Capsule Art reviews: "Bert L. Long Jr: An Odyssey," "Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All," "A chain of non-events," "Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lightning," "Farewell Ruins: Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin"
"Bert L. Long Jr: An Odyssey" If you can look on the bright side, this was some fortunate timing. The UAC Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University was putting together a small show of Bert Long's work late last year when the Fifth Ward artist was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died a month later, on February 1. In what turned out to be one of his last acts as a Houston artist, Long wanted to show work that even his friends and collectors hadn't seen before. Given his two-inch-thick résumé, full of local shows and press clippings, that would pose quite the challenge, but the resulting show is one that's full of surprises and a fitting tribute to the beloved artist. The 16 works on display were made in the last 30 years and include photographs of a trip to Cuba, paintings, sculpture and assemblage. One of the earliest works is Persistence (Mums the Word) (1983), a curious piece of mixed media that features an ax piercing black, stitched lips, with the word "art" carved over and over again into the canvas board. The most recent work on display, completed in 2012, also has a dark edge to it. Purgatory prominently features the flashing neon words "Hell" and "Open," as subtle a message as a stop sign. The heaviest piece is Dear John, Dear Vincent, Dear Pablo, Dear Bert, an overwhelming 400-pound clock that's a wall of boots, giant nails and broken glass. That's right. These often unsettling works can be literally dangerous if not handled properly. Long strove to be truthful in his work, and, like the truth, these pieces are not always pretty or neat. One of the most prominent pieces is Quest, an assemblage displayed in the middle of the small gallery. It was initially found buried in the middle of Long's studio and looks as though it had collected everything in there. A trunk has almost too many items to mention affixed to it — an old credit card of Long's, a license plate, liquor bottles, an old newspaper, rope, a toothbrush, a lit lightbulb and a broken wine glass. The trunk is supported by two "legs," one foot wearing a white shoe and the other a black one, and there's a steering wheel on top. It looks like a walking time capsule, continually on the move. Long's massive bound résumé is also on display for your perusal. It's composed of hundreds of pages that document his shows and press from the start of his art career up to 2008, giving those unfamiliar with his work an insight into his prominence in Houston's art community. Of course, some of the best insight into his style will be right in front of you. These works are loud, strange, unsettling and anything but boring and will leave you wanting more. Through April 18. 7502 Fondren, 281-649-3678. — MD
"Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All" Fresh Arts' latest exhibition wants to let you know right off the bat that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Titled "Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All," the two-person show is just what it sounds like — a lighthearted look at art that prominently features cats and bunnies and doesn't get much deeper than that. But just because it is what it is doesn't mean it isn't any good. Au contraire. Lynn Lane's photographs and Melanie Loew's paintings are well-crafted pieces that are enjoyable to behold and examine. Both artists present a portfolio edited down to their respective animals. Lane is on the feline side. He presents 21 black-and-white photography portraits — giclée prints on 100 percent cotton rag archival paper — set against a fantastic bold pink wall. The portraits are of Lane's friends — a motley crew of choreographers, dancers, musicians, tattoo artists, body piercers, DJs, lawyers, cops and more that includes a few prominent people in the Houston arts scene — all holding his cat, Orange Cat. Orange Cat proves to be quite the versatile model; he never holds the same pose twice, and comically squirms and cuddles from one photo to the next. Lane's human models are unique in their own right, too. Once he lets them cut loose with a cat, he captures each person's presence in natural, flattering photos. Most of the subjects are smiling, if not laughing, and seem to be having a genuinely good time. Loew's work is also composed of portraits of people holding animals. But rather than photography, Loew works in paint on paper. She also trades cats for bunnies. Each bunny throughout her seven works is different, too. If you were an expert in this type of thing, you would be able to distinguish breeds; that's how exact her painting is. Compared to Lane's works, Loew's side of the gallery has more of an edge and is weirder. Each person is set against a unique wallpaper pattern, and both animal and human seem to disappear into this flat background. They are all head and limbs but no body; Loew edits out whole torsos. This subtraction, combined with the pallor of the subjects, gives the paintings an eerie, ghostly sense, but it works. The focus is on the pleasant faces and rabbits before you. In such a simple conceit, both artists' works almost dare you not to like them (the bunny in Loew's aptly titled painting Precious is especially adorable). But you'll easily and gladly succumb to their charms — and craft. Through April 26. 2101 Winter St., Studio B11, 713-868-1839. — MD
