Capsule Art Reviews: "AES+F," "Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space," "Death and Shit Like That," "Gratitude, There's No Competition," "Jac Leirner," " Perspectives 159: Superconscious, Automatisms Now"
"AES+F" AES+F is a Russian art powerhouse comprised of Tatiana Arzamasova, a conceptual architect; Lev Evzovitch, a conceptual architect and filmmaker; Evgeny Svyatsky, a graphic artist; and Vladimir Fridkes, a fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue. The group combine their diverse skills to spectacular effect: Their work is slick, smart and infused with a sense of the macabre. Three phenomenal installations by the collaborative are on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in "AES+F," curated by Olga Sviblova. The installation Suspects: Seven Sinners and Seven Righteous (1997) contains large photographs of 14 teenage girls. Seven of them are convicted murderers, and seven are ordinary Moscow high school students. AES+F doesn't tell you who's who. The portraits are all taken the same way; they're head-on, mug shot-like images against a white background. Ultimately, anybody could be anything, the series seems to say. The photographic series Defile (2000-2007) presents seven life-size images of people clad in avant-garde fashions. You might think it's just Fridkes exercising his fashion-photography skills — until you notice the models' sunken eyes, crudely stitched autopsy scars and rigor mortis. AES+F shot pictures of unidentified corpses at the morgue and then digitally clad them in edgy fashion. It's a provocative strategy, and showing big pictures of dead people has a creepy allure. Last Riot (2007) is the centerpiece of the exhibition. This apocalyptic three-screen video presents a surreal, digitally animated panorama of the end of the world. It's a tour de force, a dark and intensely contemporary vision. Through February 29. 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — KK
"Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space" This show at the Blaffer Gallery will quietly blow away just about any video installation you have ever seen. Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker who creates video installations filled with cinematic power. She has been called "the most important European director of her generation." The standout of the show is From the East: Bordering on Fiction, (D'est: Au bord de la fiction). It's a 1995 film Akerman shot in East Germany, Poland, the Baltic States and Russia shortly after the fall of communism. It's not really a documentary; it's not fiction; and it doesn't have much of a narrative. Akerman says she "filmed everything that touched me," simply turning her camera on the people and cities, but the results are mesmerizing. The amazing panorama of images are everyday but somehow extraordinary. Unfortunately, there's a problem with acoustics in this show. They're at their worst in Akerman's installation Down There (Là-bas) (2006). This is a more straightforward, single-channel projection on one wall shot by Akerman in Tel Aviv when she was there teaching. Most of the film was shot through the windows of the furnished apartment she had rented; you feel a sense of depression, a sense of confinement and isolation. She reveals herself through precious clues provided by occasional narration, but the problem is, you can't freakin' hear those precious clues. The Blaffer has always been a difficult space; in general the acoustics are terrible. A tremendous amount of effort went into arranging this exhibition — I wish more effort had gone into mediating the acoustic problems. Through March 29. 120 Fine Arts Building, entrance #16 off Cullen Blvd., University of Houston, 713-743-9530. — KK
"Death and Shit Like That" This gathering of drawings at Domy Books shows Houston street artist YAR! has many friends who can tug the heart with just the flick of a pen. Curator YAR! communicates regularly with these prolific, inspiring artists — who hail from the Netherlands, Spain, France, Argentina, Massachusetts, Houston and Florida — on the Web site Flickr. There are clear connections between these works that transcend locale. Local artist Seth Alverson's ominous painting of an open coffin looms over the show, but the walls are covered in a smattering of smaller works on paper. There are the sensuous watercolors and disembodied dream world of Ola Vasiljeva; more concrete figures by Stéphane Prigent and Frédéric Fleury, cartoonish bodies with layers of loose color and rivulets of clashing pigment; and Irana Douer's beautifully simple female face with pursed lips and closed eyes, copied over and over in different poses in simple line drawings and cut paper. Matt Lock and Dean Sullivan create deeply emotional and paranoid compositions of skulls, bodies and sex with awkward outsider flatness. And Mark Hesterlee uses tribal rituals and pop references in his humorous marker-and-pen drawings. While death figures prominently in many of these artists' styles, they seem more alive than anything. Through March 15. 1709 Westheimer, 713-523-3669. — SC
