Capsule Art Reviews: "Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada," "Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage," "MOVING/STILL: Recent Photography by Texas Artists," "Nice. Luc Tuymans," "Rachel Hecker: Group Show," "SPRAWL"
"Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada" The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Posada's death with an exhibition titled "Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada." The exhibit decorates the white walls between the lower-level staircase of MFAH's Caroline Wiess Law building. It is separated into three sections, looking to the viewer like an unfolded pamphlet. In the center are Posada's pieces, which include La Calavera Catrina, his "most iconic calaveras" and others, such as La Calavera Amorosa (The Skeleton of Love). Drawn in 1907, it was printed in a Mexican newspaper in 1911 as the principal image for a cartoon depicting the execution of two Guatemalan criminals who assassinated General Manuel Barillas. Posada's El doctor improvisado (The Improvised Doctor), hanging in the very center of the exhibit, tells a different story, albeit with the same outcome: a traveling doctor who comes across death. As a gesture of friendliness, the doctor offers the bony burier his coat; in return, Death gives the doctor the ability to know whether his patients will live or die. In the end, however, it's the doctor who dies. The expiration of both the murderers, who took life, and the doctor, expected to sustain life, makes clear that death is not a respecter of persons. It falls on the just and the unjust. The left and right sections of this wall "pamphlet" display the artists influenced by Posada's works. To Mexican-American artist Luis Jimenez, death is a dance. His Baile con la Talaca (Dance with Death) (1984) lithograph shows him in a lusty tango with La Catrina, while Self-Portrait (1996) shows the artist decomposing. That Self-Portrait was created after Baile is probably a coincidence, but it does help to illustrate the inevitable conclusion to being in death's clutches. Baile shows Jimenez and Lady Death as half-human and half-skeleton. They embrace each other, with Jimenez's hand grazing her ribs while her bony fingers clasp his head. Jimenez is also half-skeleton in the latter lithograph. He is not a completed calavera, but the process is under way, as his sagging, pockmarked flesh reveals bone underneath. Jimenez's eyes and lips are uncovered, revealing hollow eye sockets and an eerie grin. The image takes up the frame, forcing viewers to come close — and become entangled in death's permanent embrace. Posada's influence reached Texas, too. Jerry Bywaters, an American artist and native Texan, created a lithograph painting of a graveyard in Terlingua. This place, Mexican Graveyard-Terlingua, transforms every year during Dia de los Muertos, when residents of the city come to pay tribute to the dead. Through December 15. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — AO
"Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" The man's face looks aged and weathered. Accordionist is the last vocation you would pick for him, since his wrinkled hands relay the same signs of aging; still, he holds the instrument expertly, fingers lingering over keys the way a lover's graze soft flesh. However nimble and confident his fingers may be, it is his face that catches the eye. He wears an expression of fear, and it's not hard to see why: Behind him, a tiger's body is caught in mid-pounce. His left paw is raised, his claws, unsheathed. The success of Orpheus, a painting by Kermit Oliver, is its realism, created by the expert application of acrylic oil to canvas. The acrylic oil is applied in short downward strokes, creating vertical lines that imply movement. Acrylic oil is also put on in layers, one on top of the other, making the picture look wet. Because liquids are known for their fluidity, this technique also gives the painting kinetic movement. This is what makes the man look so tight, the tiger so taut, as if he (or she) may in fact bypass Orpheus altogether and jump out of the painting toward you. "Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" is an exhibition of 17 paintings — including Orpheus — taking up Art League Houston's front and hallway galleries. The works on display span 30 of his 40 years as a painter. Dido and Aeneas (1997) is split vertically into halves, with the left side portraying a black and bleak funeral procession. Not one to divert from the African-American lineage present in most of his paintings, Oliver paints the originally Carthaginian Dido as a black woman with long dreadlocks accessorized with golden beads. Her face has a ghostly pallor. Oliver's talent with oils is evident here also; whereas in Orpheus he made the oils wet, here he takes a wet substance and makes it look dry, like powder. Oliver is a native Texan and Texas Southern University graduate who, until a month ago, quietly sorted mail in a Waco post office. However, his Texas roots were not enough to inspire the famously reclusive painter to come to his own opening Friday evening. (Ironically, this elusiveness doesn't stop Oliver from designing a scarf every year for one of the world's most coveted couture brands, Hermès. Fancy, huh?) Despite this, Art League Houston not only exhibits Oliver, but honors him with its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award — hermit factor notwithstanding. Through November 15. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO
