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Capsule Art Reviews: "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006," "Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda: 1934-1975.," "FotoFest2008: Current Perspectives, 1998–2008 CHINA," "Vivid Vernacular"

"Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006" For an exhibition about design, this show isn't very well designed. Organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the original installation apparently took up three of its floors. In the exhibit's Houston incarnation, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's upstairs gallery is so jam-packed with designers' products — lamps, furniture, clothes, vases, electronics, etc. — that it feels like a close-out sale. The jumbled feeling of the show isn't entirely the CAMH's fault. In press materials, the Triennial is described as a collection of "the most innovative American designs from the prior three years in a variety of fields, including product design, architecture, furniture, film, graphics, new technologies, animation, science, medicine and fashion." It's a broad agenda that includes 87 designers and firms, with no apparent organizing principles. Like is rarely arranged with like, whether in appearance, approach, concept or function, and no items seem to be intentionally contrasted. Still, the crowded show has lots of covetable products, great ideas and fascinating projects, if you can manage to focus on them. There are plenty of cool examples of design for daily life, including gorgeous, glacially faceted vases by David Wiseman, a "Knock Down/Drag-Out" plywood dining table by Christopher Douglas that assembles and disassembles more easily than a kid's toy, and Jason Miller's amusing upholstered chair with strips of leather appliquéd over the arms to mimic the look of duct tape repairs. Through April 20. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — KK

"Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda: 1934-1975." This FotoFest exhibition is divided into three parts. "Western China, 1934–1939" displays the work of Zhuang Xueben, who, in the 1930s, traveled by camel, by canoe and on foot to the remote reaches of far western China and the Tibetan regions. A photographer and ethnographer, Zhuang captured the tribal peoples of these distant areas. The stark regions, their people and the unforgiving climate are all beautifully recorded. "The Northern Front, The Anti-Japanese War, 1937–1946" displays the photos of Sha Fei, who saw photography as a political tool. His images show the early Communists as they saw themselves and wished to be seen, depicting the Chinese people uniting against the Japanese invaders, an International Women's Day shooting competition, village children standing on sentry duty and women holding babies in their laps as they make shoes for the troops. "The Cultural Revolution, 1965–1975" shows the work of photographers trained or influenced by Sha Fei. Mao's Cultural Revolution, a supposed campaign to rid the country of the "liberal bourgeoisie," destroyed national treasures and persecuted and killed academics and artists as well as religious and revolutionary figures. But photojournalists Weng Naiqiang, Ziao Zhuang and Weihong Shilong didn't photograph any of those things. What they did capture was the intoxicating drama and grandeur of the Revolution's enormous mass rallies and the charisma of those leading them. Through April 20. "Western China" and "Northern Front": One Allen Center, 500 Dallas, 713-223-5522. "Cultural Revolution": Two Allen Center, 1200 Smith, 813-223-5522. — KK

"FotoFest2008: Current Perspectives, 1998–2008 CHINA" China is in the midst of a huge building boom; in 2005 in Shanghai alone, there were 4,000 skyscrapers, twice as many as in New York. And there are plans to build 1,000 more by 2010. Xing Danwen uses the architectural models of 21st-century China as stage sets for the photographs in her series "Urban Fiction." Xing photographs figures, herself included, and then digitally inserts them into the clean, sterile, empty environments of the model buildings. In Xing's scenes of urban isolation and drama, the lone figure of a woman perches atop the corner of a skyscraper, surveying the desolation or poised to jump. Two cars collide on an overpass in front of a cluster of skeletal white building towers; in the empty model city, it looks like the last two people on earth just ran into each other. In another image with another pristine white building model, the roof has been removed to show its blank interior. The only spots of color are a pool of red blood surrounding a man lying on the floor and the purple wig of a woman who has just dropped the knife. Xing offers us a bleak vision of the new China. Through April 20. Bering & James Art Gallery, 805 Rhode Place #500, 713-524-0101. — KK

"Vivid Vernacular" The photos on display here are by three indisputable masters — Walker Evans, William Christenberry and William Eggleston. Evans, whose groundbreaking 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with text by James Agee) documented Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depres­sion, commences this rather academic exercise. His 1970 "Billboard" is a snapshot of an exterior wall, presumably in London, plastered in show flyers. Christenberry came late to photography as an artistic medium; he was primarily a painter. His stark photos of buildings are austere and unobtrusive, almost reverent. There's a certain sense of worship in photos like Church, Sprott, Alabama (1971), a simple, distanced shot of a rural church. Eggleston is the star here. For one, his are the largest prints — still too small, though, in my opinion. And there's a sense of narrative, too, mostly dictated by where he places the camera. Evans and Christenberry shoot mainly from street level; Eggleston's perspective shifts from floor-level to floating above rooftops. Untitled (Peaches), a 1972 photo, finds Eggleston's lens drifting above a corrugated tin roof, in dead-eye focus with a rooftop sign that simply announces, "PEACHES!" And apparently nothing goes better with peaches than Coca-Cola, judging by the advertisement crowning this roadside fruit stand. Through April 20. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross. 713-525-9400. — TS

 
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