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Big Hit

Lawndale's annual extravaganza of Houston art is back.

It's July, which means it's time for Lawndale Art Center's Big Show — the annual juried-from-actual-work extravaganza of Houston art. Here's the drill: Lure in a savvy, intrepid and good-natured curator. Stick them at a desk for two days as you parade hundreds of works of art past them innumerable times. Then leave curator to slowly and painfully winnow down choices for inclusion in the Big Show.

You pretty much can't present a huge open-call show without characterizations like "uneven" and "mixed bag." Lawndale always gets good curators, but it's never gonna be perfect. Sometimes even the best of them can select stunningly bad shows, and sometimes the results are surprisingly good.

Other than the sheer physical restraints of the gallery, how many works a curator picks is up to them. Some shows have been jam-packed and hung on top of each other salon-style, while a rare few have been sparsely installed selections of a smallish number of works. Most fall somewhere in between. This year does as well, with 121 works by 73 artists, selected from a near-record 972 works submitted by 404 artists.

The 201l Big Show was selected by juror Larissa Harris, curator at the Queens Museum of Art, and it's one of the nicer ones. There are real standouts, along with, as per usual, some less-than-stellar works, but there's nothing cringeworthy enough to make it worth noting. The best thing about the Big Show is always its egalitarian nature — anyone with $30 and a way to ­schlep their art to Lawndale can enter. It's a great way to see work by new artists you might never otherwise come across.

Patrick Turk's work is a big, brightly colored collage, and it's one of the coolest things in the show. It's super-shiny, with a coat of resin packed with vividly colored images, like medical illustrations of eyes, open-mouthed heads and body musculature. Thrown in the mix are figures taken from stuff like 1920s ads. All of the found imagery Turk is using has its own kitsch value, which makes it tough to work with — the individual images can overwhelm the piece. But Turk pulls it off. Everything is so densely and skillfully packed into an all-over image that it works beautifully. The artist also used what look like thin lines of adhesive vinyl to "draw" over the collage, and he somehow cut a hexagonal grid into the whole thing — it's the pattern of old-school bathroom tile. It sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does.

In Tanja Vaughn's Hurrah! (2011), a big, happy rainbow banner (the kiddy kind, not the Pride kind) swoops over the canvas. The sentence "Terrorism is over now!" is lettered above the rainbow in cheery script. Beneath it, little-kid figures clad in red, white and blue wave an American flag. They look like the illustrations from Pat the Bunny; the words "USA!" "#1" and "Woooooooooooo!" are lettered over their heads. Floating above them is a cartoon drawing of Osama Bin Laden with "X"s for eyes and a bullet hole in his forehead neatly dripping blood.

It's a pretty pointed piece that uses the imagery of innocence and childhood to succinctly capture and critique the jubilation, celebration and downright partying that accompanied the news that Bin Laden had been shot in the eye. TV news treated it like the ending of an action movie, when the bad guy is killed, audiences cheer and everything is again right in the world. Except, aren't crowds celebrating someone's death the equivalent of what "bad" people in those "other" countries do?

David P. Gray is offering up some figurative work. His two paintings of the weekly Friday-morning artist gathering at the 59 Diner are quite nice. Done from photographs of the "9@59@9ers," The Question (2011) shows the members seated in a circular green vinyl booth, with Richard Stout talking and Harvey Bott, Earl Staley and the late Jack Boynton listening. The composition, with water glasses, coffee cups, a basket of plastic half-and-half containers and menus in the foreground, places the viewer at the table. Working realistically from photographs can easily result in something illustrational or blandly photorealistic, but Gray gives them just a little wonkiness and softens them up a bit, imparting the intimate feeling of an artist coffee klatsch.

There is always work in the Big Show that makes you wonder how the hell they actually got it there. Emily Grenader entered a massive, over-the-top diptych that probably needed a box truck for transport. Each painting is nine feet long and packed with faces of people — friends and family in one, and patrons in the other. The fact that the faces are really awkwardly rendered is what makes it. Each is arranged like James Ensor's Self Portrait with Masks, and Grenader has a vaguely similar approach to paint. Two pieces were selected, but Lawndale didn't have the space or the hydraulic lift to hang both. (Using two-by-fours as stretchers makes things really freakin' heavy.) The artist opted for the one on view, Crowd Painting (Friends and Family) (2010). It's the slightly less successful of the two, but Grenader's definitely someone to watch.

The show is mainly 2-D; there isn't a huge amount of sculpture, but Harris picked some good stuff. Britt Ragsdale's Casualty in Formality (2011) is a "figure" created by stuffing shirts within shirts, suit coats within suit coats and pants within pants. It has the bulk of a body without the substance. It's like an executive shedding layer upon layer of his skin.

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