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Capsule Art Reviews: "The Art Guys: New Clichés," "Literally Figurative," "Measuring Your Own Grave"

"The Art Guys: New Clichés" With "New Clichés," the Art Guys present recent work still rooted in the familiar blend of bizarre humor and smart, confident swagger we've long associated with the names Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth. They are avid, eager experimentalists in process and materials. It's as intriguing to behold one of the duo's failures as it is to celebrate a success, since Massing and Galbreth don't seem to manifest an interest in either one. An idea's conception, once outlined or proposed in image or sculpture, is already an accomplishment. Here, the work with the greatest impact results from augmenting simple objects (mostly tools) with components and materials that alter the objects' utilitarian contexts. Duet, for example, is an old metal oilcan with a strange moaning sound emanating from inside it. Get closer and peer into the two long spouts. You'll see two little mouths singing. For Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Party World), the Guys covered a shovel, a rake and a weed cutter with little mirror squares and hung them from the ceiling on motors so they imitate mirror balls. The reflections create mesmerizing patterns on the walls. Who wouldn't want that? The experience begins hilariously and winds up strangely beautiful. Same with their series of match drawings — images created by burned wooden matches mounted on aluminum panels. Each one delivers a specific response based on an image juxtaposed with the burning process — a clown, a skull, a lamp, a honey bear. It's the grownup equivalent of two kids burning shit behind the garage to see what happens. What happens is something ­really rad. Through June 20. McClain Gallery, 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — 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. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — TS

"Measuring Your Own Grave" I always thought Osama Bin Laden had strangely kind eyes. At least that's how he looks in photographs, and that's how he looks in The Pilgrim (2006), a portrait by Marlene Dumas. Dumas has painted an "evil-doer," not sympathetically but just as she paints everyone else, without judgment and with an eye for the strangeness inherent in all humans. In Dumas's world, an image of a squiggling, awkward newborn feels as unsettling as an image of a fanatic. The Bin Laden portrait is part of Dumas's mid-career retrospective at The Menil Collection, "Measuring Your Own Grave." Virtually all of Dumas's images are painted from photographs, most all of them shot by someone else. She collects them from a variety of sources — porn, newspapers, old class photos, fashion magazines; she has hundreds of them stored in binders. Sampling the human condition like some sociological researcher from another planet, she looks at people objectively, without sentiment, without preconception. Her paintings, particularly the later ones, are loosely done. With thin layers and washes of paint on canvas and watercolor on paper, every painting feels like a risk, a one-shot deal that could go terribly wrong. But her work never seems facilely executed, even when it has the simplest imagery. Through June 21. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — KK

 
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