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"2008 Houston Area Exhibition" This is the tenth installment of a group exhibit that takes place at Blaffer Gallery every four years, with work by 16 artists. Seth Alverson is showing five paintings that display not only his virtuosity as a painter but the compelling mystery within his work. His Death and Life in the Alps (2007) presents an appropriately overwhelming view of the mountain range, with two oval-shaped paintings within the painting – one, of an empty casket, on the lower left side, and the other, of the corner of an empty room, on the lower right. The implication is that a person has died, but the body hasn't made it to the casket yet, presenting a terrible feeling of limbo. Lynn McCabe's installation Building Walls Together is also strong – it's a wonderful maneuver of deceit. Armed with documentary evidence including e-mail correspondence, sham photos of children posed with tools, parental permission slips and contracts, McCabe tricks us into thinking that she oversaw a group of child laborers in the construction of a crappily built wall. Sasha Dela's video Bits and Pieces is a beautifully filmed and edited, often funny, compelling commentary on consumerism, while Hedwige Jacobs's drawings of swimming pools, basket weave houses, cul-de-sacs and what look like headless "American Girl" Shivas are compelling. There are some works in the show that slightly miss the mark, but it's certainly worth seeing. Curator Claudia Schmuckli's decision to limit the number of artists included and let them show larger installations and bodies of work was a wise one. Through August 2. Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9521. — BS

"Dave Darraugh & Hana Hillerova" After long employing baroque and rich imagery, Hana Hillerova has moved into the minimal with a group of systematic works. In glass sculptures, tubes of different lengths are attached with webs of wire. Their angular forms rest at sharp angles in loosely arranged but precarious structures; they catch the light in the gallery in continual patterns. Watercolor drawings of simple and colorful brushstrokes mimic chemical structures or crystal formations. The overall effect is that of a talented but jaded intellectual tinkering with the same formula over and over again. Former Houstonian and Idaho naturalist Dave Darraugh delivers offhand consumerist critiques in minimalist packages. Untitled (Hat Box) takes the artist's stance to its ultimate result — the painstakingly crafted, rough-hewn, all-white plaster mockup of a relic brings to mind immediate blankness. Through August 12. Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097. — SC

"Defending Democracy" "Defending Democracy" displays work by artists who share the belief that art can be a catalyst for change. The show includes political graphic art of former Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, the murals and prints of the anonymous artist collective ASARO and the "teach-in" installation of Houston's own Otabenga Jones and Associates. The installation of Douglas's work contains rows of display cases with copies of The Black Panther weekly that he personally laid out and designed. On the walls are posters of his work, as well as his manifestos calling progressive artists to arms, along with other materials. In the front gallery of the Station are the graffitied stencil murals and prints of Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO), a collective of artists and arts groups formed in response to government oppression in Oaxaca. ASARO's guerilla artists spray-paint stenciled murals throughout the city in support of the populace's cause. The Otabenga Jones and Associates installation El Shabazz High School Gym is a re-creation of a high school gym complete with a scoreboard, bleachers and a basketball hoop. A projection screen stands opposite the bleachers, and a few posters are taped to the walls. I hesitate to say this, but the offerings of Otabenga Jones and Associates seemed like six degrees of separation from the revolutionary work of Douglas, and maybe five degrees away from ASARO. Otabenga Jones and crew need to get out of the museum setting and metaphorically kick ass against oppression. Through September 14. Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — BS

"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

"Sterne and Steinberg: Critics Within" At The Menil Collection, the intimate work of Hedda Sterne and Saul Steinberg is brought to life alongside mementos of their full lives in the 1950s New York art world. Portraits, cartoons, doodles and abstract paintings embody a competitive and playful relationship that transcends both kitsch and fine art. The exhibit includes drawings each did of the other. Clusters of personal sketches by Sterne of Steinberg depict a pious and dedicated workman, while Steinberg's cartoons and doodles of Sterne show her to be a strong and observant companion. Sterne, a former language teacher in Romania, was associated with Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock but refused to go along with prevailing trends in her long career as a painter. Three oil paintings by Sterne open the exhibit; New York VIII (1954) seems variously influenced by early American Precisionists, Matta's detached surrealism and the abstractions of Menil favorite Mark Rothko. Steinberg committed his intellect to illustration, and the infectious humor of his ink drawings became part of the fabric of Madison Avenue history. In Parades, cartoon men drag ink stamps to and fro, while Cocktail Party (1953) depicts a group of people each drawn differently, seeming to bring together a litany of artistic movements for a little small talk and a tipple. Both Sterne and Steinberg like "to take a line for a walk," but always allow themselves to walk their own line. Through August 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — SC

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