"A chain of non-events" At Lawndale Art Center's "Big Show" last summer, Katie Wynne's piece stood out from the nearly 70 others in the exhibition. The installation consisted of just a motorized tie rack and blue satin, but the rack was turned on so that it was constantly revolving and catching the cloth in its hangers. It was utterly mesmerizing in its simplicity. Lawndale's latest round of shows features a different Wynne, one who is much, much messier. In the artist statement for "A chain of non-events," found upstairs in the third-floor Project Space, the Houston artist even says, "In a reality of too much orderliness, I am keeping room for the untamed." This is a show that revels in its disorder. This ambitious exhibition feels like one giant installation, though it is really broken up into five works. There are no tie racks employed, but there are oscillating fans, cassette players and a foot massager, which, mounted on the wall, looks like a big cassette or mini air-conditioner. Scattered among these electronics are colorful blouse sleeves, wrapping paper, sequins, cardboard, felt, fabric and more. These fragments are propped up by wooden beams or tables, which are connected by white string that creates a loose trail and propels you from one piece to the next. There's a sense in which the machines are following some innate logic or instruction. The fans in last judgment repeatedly go back and forth, moving the blouse sleeves attached to them with it, to no end. A paint brush in pangea maria is attached to an oscillating fan and twists like a brush stroke, though the brush is dry. It feels like a rote action, one that can't be help taking place, long after the paint has dried, like a muscle memory. These little situations and setups are not as simple as a tie rack and satin, or as mesmerizing, for that matter. They're more complicated, more layered and harder to access. Which isn't a bad thing. Through April 20. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — MD
"Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lightning" Cruz Ortiz is known to work in wheat paste murals, video, street sculptures and guerrilla AM radio broadcasts. His latest solo exhibition is just gouache on paper and panel, but that doesn't make it any less quiet. "I Speak Lightning" at David Shelton Gallery is a loud, blaring show. It is full of bold colors, bright text and, yes, more than a few streaks of lightning. The Houston-born, San Antonio-based artist made a splash here three years ago with his solo exhibition at CAMH. That show introduced many to Ortiz's (to borrow the term) lo-fi aesthetic. There's a simplicity and crudeness to his paintings, a freestyle, rasquache technique that allows Ortiz to work really fast — he created the nearly two dozen pieces in the show just this year. I can see that crude flatness being a barrier to appreciating Ortiz's art — he doesn't seem to try all that hard — but I found it to be part of his charm. In fact, one of my favorites in the show was Darlin. The piece features just the word "Darlin" done in a thin pink font of Ortiz's design — letters alternate between uppercase and lowercase at whim — against a teal background. Purple stars line the top and bottom of the panel in a free-hand style that, again, can come off as slapdash. But there's something about the combination of the bold colors, simple proclamation and unrefined drawing style that is just winning. The show alternates between these text-based pieces that speak of sunshine and "amor" and Ortiz's lovesick poets — cowboy hat-sporting, bandanna-wearing cowboys who are likely the originators of these texts and have literal stars in their eyes. This part can get a bit confusing, but Ortiz's black-lipped alter ego Spaztek (that's part-Aztec, part-spaz) also shows up a few times in portraits such as the sunburst Menudo Power. As the legend goes, Spaztek is on a cosmic search for love — complete with a ray gun. He's a prop, it seems, through which Ortiz can freely speak of personal yet universal topics like love and desire. Though it professes to be about love, "I Speak Lightning" isn't a romantic show; in place of hearts, Ortiz uses stars. But it is an eccentric, giddy celebration of the kind of love that causes fireworks and drives men crazy. When you're immersed in those graphic paintings, the enthusiasm is contagious. Through March 30. 3909 Main, 832-538-0924. —MD
"Farewell Ruins: Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin" There are quite a few similarities in Inman Gallery's new two-person exhibition, "Farewell Ruins." Both artists work in ceramics to create otherworldly sculptures that take on unfamiliar forms that don't strive for perfection. They are also both named Julia. But that's where the similarities end. Through entirely different processes, Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin arrive at pieces that are uniquely strange and captivating. This is the Julias' second group exhibition at Inman, and it's clear why they make such an appropriate pair. Drawn together by their similarities, they each help accentuate what makes the other's work so original and fresh. Kunin's nearly dozen sculptures are lined up in a nice row. Though labeled as vases, they aren't all that practical. For starters, each of them has a very small hole through which to add water or a bouquet; doing so is almost an afterthought. And you wouldn't want to distract from these striking standalone pieces with a few roses or tulips. The Zsolnay porcelain factory in Hungary glazed the Brooklyn-based artist's pieces using a secret technique it invented 150 years ago. Kunin used stones she found in a 15th-century Hungarian monastery. The resulting works have an iridescent luster that looks like gasoline or some other toxic substance. Their craggy, misshapen forms also add to this unnatural feel. It seems as if once perfectly functional vases have corroded and decayed into these current objects, which are nevertheless more interesting to look at in their mutant states. Where Kunin's works are small and contained, Haft-Candell's commandeer the gallery space just on size alone. The Los Angeles artist's floor-bound pieces are a combination of a variety of materials — porcelain fragments, fabric, structuring wire, rebar, thread, wood, cement, ink, gouache, epoxy resin, and more — as well as mediums, as Haft-Candell employs painting, drawing and sculpture. The resulting five assemblages look like bandaged branches or limbs; they invite personification. One of the pieces is even called Elbow, another Charlie. These look like wounded, vulnerable things that Haft-Candell has given a second life, like pastel Frankenstein's monsters that take on a life of their own. Or maybe they're on their last legs, continually broken and then bandaged. The show is titled "Farewell Ruins," after all. Through March 30. 3901 Main, 713-526-7800. — MD
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