagan. The Monroe Doctrine started out supposedly as a stance against the colonizing impulses of Europe, but, culminating with Reagan, it became synonymous with the United States' brutal policies and covert activities in Central America Salvadoran and Honduran death squads, guns pouring into Guatemala, you name it... Who the hell would've thought you could make interesting art about the Monroe Doctrine? And, thankfully for the viewer, Chin isn't interested in making purposefully obscure references you're supposed to decode. His titles come with brief statements that set out his ideas. He tells you about the signature outlines at the top of those columns in Extraction, a detail no one would figure out. And, by the way, Extraction is but one of the powerful works on view in this show. Chin has occasional brushes with heavy-handedness, but overall he manages to stay on message and artistically on target. His work makes you think and feel. Through April 30 at The Station, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900.

 
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