Capsule Art Reviews: "Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs," "Ewan Gibbs: Arlington National Cemetery," "Mac Whitney: Sculptures and Paintings," "The Progress of Love," "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's 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
"Mac Whitney: Sculptures and Paintings" Mac Whitney's current show at Gallery Sonja Roesch only just went up earlier in January, but the sculptor would be familiar to regular gallery-goers as well as those who just happen to drive by the Midtown gallery. For the past seven months, the artist's 3,000-plus-pound sculpture Carrizozo has stood prominently outside the gallery, a red beacon as well as a preview of sorts of his solo show — a variety bag of a dozen of the Texas artist's sculptures, as well as a handful of paintings, all made over the latter half of his more than 40-year career. Whitney is a skilled metalworker who can manipulate steel at any scale and make it bend or curve at his command. It's quite astonishing to go from his 20-foot-tall Carrizozo to the barely 20-inch Bosque, another red number that rests on the gallery's table and is one of the first works you see upon entering. Despite their difference in stature, they have the same sense of strength, movement and elegance. Through his minimal use of color — just solid reds, blacks, blues or grays — he lets the raw steel do the talking. The artist's paintings are quite the departure from his metalwork. Where Whitney's sculptures are strong, interlocking forms, his oil paintings are loose and erratic in their lines. Where his sculptures are solid, bold colors, his paintings are messy bursts of blues, yellows and reds all at once. It's like he's freeing his mind from the constraints of the steel and imagining what shapes he might be able to bend his next sculpture into, against all odds. Through February 23. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. —MD
"The Progress of Love" One of the most important names in The Menil Collection's exhibition of contemporary African art is a French guy who's been dead for more than 200 years. Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the first European artists to portray love not as an allegory or myth but, as curator Kristina Van Dyke tells us, "a contemporary phenomenon." His Progress of Love cycle of paintings is one such example, depicting a narrative of modern love for the time, from initial pursuit, including the exchange of love letters, to its fulfillment, all in that playful rococo style. The Menil's show, which explores modern representations of love, recognizes its debt to Fragonard by borrowing the title of his painting cycle. One of the very first works you see is also a not-so-subtle reference to Fragonard's most famous painting, The Swing. In The Swing (After Fragonard), British artist Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, creates a life-size replica of Fragonard's flirty woman on the swing, foliage and all, with her slipper even playfully kicked off and suspended in the air. But instead of wearing mid-18th-century French dress, she's sporting a dress made out of Dutch Wax-painted textile. And, even more noticeably, she's headless, as if allowing viewers to substitute anyone they want in that role. From there, the ambitious show presents a number of different representations of love — friendship, patriotism, narcissism, pornography and more — from more than 20 contemporary artists. The artists live all over the world but mostly hail from Africa. There are all types of media on display, too, but the installations are really something. South Africa-born Kendell Geers's Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest) consists of one item repeated 164 times — glass casts of police batons — which he's arranged into the shape of a giant glass heart. All at once it brings to mind the dichotomy of love and hate and asks what place love has in violence, and vice versa. Nadine Robinson's clever installation Like Three manages to be massive and minuscule all at once. A white board with a line across the middle is flanked by vintage speakers. The refrain of The Persuaders song, "It's a thin line between love and hate," is on repeat, like some earworm. That appears to be all there is to take in, until you get up close and realize that black line is actually handwriting, spelling out random words like "happy people," "shampoos," "perfume" and "strawberry ice cream" — a literal thin line between love and hate. Love takes the form of physical affection in the video installation Eaten by the Heart, a piece the Menil commissioned from Nigeria-born filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa that attempts to answer the question "How do Africans kiss?" It features 11 couples smooching for about five minutes each. A unique background color and soundtrack are used for each one (one couple kisses to crashing waves, another to a cheering sports crowd). It's a sweet concept, but I don't think most people can stand to watch an hour of other people making out. There's much, much more to see anyway. It's a big show befitting the subject matter, and each work is more surprising, unique and unexpected than the next, which is no small feat. Through March 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. —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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