Capsule Art Reviews: "Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs," "Ewan Gibbs: Arlington National Cemetery," "[Houston Times Eight]," "Joseph Havel: Hope and Desire," "Unpremeditated Natures: Russ Havard and David McClain"
"Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs" The name Claes Oldenburg may bring to mind sculptures of giant lipsticks, ice cream cones and shuttlecocks. Today, the esteemed 83-year-old artist is known for his playful, larger-than-life public art installations of ordinary objects. This conversation between art and the everyday is one Oldenburg's been having since the start of his career more than 50 years ago, as a rare exhibition currently on view at The Menil Collection demonstrates. "Strange Eggs" consists of 18 collages Oldenburg made within two years after moving to New York in 1956. Notably, curator Michelle White has brought the complete works together for the first time with this show; until now, surprisingly, the series has never been shown in its entirety. The show is found in the surrealistic section of the Menil. It's an appropriate space; these experimental works are composed of photographic reproductions of advertisements and images in newspapers and magazines, melded together in unnatural ways. The black and white collages feature self-contained forms (the "strange eggs"), two to five to a page. Disturbingly, the imagery used is mostly indiscernible; the photographs are manipulated beyond recognition from the source material to the point where they're just texture. They even seem to drip down the page in "Strange Eggs V." None of the works are named after anything in particular. In fact, they're simply numbered in Roman numerals from "I" to "XVIII." However anonymous, these strange eggs do sometimes contain recognizable imagery. Long manes of hair, likely from shampoo ads, pieces of pie and even the limbs of horses can be found within the world of each collage. It's this familiarity amid all the strangeness that keeps you coming back for more. Through February 3. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — MD
"Ewan Gibbs: Arlington National Cemetery" Ewan Gibbs has turned his distinguishable pixelated drawing style on topics as diverse as the Statue of Liberty, the Chicago Ferris Wheel and hotel facades. Seemingly part-photography, part-drawing, his technique is inspired by grid-like knitting patterns the artist started incorporating into his work two decades ago to turn photographs, both found and his own, into drawings. One of his latest subjects is particularly inspired for his particular line of visual play: the Arlington National Cemetery. On a visit to the famous site, Gibbs was taken by the military cemetery's impressive landscape, from its rolling hills to centuries-old trees. In 16 drawings inspired by this visit on view in the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Law Building, he alternates between depicting landscapes and, in slightly smaller works, headstones. The landscapes are the more impressive pieces as Gibbs captures the ebb of the neat white rows of headstones on the cemetery's hills, as well as the more scattered arrangement of the markers. These are not giant drawings that try to overwhelm or impress you with scale. Rather, they are small, intimate, quiet and meditative. The headstones are less effective; the names, dates and epitaphs on the stone are difficult to make out. No amount of stepping back to let the image come into focus makes it any easier to bring the drawing together. That's partly the point, to turn these images into near abstractions, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Alongside Gibbs's drawings, the MFAH also has on view photographs by artists who have inspired Gibbs. The inclusion is a bit distracting and superfluous, though; there's no context as to why these particular photographs are included, and anyway, Gibbs's drawings are enough on their own to spend time with. Through February 10. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — MD
"[Houston Times Eight]" The Station Museum of Contemporary Art recently kicked off an ambitious new series called "HX8" ("Houston Times Eight"), wherein the museum curates a show of eight diverse, contemporary Houston artists. Fabio D'Aroma is like a modern-day Caravaggio. He presents a grotesque procession along all four walls. There are naked bodies with thin arms, knobby red elbows and knees, and distended stomachs that are engaged with curious symbolism. There's a peacock and a menorah in one painting, a watermelon, some rifles and a bag of charcoal in another. There's so much coded in there, and it's all done in such jaw-dropping detail, that it's all a bit confounding. Street artist Daniel Anguilu has left his telltale mark all over Midtown and brings his animal imagery inside for the museum show, painting an epic, abstract mural on a temporary wall constructed just for the exhibition to create separate, almost sacred spaces for each artist. Robert Pruitt's powerful portraits depict three strong, fully realized African-American women. Prince Varughese Thomas's conceptual works criticize the wars in the Middle East, representing the lives lost, both of civilians and soldiers, through white, ghostly pennies and names in charcoal, layered until the paper turns black. Lynn Randolph processes the death of her husband through ancient symbols of mortality — birds. Her grief is overwhelming and beautiful in the sheer amount of work she has created and the number of birds that fill the walls of her room. Floyd Newsum's distinct, naive style and dense collages are loaded with personal materials, from chalk to photographs and symbols of his family. Serena Lin Bush explores concepts of family and bonds between sisters and friends through a video installation. And Forrest Prince's works in wood and mirror are calls to "love" and "repent," though the most biting words go out to his fellow artists: "If the work you are doing isn't contributing to the restoration of peace on our Mother Earth, or the health and welfare of all the creatures on her, then you are wasting your life and everyone else's time." Amen. Through February 17. 