"MOVING/STILL: Recent Photography by Texas Artists" This exhibit explores the complicated relationship human beings have with nature through the viewfinders of 12 photographers. To these artists, dealing with nature means accepting its unpredictability. The exhibition is showing at both FotoFest and the Houston Center for Photography. Gnashing of Teeth is both ugly and beautiful. First, all of Badger's photographs are inkjet prints, matte alternatives to the glossies strewn throughout the gallery. This works well with the subject of the photograph, who splashes around in muddy waters. Black mud covers her all over, from her black dress to her black hair, but she doesn't appear to be grossed out. In fact, the look on her face is one of pure ecstasy, of giving herself away to a sticky subconscious. Elizabeth Chivas's Figs From Thistles series is titled after a book of poetry by the same name, her grandmother's favorite. The photographs look for beauty among the now barren. Chivas started photographing plant wildlife in spring 2013, just as Texas's cold winter was turning to warm summer — however, after a season of drought, wildflowers were hard to come by; what was left were bunches of dried-out, burned-out grass. Chivas's photos capture the rare flowers that grew despite this distress, whether they were an unexpected gathering of pink, orange and yellow wildflowers (Figs from Thistles no. 1) or a lone pink flower (Figs from Thistles no. 4), surviving in spite of the ruin. Two of Keliy Anderson-Staley's pictures sum up the entire exhibition: The "Round Barn" at Zocalo, Gouldsboro, Maine and Earthways Lodge in Winter. On the left, The "Round Barn" displays a cylindrical home; green grass grows all around. The overgrown, thick grass represents life, as do the other items around the barn: a bike, red doors, a wheelbarrow. Earthways Lodge shows the complete opposite: an abandoned hut that's covered in hay. It's clear no one has tended the little lodge in a long time, since a pile of snow covers the hay. The cold snow represents stasis, or even death. On the other hand, the wildly growing green grass in the former C-Print represents growth and, ultimately, life. Life is fluid; death is static. Where The "Round Barn" is MOVING, in Earthways Lodge, life is STILL. Through October 27. Houston Center for Photography, 1441 W. Alabama, and FotoFest, 1113 Vine, 713-223-5522. — AO
"Nice. Luc Tuymans" With "Nice. Luc Tuymans," the painter of the same name uses his enduring style — realism — in portraiture. Tuymans has been painting portraits of himself, family members and public figures since the start of his career in the 1970s, but these are no ordinary faces. With the famous figures particularly, Tuymans uses his oils to re-examine feelings about these people. He muddies greens into colors of puce and washes out blacks into gray-scale hues, the combination of which leaves an ambivalent or even negative feeling about the person being portrayed. The Heritage VI (1996) takes a photograph of late white supremacist Joseph Milteer, whose name was tossed around in connection the JFK assassination, and turns it into a black-and-gray portrait adding Tuymans's signature ghoulish green tint to the oil-on-canvas remake of the original black-and-white photograph. He does the same with a picture of Condoleezza Rice (The Secretary of State 2005), his blurry oils turning her signature scowl into a mush-mouthed, mismatched miasma of drab colors. Brown oil pools into the corners of her squinted eyes, and her notable red lips are painted in a burnished burgundy shade. Milteer's portrait provides a wide politician's smile in comparison to Rice's, whose lips are slightly parted, barely letting through her other notable feature, her gap. Iphone (2008) is a self-portrait of Tuymans, drawn to turn him into a smudge, made so by the flash of the camera. Thus, he is nothing more than an outline of a man in a hat. As with a person you pass on the street, his facial features are not visible. With his ease at making the features of the other characters so visible and his not, is he removing critique of himself from the viewer? Through January 5. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-524-9400. — AO
