Capsule Art Reviews: "AES+F," "Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space," "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006," "Foto Fest2008: Current Perspectives, 1998–2008 CHINA," "Tony Berlant," "Vivid Vernacular"
"Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space" This show at the Blaffery 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 has 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 University of Houston, Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530. — KK
"Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006" For an exhibition about design, this show isn't very well designed. Organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the original installation apparently took up three of its floors. In the exhibit's Houston incarnation, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's upstairs gallery is so jam-packed with designers' products — lamps, furniture, clothes, vases, electronics, etc. — that it feels like a close-out sale. The jumbled feeling of the show isn't entirely the CAMH's fault. In press materials, the Triennial is described as a collection of "the most innovative American designs from the prior three years in a variety of fields, including product design, architecture, furniture, film, graphics, new technologies, animation, science, medicine and fashion." It's a broad agenda that includes 87 designers and firms, with no apparent organizing principles. Like is rarely arranged with like, whether in appearance, approach, concept or function, and no items seem to be intentionally contrasted. Still, the crowded show has lots of covetable products, great ideas and fascinating projects, if you can manage to focus on them. There are plenty of cool examples of design for daily life, including gorgeous, glacially faceted vases by David Wiseman, a "Knock Down/Drag-Out" plywood dining table by Christopher Douglas that assembles and disassembles more easily than a kid's toy, and Jason Miller's amusing upholstered chair with strips of leather appliquéd over the arms to mimic the look of duct tape repairs. Through April 20. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — KK
"Foto Fest2008: Current Perspectives, 1998–2008 CHINA" China is in the midst of a huge building boom; in 2005 in Shanghai alone, there were 4,000 skyscrapers, twice as many as in New York. And there are plans to build 1,000 more by 2010. Xing Danwen uses the architectural models of 21st-century China as stage sets for the photographs in her series "Urban Fiction." Xing photographs figures, herself included, and then digitally inserts them into the clean, sterile, empty environments of the model buildings. In Xing's scenes of urban isolation and drama, the lone figure of a woman perches atop the corner of a skyscraper, surveying the desolation or poised to jump. Two cars collide on an overpass in front of a cluster of skeletal white building towers; in the empty model city, it looks like the last two people on earth just ran into each other. In another image with another pristine white building model, the roof has been removed to show its blank interior. The only spots of color are a pool of red blood surrounding a man lying on the floor and the purple wig of a woman who has just dropped the knife. Xing offers us a bleak vision of the new China. Through April 20. Bering & James Art Gallery, 805 Rhode Place #500, 713-524-0101. — KK
"Tony Berlant" California-based Tony Berlant crafts colorful abstract collages using found tin scraps and fabricated and printed sheet tin. He fixes the pieces of tin to plywood using steel brads. The effect is like a jumbled-up puzzle put together incorrectly, like the pieces were hammered and forced into the wrong places, except Berlant intricately overlaps and massages shapes into his works. It isn't clear where Berlant finds the imagery printed on his fabricated tin, but it looks like cheesy wallpaper design — there are flower motifs, woody scenes with deer antlers, even what look like classic car patterns. Certain pieces employ a central representational image, like the birdlike shape at the center of Nest; others contain a well-scattered coverage of different colors and similar-sized scraps, like Sunny Side. Petrified Forest comes the closest to a recognizable correlation between image and title. Berlant has cleverly composed a realistic rendering of a petrified tree trunk broken in seven pieces. Also surprising is the textural element. The tin actually looks more like synthetic textile, rather than metal. Perhaps the steel brads suggest, in a way, a natural juxtaposition between fabric and metal. It's beautiful work. Through March 29. Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 713-524-1593. — TS
"Vivid Vernacular" The photos on display here are by three indisputable masters — Walker Evans, William Christenberry and William Eggleston. Evans, whose groundbreaking 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with text by James Agee) documented Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression, commences this rather academic exercise. His 1970 "Billboard" is a snapshot of an exterior wall, presumably in London, plastered in show flyers. Christenberry came late to photography as an artistic medium; he was primarily a painter. His stark photos of buildings are austere and unobtrusive, almost reverent. There's a certain sense of worship in photos like Church, Sprott, Alabama (1971), a simple, distanced shot of a rural church. Eggleston is the star here. For one, his are the largest prints — still too small, though, in my opinion. And there's a sense of narrative, too, mostly dictated by where he places the camera. Evans and Christenberry shoot mainly from street level; Eggleston's perspective shifts from floor-level to floating above rooftops. Untitled (Peaches), a 1972 photo, finds Eggleston's lens drifting above a corrugated tin roof, in dead-eye focus with a rooftop sign that simply announces, "PEACHES!" And apparently nothing goes better with peaches than Coca-Cola, judging by the advertisement crowning this roadside fruit stand. Through April 20. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross. 713-525-9400. — TS
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