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — MD
"Joseph Havel: Hope and Desire" In his solo show at Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston artist and Glassell School of Art director Joseph Havel has just two pieces in the gallery's main room. The more prominent, and colorful, even in its monochromatism, is Hope and Desire, which also gives the show its name. It consists of ten Plexiglas boxes densely stuffed with carefully arranged shirt labels embroidered with the words "hope" and "desire." There are upwards of 30,000 of them to each box, with each box alternately consisting of shirt labels labeled "hope" and "desire." Thanks to the white edges of the labels, the labels form blue lines that run up and down, across and diagonally, like some Sol LeWitt line drawing done in fabric. Havel has worked with shirt labels and Plexiglas boxes like this before, but the ten used here make it the largest of this scale yet. It's visually striking, too. The labels read like blue and white paint until you get up close to confront it and the illusion is gone. The messages in the labels are also mostly hidden, save for some that are revealed along the edges of the clear frame or are out of place in the line, like a happy accident. The second piece in the show is Architecture, a tower of cast resin that replicates the collected papers of Sigmund Freud. The stack consists of seven casts of the set of books, as well as the original model, now destroyed, making it 5'7" tall — which by some lucky math was also the height of Freud himself. The cast leaves the imprint of the books' volumes and author like a ghostly shadow, which is quite fitting since it's meant to be referential. By using Freud, Havel is speaking to the influence of the thinker on Modernism. Hope and Desire is also said to be inspired by The Dream Songs by John Berryman, a work that expresses Freudian concepts. There's much art historical, cultural and personal information to read here, but even if it all doesn't come across, both works are still really satisfying formally to look at. Through January 26. 4520 Blossom St., 713-863-7097. — MD
"Unpremeditated Natures: Russ Havard and David McClain" Going to Gallery 1724, a salon-slash-gallery in the Museum District, you can never be too sure what's the newest artwork for display and what's just business as usual. So in the space's current show, curated by artist and proprietor Emily Sloan, if you find yourself wandering into the bathroom, don't worry, you're in the right place. As you enter the unconventional gallery, to your right, Houston artist David McClain has filled the walls with art traditionally framed and displayed in a grid. He calls it his "Lawyers" series, and in it, the artist (a lawyer himself, though he's currently not practicing) uses as source material meta magazine ads that advertise specialized law services geared toward other lawyers. He paints over the people and text in thick lines and patches, obscuring and revealing to create works that subvert the ads' original meaning. Phrases like "experience counts," "integrity" and "innovative solutions," meant to differentiate the lawyers and their services, are now exposed for how conventional they all are. Alongside the "Lawyers" series is "Works of Paper," an installation that layers the bathroom inside and out with paintings. McClain refers to his process here as "painting as meditation." Working in an undisciplined, unconscious process, the artist has created works that range from the abstract — splotches and rivers of moody color — to more representational — mostly faces and bodies composed in a naive style. There's also the rare photograph, which is the artist's primary medium. In such a confined space, it's a thrilling explosion of creativity. In the next room, Russ Havard's small graphite drawings line the walls. Like McClain, the Lufkin artist has an almost meditative process. He starts with a shape — a circle, an oval, a line — which morphs into a strong, recognizable form, from a fish to a tree to a pendulum in motion. They're mostly white and gray drawings, as if his little scenes are constantly overcast, though there are brief, welcome moments of spontaneous color. The show is titled "Unpremeditated Natures," which speaks well to the intuitive, carnal process of the artists. At the same time, they couldn't be more different — where McClain's paintings are wild and spontaneous, Havard's are controlled and ordered. It's a compelling pairing. Through January 26. 1724 Bissonnet, 713-582-1198. — MD
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