"Rachel Hecker: Group Show" The massive foam finger isn't even the strangest thing you see in this exhibition. Nor is the snowman, the twirling bottle of Xanax or the huge ear stuffed with a cotton ball. Indeed, the most curious thing in "Rachel Hecker: Group Show," Hecker's new exhibit at Art League Houston, is a pile of jumping peanuts atop a white column. The Peanuts (2013), which are actual edible legumes, are attached to motorized magnets, causing them to jerk and jump around at random intervals. It is these Peanuts, in their abject randomness, that define the entire exhibition, a collection of 18 sculptures and paintings that sit and hang throughout the gallery in no particular order. Yes, it is odd. But as Hecker explains, "I want to give myself more permission to do whatever occurs to me without reservation." As for the Peanuts: "I like things that are animated that shouldn't be animated." Hecker is an artist who defies artistic authority. Though her main medium is large-scale painting, she "deplores" the rigidity of it. And so, while creating series such as notes-lists 1, paintings of handwritten grocery and to-do lists, she would create odd, figurative sculptures as the ideas struck her. "Group Show" collects these off-ramp oeuvres and puts them into Art League's Main Gallery. Altogether, "Group Show" looks like the shambles of a mental meltdown. Next to the bottle of Floating Xanax is The Ear That Cannot Hear (2006), which gets a corner to itself. As it sticks to the wall, the "cotton ball" made of EPS foam sits inside its canal, so while you're doped up on meds, your auditory senses are suspended as well. The lean pink skin of Finger Statue (2013) features a freshly manicured nail on the front, a stamped happy face on back. The hanging Peppermint Air Freshener (2006) is actually wood cut into an exponentially larger model of a car air freshener, then lacquered in a red so bright that you almost catch a whiff of its advertised candy-sweet smell as it swings from the gallery ceiling — even if your thoughts are fuzzy and your ears are blocked, you can still smell. Again, odd. Prudent guests would avoid this madness, mind the Caution Cuidado (2013), the acrylic on canvas re-creation of police tape, step over the rabbit hole, and forgo the topsy-turvy world of mechanics and medicine bottles in favor of a more conventional art experience. Hecker, however — the Artist in Wonderland — jumps in fearlessly, tearing past the warning tape into a world with no limits and no rigidity — and it pays off. "Group Show" is fun and exciting, a departure from restrictive canvases of straight lines and plain colors. And that's exactly what she wants. Through November 15. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO
"SPRAWL" Showing at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, SPRAWL explores the tenuous relationship with Houston geography, at once loved and loathed by citizens and non-citizens alike for its far reach and uneven plain. Co-curated by Susie J. Silbert and Anna Walker, the exhibit stretches throughout HCCC's gallery, mimicking the something-here, something-there pockets of nothing design of the Bayou City. Additionally, the 16 artists who lent their creative hands to the exhibition provide works drastically different from one another. Like Houston's diverse cultures, cuisines and ZIP codes mashed into one "sprawling" space, this clash of craftsmen works. The exhibition is divided into three sections: "Infrastructure of Expansion," "Survey, Plan, Build" and "Aftereffects." Heading up the first section are the beautiful black-and-white stalactite structures by Norwood Viviano. His Cities: Departure and Deviation (2011) illustrates the population growth of 24 cities from 1850 to 2010. The illustration was done using blown-glass cylinders of different heights, lengths and circumferences that hang from black rods attached to HCCC's ceiling. Each circumference is different, based on the population of the respective city, as is the distribution of black and/or white coloring. Most of the cylinders start out black at the bottom, then become white to represent a city's population growth over time. On the wall, a graphical representation of each city's growth is outlined in a grayish vinyl, an excellent explanation of percentage growth for the mathematically challenged. In the very center of Cities, an all-white cylinder represents the city of Houston. In 1850, the city had only 2,396 residents. By 2010, that number had skyrocketed to more than two million — 2,099,451, to be exact. The theme of work and play is present in "SPRAWL" 's "Survey, Plan, Build" section. Dustin Farnsworth combines playhouse and seesaw for Looming Genes and Rooted Dreams, while Paul Sacaridiz's An Incomplete Articulation (2011) is construction site meets jungle gym. In the same tradition, orange-and-green soccer balls lie haphazardly beside the wooden work benches in Sacaridiz's towering structure — the discarded toys of children playing near an unwieldy stack of wooden planks nod to a decision to put away childish things in favor of growth. In Julia Gabriel's art, the "Aftereffects" of expansion and building are a chic metropolis, depicted in the form of six leather backpacks. These are not just any backpacks, though, and this is not just any metropolis. Lined up side by side, they represent Congress @ Bastrop, Houston, Texas (2013). The actual street is a lineup of old buildings, and, lined up side by side, the staid color and the clunkiness of these six backpacks copy the original. On the far left, two beige backpacks are outlined in red and white trim. On the right, one lone brown backpack gets a spot. In the middle, three blue backpacks outlined in white trim stand tall — wearable mini-models of the dilapidated, graffiti-laced behemoths that sit dejectedly on Congress today. Through January 19. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — AO
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