Capsule Art Reviews: "Apertura-Colombia," "How Artists Draw," "John Alexander: New Paintings and Drawings," "Miguel Angel Rojas: FotoFest 2008," "Perspectives 160: Dawoud Bey"
"Apertura-Colombia" This survey of Colombian photography and video at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art far outshined the official FotoFest exhibitions of contemporary Chinese photography. The Station is at its best when it deals with art and politics, and this show is no exception. Angel Rojas shows Caquetá, his video of a young man with no hands trying to wash the camouflage paint from his face, and Mirando la Flor, two photos taken ten years apart of a man with a drug addiction, with a soundless video of the man talking about his life. Jesús Abad Colorado's work includes images of refugees, bombed-out towns, indigenous people blocking the Pan American Highway in protest and people carrying a banner that reads "Territorio de Paz" through a ruined village. Juan Manuel Echavarría creates sculptures from mangled, broken and charred mannequin parts, then photographs them and digitally inserts them into images of government plazas or luxury high-rise apartment buildings. Andres Sierra presents the photographic series Karma Sutra, shocking but oddly poignant portraits of amputees having sex. And Libia Posada's series RE-TRATOS (Portraits) presents gold-framed portraits of abused women with cuts and bruises forensically reconstructed on their faces. The artists of "Apertura" are taking their country — and ours — to task. Through May 18. 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — KK
"How Artists Draw" The process of drawing is the focus of The Menil Collection's outstanding new exhibition. Beautifully curated from the Menil's drawing collection by Bernice Rose, it includes a hit parade of modern artists but makes you look at their work in an entirely new way. Post-impressionist, cubist, abstract expressionist or minimalist, they all draw. It's like looking at work from a drawing class filled with radically different students. The works were selected from the Menil's 1,500-piece collection of modernist drawings and works on paper. The timeline of the exhibition starts with Georges Seurat's 1883 Coin d'Usine (Corner of a Factory), a nest of marks and scribbles that construct a dark image of the blunt, windowless corner of a building and a tangle of shrubbery. It's a really wonderful little drawing. Other works in the show are delicately obsessive. Vincent van Gogh's Arden with Weeping Trees, Arles (August 1888) is a notebook-size piece of paper covered with tiny ink marks. You see van Gogh hunched over this dinky piece of paper, creating an entire world within its confines. Using short, sharp marks, along with curves, swirls and dots of ink, he renders a wonderful little swatch of landscape with shrubs and a weeping willow. You see a very different personality and very different approach in Pablo Picasso's Sketch of André Salmon (1907). In this barebones charcoal line drawing, Salmon looks kind of chimp-like. Picasso works to break the head and torso down into exaggerated but simplified lines. There's also drawings by Fernand Léger, Willem de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly – and on and on through art history. Through May 18. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — KK
"John Alexander: New Paintings and Drawings" Running concurrently with the John Alexander retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this showing of new works at McClain Gallery is a testament to Alexander's popularity and the collectability of his work. These pieces represent an interesting transition for Texas native Alexander, whose work recently has seemed like the output of two distinct identities: Alexander the Doomsday Prophet and Alexander the Naturalist. Here, we see the personalities merging. Shrimphead masks one of Alexander's nameless, suited politicos with a remarkably rendered shrimp face. Similarly, in The Brown Suit, a man sprouts a pig nose. Paintings like Issues and Heroes Come and Heroes Go continue Alexander's recent obsession with Bosch — skeletons and grotesque creatures pose for portraits and cavort chaotically below foreboding gray clouds. Fish, though, are an important motif in these paintings, perhaps another religious reference (crosses also figure prominently). But the doom-and-gloom contrasts nicely with a piece like Lost America, a stunning landscape of blue spruce pines against a gorgeous sky of lemon-cream clouds dusted with pink. These works have the ability to appeal to a wide variety of collectors and personalities, and judging by the number of red dots, this baby's selling. Through May 31. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — TS
"Miguel Angel Rojas: FotoFest 2008" In Colombian artist Miguel Angel Rojas's Houston/Curillo, the words "Houston" and "Curillo" are written on a piece of paper using little circles in earthy shades of green. The letters of "Curillo" have been punched from dollar bills; the letters of "Houston" were made from circles hole-punched from coca leaves. Curillo is a drug-producing center in Colombia, and the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of cocaine. It's a strong work. Politics are notoriously difficult to deal with in art, but Rojas is one of the rare few who make politically and visually provocative art while sidestepping polemics. Written with more coca leaf dots, text on a gallery wall reads "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" The sentence is also the title of Richard Hamilton's seminal 1956 Pop Art collage, which presented a satiric take on 1950s lifestyles and consumer affluence. The artist uses the phrase to allude to the perceptions of glamour and affluence associated with cocaine use in the U.S. The phrase is in direct contrast to the humble earthiness of the leaves grown by rural farmers. The other pieces in the show are also phenomenal, with the exception of the well-intentioned Quiebramales/Evil Breaker (2005/2008), which is reassuring in a way — Rojas is usually so good, it's scary. Through May 15. Sicardi Gallery, 2246 Richmond Ave., 713-529-1313. — KK
"Perspectives 160: Dawoud Bey" Dawoud Bey takes photographic portraits of high school students, but his large-scale images are a far cry from geeky yearbook photos or cheesy graduation portraits. Texts written by the students about themselves accompany and flesh out Bey's images. The students seem to hail from both inner-city pubic schools and elite private academies. Their stories are moving, revealing and amusing. A girl writes about her father dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. A black teen wishes people understood her culture and that she is from the Ngwa region of Nigeria. A bulky teenage boy writes about accidentally becoming a football lineman. Bey's DVD Four Stories is also on view. In the video, four different immigrant teenagers talk poignantly about their experiences, hopes and dreams. Bey films them in extreme close-up, never allowing you to see their whole faces, only their voices. The strategy is designed to make you really listen to the kids and keep you from making assumptions based on their appearances and dress. The only problem with this plan is that teenagers really shouldn't be shot this close up. It's a frank approach, but the macro shots of greasy, acne-laden adolescent skin can be distracting. Through May 11. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — KK
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