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Does "The Big Show" really give artists a chance?

Group shows without themes are almost always problematic. Just when you're getting into a groove, actually beginning to care what this or that artist is trying to do, up pops something completely different and off you go again. Juried shows are even worse; instead of a curator gathering pieces based on personal taste (or a circle of friends), you're left staring at works by whoever the hell bothered to drop something off. And that never quite ends up like the egalitarian utopia -- the freewheelin' outburst of everyone doing his or her own thing and being beautiful about it because, gosh, we're all creative and we're all original and we're all the same -- that you'd like to believe it should be.

Which brings us to "The Big Show," Lawndale Art Center's annual open-call, juried exhibition of the good, the bad and the uninteresting. This year 375 Houston-area artists dropped off 889 submissions and guest juror Dominic Molon, an associate curator for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, whittled away until there were 106 works by 90 artists left. He should've kept on whittling, and that's not meant as a slight to any particular artist's work.

The gallery is packed, and it's tough to give any one piece its due. I realize this big-tent mentality is what "The Big Show" is all about, but it almost ends up being unfair to the artists. It's just too damn easy to dismiss most of the works as derivative, or sophomoric, or more at home at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. (And this is something local critics have been doing for years, if they haven't quit reviewing the show altogether.) If the field were chopped in half and we got to see a few more examples by everyone who made that cut, you could at least develop a sense of what each artist was all about. Sure, this would leave some folks out, but hey, that's life.

Gabriella Nissen's Moss Face is organic and sexy.
Gabriella Nissen/Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center
Gabriella Nissen's Moss Face is organic and sexy.

Details

Through August 25.
Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858.

As it is, it's hard to tell if a backlit landscape is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of mall art or if it's just the work of someone who's never roamed the kiosks at the Galleria. The multiple variations of "I'll just keep painting stuff on top of other stuff until I get tired and, oh, hey, look, there's actually some interesting stuff in there" could be the products of years of expressionistic experimentation, but with nothing else to go on, it just looks like some of the artists grabbed brushes the night before the submission deadline and did what they could. And maybe, just maybe, some of the slapdash collages on view are actually part of magnificent series that make sense only when you view them all together. Maybe.

But let's talk about the good stuff.

Christy Ortiz's two untitled works (2005 and 2006) were crowd favorites during the show's opening, and during two later visits to the gallery I noticed folks looking at them with thoughtful smiles. The artist encased ortho-litho prints in Plexiglas and wood frames, layering the prints so the images bleed through in a ghostly fashion. You assume the pics are from somewhere around the '20s, given the medium, but upon closer inspection you realize these are contemporary photos. My favorite is the 2005 offering, in which you see an attractive woman holding a glass of wine, looking at the camera smartly and intensely from beneath her dangling, short hair. The backs of both works show the framing of an unfinished house, and although the images are devoid of color, they match the wood Ortiz uses in her frames to a T. Even the metal brackets binding the corners of the frames look straight off a job site.

James A. Glassman offers up a cheeky take on standard tests for color blindness. Green dots of different shades form the background of He Doesn't Love You (2006), while the titular message is spelled out in the middle in dots of orange. A significant portion of the male population is incapable of seeing these orange dots, making for a ballsy pickup technique on the artist's part. Glassman could've been even more subversive by replacing the "he" with "she," implying that he was bagging some color-blind guy's woman and had the nerve to talk smack about it. Either way, this simple inkjet print is loaded with meaning.

Two photographic prints by Gabriella Nissen are snuggled together on the wall devoted to portraiture, and both are bright, clean and lovely. In Pansy Mouth (2005), a woman's long orange hair is mussed in her face, and flowers have been stuck in the folds of her locks and in her mouth. In Moss Face (2005), the same woman stares at the viewer, her eyelids drooping, her tongue curled seductively out from slightly open, lanceolate lips. This tongue almost meets up with a giant patch of moss that has camped out on the entire lower right side of her face. The results are confusing, organic and sexy.

The show has other standouts: Matthew Juarez's Thugz-N-Lattez (2006) is a humorous depiction of gangstas repping Starbucks; Dana Evans's Given Up (2005) breathes new life into the overused image of a pedestrian-crossing sign; and Marty Arredondo's Supercharge Surf Love (2006), a fender painted in bright colors and slapped on the wall, swells with promise. It would be nice to see what else these folks are producing, but alas, that's all we get.

Given its scope, "The Big Show" always seems like more of an opportunity for its contributors than for its viewers, and it's definitely a success in the sense that it encourages emerging artists to keep on emerging. Perhaps gallerygoers will get their turn down the road when some of these artists start poking their heads above the crowd.

We'll just have to wait and see.

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