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Unbearably Beautiful: "Houston Collects"

This exhibit needs an editor, but it doesn't matter

The second room, The Black Intelligentsia: Harlem Renaissance and HBCU's (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) suffers from a handful of mediocre works that distract from better ones. For example, great pieces like Charles White's Untitled (1959, Ann and James Harithas collection), an incredible charcoal drawing on paper of a man with upturned head and outstretched arms, and Aaron Douglas's Emperor Jones series (1930), based on the Eugene O'Neill play in which Paul Robeson later starred, are hung chockablock with banal pieces like David C. Driskell's Still Life with Flowers (1931, Douglas and Driskell, Gladys I. Forde collection). (In all fairness, two other nice small landscapes by Driskell are included in this room also.)

Aaron Douglas's Rembrandt-esque sugar lift etching Oak Bluff (date unknown, Gladys I. Forde collection) is a small and simple, yet emotionally charged, image of two tall trees with leaves blowing in the wind, standing along the banks of a river, whose strength is overshadowed by its relatively close proximity to Cool Grass (1944), a student-like lithograph by Stephanie Pogue (Gladys I. Forde collection) of a body stretched out in grass. The artist barely hides her inability to draw faces or arms by covering them up with overhanging leaves, a trick I employed my freshman year with hands and feet.

Enough kvetching, although there are a few other such indiscretions in the show. The noteworthy certainly outweighs the bad. Included in the former are all three works by Bill Traylor, who time after time proves one doesn't need a degree or expensive materials to create a masterpiece. A former slave without a nickel to his name, he conjured up works of genius such as Two men fighting (late 1930s, Stephanie K. Smithers collection). One man punches the other in the face, while he in turned is punched in the side. I dare you to show me one misplaced line.

Jacob Lawrence's The Brown Angel is a masterpiece.
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Jacob Lawrence's The Brown Angel is a masterpiece.

The late Dr. John Biggers, a Houston treasure, gives us the magnificent Cradle (1950, MFAH collection), which is reminiscent of Lange's Migrant Mother. A mother in despair holds her three children close to her breast, but despite feelings of hopelessness, her powerfully rendered arms echo the "dogged strength" spoken of by Dubois.

Lauren Kelley's photographic riffs on hair are both poignant and fun. In Bubble Gum Wig (collection Dr. and Mrs. Danny Kelley), the artist, wearing a plaited wig of gum, looks at the camera while stretching another piece from her mouth.

Other favorites include three of Dawolu Jabari Anderson's blown-up comic book covers from his Gullah Sci-Fi Mysteries series featuring Madame Ethiopia, a.k.a. Mam-E, and Kara Walker's diptych Sweep, in which a woman eloquently sweeps a white man from a ledge into a boiling pot below. Great works abound, including photographs by Gordon Parks, Roy Decarava, Chester Higgins Jr. and Dawoud Bey, and a collage by my dear departed friend James Bettison that would put Max Ernst to shame.

My advice for museum-goers at "Houston Collects"? Take two days to see the show — it's that big! — and forgive the handful of less than worthy works.

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