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Marc Swanson: The Second Story This exhibit's title, "The Second Story," suggests that there was indeed a first story, a previous narrative — that this show is in effect a sequel. Or it references a San Francisco gay bar by the same name. Both are true. Viewers familiar with the artist Marc Swanson who are clued in to his gay-culture (specifically ball culture) references, may walk away from the show smugly satisfied, feeling as if they'd received a secret message. But the work is also enjoyable as a series of contemporary memorials: the "second story" of a life. Immediately visible upon entrance is a turtle shell encrusted with rhinestones (Swanson is known for his taxidermied deer heads covered in crystals), a reference to a character in the 19th-century novel Against Nature, who sets gemstones in his pet tortoise's shell, and the extra weight kills the animal. Other works are arrangements of items, chains, fabric and photos, boxed and hung like shrines. One piece is a kind of stacked totem displaying a man's portrait; it includes a little shelf where you might place a candle. Overall the show comes off as a highly personal set of works, and viewers' personal histories will determine the degree to which its symbolic content connects. But even without a reference library, the show emits a strong emotional charge. Through October 9, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS

"Mary McCleary: A Survey 1996-2011" The Art League Houston named Mary McCleary Artist of the Year and is presenting a jam-packed 15-year survey of her work. McCleary is widely known for her collages, which incorporate "paint, paper, rag board, foil, glitter, sticks, wire, mirrors, pencils, nails, glass, painted toothpicks, string, leather, lint, small plastic toys and other objects" to create figurative images. The face in a portrait might be comprised of hundreds of multicolored fragments of glass, while the background roils with bits of painted string. The work is incredibly well-crafted and wonderfully obsessive, but there is something missing. Even allowing for the 15-year time span, there isn't a consistency of vision in the work, only a consistency of materials. Some of McCleary's imagery seems as if it is trying to have an edge — a living-room scene of a white, upper-middle-class family might have some dysfunctional back-story, a work depicting boys with sticks may be trying for Lord of the Flies overtones — while others, like a natural history museum-esque arrangement of moths, go in other directions. The materials trump the figurative imagery and whatever content McCleary is trying to imbue it with. The most successful work in the show is the artist's 2006 Sehnsucht, a giant floral arrangement that calls to mind 17th-century Dutch still lifes but is fascinatingly comprised of tiny beads, snippets of paper and string. Here you aren't wondering what the hell the relationship might be between the imagery and the materials. It's exuberantly and masterfully decorative but feels less craftsy. It's much more successful as a fine art piece than many of the works with seemingly more "important" subject matter. Through November 12. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-4053. — KK

"Raimund Girke 1930-2002" Raimund Girke made deceptively simple paintings — the kind of art that people think their kids could do. With determined gesture and controlled expression, the late German artist dragged long, brushy strokes across his canvases. It's pretty masterful work; the marks are forceful and unwavering, the paintings dominated by strokes of white over dark grounds. Paintings like this can succeed or fail in ways that are incredibly difficult to categorize, as illustrated by the show itself, which features a couple near-misses shown with some standout works. Die Kraft der Vertikalen (1997) has an amazing presence and is the centerpiece of the show. It's a great rush of frosty white strokes over and intermingled with dark blue-black ones. Don't try this at home. Through October 29. Gallery Sonja Roesch, 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. — KK

"Working in the Abstract: Rethinking the Literal" This show acts as a kind of teaching tool, so it's appropriate that it's on display at the Glassell School of Art. It's a primer on different styles of abstract painting, and it features some local heavy hitters of abstraction. The styles range from the liquid and organic compositions of Michael Kennaugh and Terrell James to the structured and geometrically inspired works of Pat Colville and Susie Rosmarin. The show's good for cleansing your mood palate; it's a way to exorcise those analytical demons and distill your surroundings down to color, shape and pattern. Rosmarin's meditative grids are consistently sweet eye candy, illuminated and flickering in an op-art-ish way. And Brooke Masterson Stroud's mysterious black paintings mix hard lines with hazy, unknowable open space. The exhibit succeeds in displaying the potential for emotion in abstraction. Through November 28. The Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7300. — TS

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