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Capsule Art Reviews: "Designed by Architects: Metalwork from the Margo Grant Walsh Collection," "Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand: Forced Fields," "The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art," "Volker Stelzmann"

"Designed by Architects: Metalwork from the Margo Grant Walsh Collection" This exhibition is filled with beautiful, desirable objects drawn from Walsh's more than 800-piece collection. Looking at them on a scorching Houston summer day, you want to reach inside the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's vitrines, touch the cool, smooth silver and hold it to your brow. Walsh probably wouldn't mind — she's a down-to-earth collector. Pretentious, ornate decorative metalwork isn't her thing; these objects were designed to be used. Walsh is an acclaimed interior architect, and you can see her professional sensibilities and her pragmatic Midwestern upbringing in her collection. The objects are practical and functional as well as beautiful. The most appealingly tactile work in the collection is a 2003 coffee and tea service designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishiwaza. Made by Alessi, the pieces of the set are chubby and rounded, irregularly shaped and reminiscent of pieces of fruit — pears, peaches, little melons. Also included is an Arts and Crafts period muffin dish by British architect and designer Charles Robert Ashbee; George Henry Walton's 1910 copper Arts and Crafts mantel clock, which resembles the facade of a building; and architect Ettore Sottsass's 1981 silver-plated Murmansk Fruit Stand, a large bowl held aloft by gleaming zigzagged columns. Organized by Cindi Strauss, MFAH's curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, this is a tight, beautifully installed show. Through August 3. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand: Forced Fields" The collaborative – and married – duo of Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand make art with their kids. But the results are neither dorky handprint ashtrays nor the prodigy products of driven yuppie parenting. In their installation at the Houston Center for Photography, Magsamen and Hillerbrand project videos over and through giant translucent white balloons, creating a strangely beautiful and otherworldly environment. Their videos capture their children doing stuff like making cookies and eating dough, but you'd be hard-pressed to recognize the activity. Video was shot from below a sheet of Plexiglas and then projected over balloons. In one work, star-shaped sugar cookies become a night sky, and tiny faces become omniscient giants staring from above. Another video features the shadowy bodies of the family embracing a balloon -- a surreal meditation on marriage and parenting. Magsamen and Hillerband, both teaching in the Photo/Digital Media Program at UH, are a recent and exciting addition to the Houston art scene. Through July 13. 1441 W. Alabama, 713-529-4755. — KK

"The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art" Contemporary Arts Museum Houston Senior Curator Toby Kamps organized this show, which brings together art that takes apart our country's self-constructed mythologies and Disney-fied versions of history. The works in the show sniff out the weirdness we've tried to culturally deodorize. Sam Durant's installation Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006) features displays and worn-looking wax figures he purchased from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum in Massachusetts on a divided, slowly rotating circular platform. One side illustrates the famed story of how Native Americans taught the settlers to grow corn by fertilizing it with herring, while the tableau on the other side depicts Captain Miles Standish killing the Pequot man Pecksuot. Cynthia Norton, from Kentucky, land of Jack Daniel's, presents Fountain (Emotion) (2002), a supposedly working distillery. Norton has taken the redneck quest for booze and transformed it into an assemblage art object. Kara Walker is known for her appropriation of the genteel 19th-century pastime of silhouette making; her work addresses America's decidedly ungenteel history of slavery, using caricatured figures, both white and black. In her video 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), a burly slave and a scrawny "master" engage in sodomy, and the master impregnates the slave with a cotton boll. Kamps has curated a fascinating exhibition that mines a rich and provocative vein of influence in contemporary American art – and culture. Leaving the CAMH, you look with fresh eyes at the weirdness all around you. Through July 20. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — KK

"Volker Stelzmann: Experimental Arrangements" Former East German painter and art professor Volker Stelzmann uses the stolid figures of Social Realism to create grim scenes of urban isolation – paintings whose dystopian scenes also reference the Weimar Era work of Otto Dix. No one in Stelzmann's paintings makes eye contact; there are clusters of awkwardly rendered individuals rather than united groups – a swipe at socialism's collective mentality. But rather than creating a sense of individual liberty, Stelzmann's figures, with their grayed flesh and expressionless faces, convey loneliness and alienation. Each seems to be in his own trancelike state, staring in a different direction, never making eye contact – not even a dancing couple in a painting seems connected. The only time anyone begins to look at another person is in an image of a woman attacking a man; she looks down toward him but still doesn't quite see him. Stelzmann's dark, unsettling and heavily varnished paintings leave you feeling alienated yourself. Through July 12. Rudolph Projects/ArtScan Gallery, 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836. — KK

 
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