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Capsule Art Reviews: "James Drake: A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing," "A Matter of Wit," "Plenitude," "Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Injured Soldiers and Marines," "Tony Smith: Drawings"

"James Drake: A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing" James Drake's 1982 installation Trophy Room, crafted from cut and welded steel, is a raw tour de force. Its steel-walled 12-by-16-foot room is furnished with a throne-like chair, weaponry and animal heads, all in blackened steel. Simmering with barely controlled violence, it feels like the lair of a gun nut Texas rancher or a drug cartel kingpin. Drake, who was born in Lubbock and grew up in Guatemala, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, could have been channeling either. The artist is widely known for his large-scale drawings, but they pale in comparison to works like Trophy Room and his two-channel video Tongue-Cut Sparrows (2007), also on view. The video focuses on the sign language created by El Paso inmates and their loved ones — women are shown signing on the sidewalk below; men are seen silhouetted in the windows above. Drake asked them to incorporate into their communications quotes referencing loss and distance from the likes of William Shakespeare, Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. It's an incisive and powerful work. Extended through January 30. The Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — KK

"A Matter of Wit" "A Matter of Wit" is an apt title for FotoFest's exhibition of three photographers who cleverly capture, construct and/or stage images that use humor in ways that are subtle and sometimes even poignant. The Europeans are the standouts in this show, curated by FotoFest's Wendy Watriss. Czech artist Miro Švolík displays an Eastern European sense of the absurd. In a wonderful series from the '80s, the artist staged scenes on the pavement below his studio window. In one, a man lies flat on the ground, legs posed as if he is running, his back bent and his arms held out behind him to seemingly support an unsupportably tall stack of books that stretches over the pavement. Meanwhile, French artist Gilbert Garcin, who didn't take up photography until age 65, creates charming and low-tech black-and-white images. He photographs himself in various poses, always in the same trench coat, and then makes a tiny print of himself. He then cuts it out and inserts it into little dioramas he has constructed using humble materials like sand, bricks and nails. In one image, he seems to put his arm around a rock, embracing it like an old friend. Through February 25. FotoFest, 1113 Vine St., 713-223-5522. — KK

"Plenitude" "Plenitude" is a big group show of "emerging and established artists," and as such, it's a well-chosen grab bag of nice work. Among the standouts is Hoary Squeezy Conversation (2010) by Annie Lapin. The artist uses paint in a way that is engaging and modern — it looks alternately brushed and squeegeed on — while the imagery looks simultaneously abstract and representational. And speaking of "abstract," Joe Davidson's Abstract (2005) is a collection of small cylindrical forms with a twist. They look like lovely little jars cast from wax or carved from alabaster, but actually they're hollow, featherweight forms made from Scotch tape. Meanwhile, Gavin Perry's painting Mother do you wanna bang heads with me (2008-2010) delivers glossy color in orange and yellow pours of resin so vibrantly colored they look molten. Through March 5. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. — KK

"Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Injured Soldiers and Marines" In Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's photograph Danielle Green-Byrd, Specialist, U.S. Army, an attractive young black woman in a pale-blue button-down and low-rise trousers smiles at the camera. She's holding her prosthetic forearm in front of her. This October, the United States is coming up on more that ten continuous years of war. The fact that we are at war ebbs and flows through the consciousness of most of us in the general public. But the people who have been irreparably injured by war can't forget. In a project commissioned by HBO in conjunction with the documentary Alive Day Memories, Greenfield-Saunders took this series of unflinching portraits of young men and women disfigured and maimed by war. They confront Greenfield-Saunders's camera calmly and directly, not asking for pity but asking us to see them for who they are and what they have survived. Through March 2. Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom St., 713-863-7097. — KK

"Tony Smith: Drawings" Tony Smith's geometric steel sculptures are included in pretty much every modern art survey text — his drawings, not so much. And that's a shame, because they're pretty amazing. "Tony Smith: Drawings" is a little gem of a show curated by Bernice Rose, chief curator of the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, and focusing on work executed between 1953 and 1955, early in Smith's artistic career. In charcoal or colored pastel on brown paper, the drawings have abstract forms with a biomorphic vibe and sense of sculptural solidity. In a number of them, circular shapes cluster like molecules or morph and divide like microorganisms. The biggest surprise, for those familiar with the artist's monochromatic 3D work, is Smith's masterful use of vibrant color. It's a 50-year-old palette that feels surprisingly contemporary. April 3. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — KK

 
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