Capsule Art Reviews: "Bert L. Long Jr: An Odyssey," "Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lightning," "Janice Jakielski: Constructing Solitude," "John Cage: Prints, Drawings, and a Music Box," "Toby Kamps: 99 Cent Dreams"
"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
"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
"Janice Jakielski: Constructing Solitude" Janice Jakielski's work somehow manages to feel both futuristic and Victorian at the same time. Her colorful headdresses on display at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft are quite photogenic, embroidered prettily with birds and adorned with paper flowers. They also feature some curious fashion choices: coffee mug halves that surround the eyes, wide ribbons that obscure the ears and even a bonnet made for two, each separate headdress connected by a striped portal in a way that forces each wearer's back to the other. These dozen or so hats are purposefully exaggerated, their impracticality meant to enforce a sense of isolation on the wearer. The exhibition is even titled "Constructing Solitude," and sets out to explore how a minor change or two from the norm can radically alter our view of the world. Or something like that. It all can be a bit of a leap. You have to go from merely admiring the skill and craftsmanship in these headdresses to imagining wearing them and how that might feel. It doesn't help that the headdresses are placed at varying heights on the walls, and the taller they are, the harder it is to really examine them. Some key references are also unclear and don't seem to readily serve the piece. The flowers are meant to signify floriography, a Victorian-era practice in which flowers were used to send messages, while the birds are a reference to auspicium — a form of divination that looks to the flight patterns of birds for signs. That's nice, but to what end? Jakielski does give museum-goers the chance to experience, rather than imagine, her work by setting up an interactive installation in the middle of the gallery space. In "Across the Divide," three pairs of handmade binoculars look upon these miniature porcelain nature scenes, which include a pile of leaves and what looks like a cornfield and some weeds. The idea is that when you look through the binoculars, someone else has the opportunity to look through the other pair and you can experience this act of viewing together. Of course, that only works if there's another person there to look through the binoculars with you and you both somehow know what to do. Otherwise there's little to guide you through the intended experience of this piece, which can lead you to look on in confusion or ignore it all together. Through May 5. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD
"John Cage: Prints, Drawings, and a Music Box" If there's one word John Cage is associated with, it's chance. It's crucial to the experience of his signature work, the silent composition 4'33", as well as his process in a variety of mediums. Cage relied on chance in the composition of both his music and his visual artwork, something he turned to mid-career with his first piece, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (A + B), which consists of two color lithographs, and explored up until his death in 1992. His very last piece, Extended Lullaby, a neat row of a dozen music boxes, was completed posthumously in 1994. Hiram Butler Gallery has both of these works on display in its current show, a collection of prints, drawings and that interactive music box installation. Cage was famously known to consult the classic Chinese text the I Ching during each step of his process, whether he was writing a song or making etchings on paper. And though it isn't obvious just from looking at them, this influence is behind the construction of the prints and drawings on display at Hiram Butler. Cage made The Missing Stone, for instance, by asking the I Ching questions on the type of brush he should use, the color of the paint and the thickness of the brushstrokes. The resulting etching is sparse and looks loosely like calligraphy. A similar process is also behind the making of his "edible drawings" — paper composed of various herbs and plants. Cage used the book to sort a variety of herbs into recipes, and through the papermaking process, they were randomly scattered in his drawing. Again, what may come across as deliberate choices is pure happenstance. Cage almost seems to be taking the easy way out with these drawings, freeing himself of the burden of choice and letting the I Ching make his decisions for him. But in the end, it's a much more laborious process that belies the light, easy manner of the drawings. Plus, Cage has to know what questions to ask in the first place. His seeming non-intentionality makes you think about how many choices go into a single piece of art, as well as all the happy accidents that come about because an artist did something not with intent but rather by mistake. The possibilities are almost paralyzing; consulting the I Ching seems like a pretty good solution. Chance plays a major role in his music box installation, but rather than rely on an ancient classic text, Cage needs your help to complete the work. In Eternal Lullaby, 12 music box mechanisms are contained within an acrylic tube, each designed to play random notes. With a gentle tap on a lever, you can start the music box's non-melodic tune. You can choose to get as many of these music boxes going as you like (some may need to be wound), but two or three at once gives you a chance to really listen. The resulting lullaby won't likely be one that you'd want to lull you to sleep — the discordant tones can get pretty eerie — but sometimes, amazingly, they strike a pleasant chord. By chance, of course. Through March 30. 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097. — MD
"Toby Kamps: 99 Cent Dreams" If you're curious what captures Toby Kamps's eye, look no further than Front Gallery. The Montrose spot has a photography exhibition up featuring work not selected by the Menil curator, but taken by him. "99 Cent Dreams" features 14 recent photographs by Kamps, who, after moving to Houston in 2007, started taking classes with photographer Amy Blakemore at the Glassell School of Art. Blakemore is known for her black-and-white street photographs of the late 1980s, and Kamps seems to have taken a page from Blakemore's book. His mostly black-and-white gelatin silver prints show candid outdoor moments — ones that seem to have been captured spontaneously with only seconds to spare. There are even several taken from a car, the side-view mirror visible in the frame, further giving the impression of fleeting moments that have caught Kamps's eye. Most of them are of the street variety. There's a shot of a New York storefront that provides the inspiration for the show title. In what's one of the best photos compositionally, a man stands in front of a window of what looks like a party supply store that has the words "99¢ Dreams" all lit up in what presumably is neon. Moving on, there's a funny shot of a man in Tel Aviv putting parts of a mannequin into the trunk of a car. One of the few color photographs is a vibrant shot of a lime-green scooter against a watermelon-pink wall in Austin. If you look closely, Kamps himself is in the works, too, obscured by his camera in the reflection of a side-view mirror or an Austin hippie's sunglasses. Travel is a major component of these works, and the show feels very much like a travel diary. The photographs are also named after their locales — New Delhi, Venice, New York, Kassel, Tel Aviv and Munich as well as Houston and Austin — further emphasizing this theme. Some of these souvenirs are better than others, though all have a spontaneous feel that only can come from diligently having a camera strapped around your neck and keeping your eyes open, waiting for something to catch your eye. Through April 6. 1412 Bonnie Brae, 713-298-4750. — MD
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