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Capsule Art Reviews: "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," "Helen Lessick: Other Arrangements," "Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes," "Literally Figurative," "Perspectives 165: Contents Under Pressure"

"Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" Although the Taliban managed to blow up the Bamyan Buddhas, they didn't get their hands on everything. This exhibition showcases artifacts from the country's incredibly rich cultural heritage. It includes delicate gold ornaments from the 2,000-year-old "Bactrian Hoard." Discovered by a Soviet archeologist in 1978, the artifacts were taken to the National Museum in Kabul. As communist rule was crumbling, a small group of museum workers packed them up in crates (sometimes cushioning them with toilet paper) and placed them in a vault underneath the presidential palace. The hoard was something of a legend in the archaeological community until its rediscovery was announced by the Karzai government in 2003. The exhibition also includes finds from the Greco-Bactrian royal city of Aï Khanum. A video takes the viewer through a haunting and amazingly well done 3-D digital reconstruction of the city. Adjacent to the video is a giant wall photograph of the present-day site, a dusty, empty plain backed by mountains and pocked with holes dug by looters. Through May 17. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Helen Lessick: Other Arrangements" Internationally known artist Helen Lessick creates site-specific installations that riff on everyday themes, like the passing of time, and amplify their implications. She moved to Houston roughly a year ago to work as the director of civil art and design for the Houston Arts Alliance after helming similar arts advocate positions in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Reno. For her Texas debut exhibition, Lessick created an untitled installation that, according to Barbara Davis Gallery, explores the Texas night sky, but the execution is only somewhat successful in expressing that particular theme. Made up of hanging metal buckets with varying patterns of holes punched in the vessels' sides and bottoms, the work feels only halfway realized — the addition of dripping water somehow cycled through the buckets and their leak holes would be a welcome element. A series of graphic prints deconstructs architectural forms and includes a recurring motif of an unfolded house template. Lessick also offers a stack of the very same template, made of cardstock and printed on one side with a view of the Earth from the moon, and visitors may take one, "reconstruct" it, in a sense, and leave it behind. Also clever is an oval wall mirror embossed with the words "extraordinary" and "pathetic." Viewers are free to assess their reflections as one or the other. The show itself can't be assessed with either one of those descriptors, but it passes the time adequately. Through May 16. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. – TS

"Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes" This massive, abstract installation, constructed from discarded and deteriorating plywood harvested from construction sites in São Paulo, is Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira's first American solo exhibition. From a referential perspective, Tapumes bears striking similarities to abstract impressionist painting — its thousands of wooden shards resemble the texture of brush strokes when viewed from a distance, especially through the gallery window, which acts as a frame. Up close, Tapumes reveals its sculptural and architectural elements; it appears to have formed like cavernous rock weathered by the elements into a random conglomeration of tubes and contorted channels subtly stained with color. Oliveira built a rough frame of flexible plywood attached to the gallery wall, what he calls his "drawing stage," and then organically layered the painted wooden scraps he shipped from São Paulo to the frame — his "painting stage." Put together with staples, the result bears the hallmarks of a rushed process, like a gang of skaters throwing up a shabby half-pipe in a day, but the gorgeous interplay of color, texture and shape is a credit to Oliveira's instinctive but careful method. Through May 9. Rice Gallery, 6100 Main, 352 Sewall Hall, 713-348-6069. —TS

"Literally Figurative" The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft consistently displays the fuzzy line between craft and fine art, and its current show is no exception. Unfortunately, the show's curator, Gwynne Rukenbrod, doesn't have anything fresh or interesting to say about the distinction. Instead, we get a shallow lesson on the importance of the human figure in art from the ancients to modern day. Hold hands, kids, we're going to the museum; don't touch anything! She ham-fistedly includes a slideshow of art-history-101 specimens, like the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, etc. — all that's missing is some Mozart in the background. Sans the pandering, though, what the show really conveys is the nonfunctional, strictly aesthetic end of contemporary craft, and there's some impressive work. Blanka Sperkova's wire-net figures of people and animals are beautifully executed and transcend kitsch and decor. Beth Beede's distorted human forms made from molded felt display skilled expertise matched with dry humor. And Juliellen Byrne's ceramic sculptures stand out for their deceptively innocent auras — anger, vulnerability and aggression lurk underneath their grotesquely funny and playful outward appearances. Through July 3. Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — TS

"Perspectives 165: Contents Under Pressure" Juried by artist Dario Robleto, this exhibition of works by Houston-area teens explores containers and containment. The most literal interpretation of the theme is a site-specific installation just outside the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's entrance. Titled What Contains You?, the work is a shipping container that visitors may step into, where they're invited to scrawl their answer to the titular question on a piece of paper and fix it to the metal wall with a magnet. A droning noise on speakers emphasizes an interior pressure and might work the nerves of the claustrophobic. The participatory responses range from the thoughtful to the silly, like "the bottle of memories, good or bad," "my middle name," "the shithole that is Houston," "the man," "skinny jeans" and "LSD." In the Zilkha Gallery, works by more than 40 teens are on display. Standouts include Alex Goss's photographic portraits, which feature subjects whose faces are obscured by Band-Aids, coffee filters and balloons, and a structure built from Hurricane Ike debris made by students from Sam Rayburn High School, which documents their experiences of the storm. It's a poignant reminder of the emotional amplification of adolescence, when even the slightest interruption of routine is tantamount to catastrophe. Through May 10. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS

 
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