"Gratitude, There's No Competition" The fruits of our daydreams — those casual doodles on the edges of TPS reports and torn bits of paper scattered across the office floor — are products of the unrestrained creative mind. Katie Kahn's art explores the down time in our crowded lives. At Joan Wich & Co. Gallery, she's showing a series of works drawn and painted directly onto pages of The New York Times. The images and words already present on the page become part of her compositions, and the news of the day adds substance and irony to her archetypal figures. In surreal group portraits, half-ink, half-photograph figures emerge out of fields of wispy Wite-Out brushstrokes. Hatch marks and hybrid characters switch fields between background and foreground. Kahn's work is full of evocative references and accidental genius. Through March 1. 4411 Montrose, 713-526-1551. — SC
"Jac Leirner" Petty theft plays an integral part in many of Brazilian artist Jac Leirner's works. Corpus Delicti (1992/2006) includes stolen ashtrays, laminated boarding passes and pilfered airline cutlery, all linked together into an oddball charm bracelet. The piece makes the artist seem part magpie, part obsessive-compulsive. Corpus Delicti (sickness bags) (1992) is part of the same series. Leirner neatly filled 20 airline barf bags with blocks of Styrofoam and strung them all together; they hang from the ceiling in a curving line of multicolored rectangles. While the ashtrays speak to a bratty kleptomania, the accumulation of airsickness bags seems much more about OCD. The feeling of OCD is overpowering in Leirner's nicotine-related works. She started smoking at age 11 and only recently gave it up. During her smoking years, cigarette packaging provided her with a constant and daily source of material. Lung (1987), on view in the Roesch exhibition, is a small, rectangular Plexiglas box that hangs unobtrusively on the wall, filled with fragile cellophane husks from the artist's cigarette packs. The pristine object vies with the viewer's mental image of blackened lungs. Leirner's cigarette-pack works are exacting records of addiction, with the damage elegantly implied. Leirner has said she tries "to find a place for things that don't have a place," and this show offers a bite-size sample of her works. While some of the pieces on view at Gallery Sonja Roesch may lack the power of the artist's more epic projects, Leirner's very particular sensibilities shine through. Through March 1. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. — KK
"Perspectives 159: Superconscious, Automatisms Now" This exhibition is comprised of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photography and video by five artists who employ free association in their work. Many of the pieces display an obsessive degree of self-alertness. Sean Landers's Dumb Dumb (from 1993) is a vast horizontal canvas with lines and lines of writing that can be literally tiring to read because of the walking required. And even then, there's just no use. It's more fun to just pick out random snippets. Much of it is boring and repetitive; Landers vacillates between declaring himself the greatest artist on Earth and lamenting his worthlessness. Peppered with sex, Dumb Dumb will occasionally reveal a line like "JOHN, KEVIN AND I JUST FINISHED A BIG DISCUSSION ON '70S NIPPLES." Danica Phelps's drawings carry a similar confessional vibe, but with a filter. Her meticulous vertical calendars document weeks of her life in 2006 down to the minute. Quickly glanced, the works feel numbingly banal. But look closer at Phelps's thin, spidery handwriting, and the narrative begins to emerge. Large chunks of red denote money spent on sperm and insemination. Phelps and her girlfriend, referred to here as "D," are trying to have a child, and they're not exactly on the same page about it. They argue, make love, go to therapy and have the occasional knock-down-drag-out. The exhibit includes sculpture and photography by Rachel Harrison and a 23-minute film by Oliver Payne and Nick Relph. Big surprise, though: The free-associative elements of imagery just aren't as powerfully communicated as they are in words, something rare for visual art. How often do you leave a museum reeling from something you read, rather than what you "saw"? Through March 9. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS
Capsule reviews by Sean Carroll, Kelly Klaasmeyer, and Troy Schulze
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