Capsule Art Reviews: "Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976," "Jerry Kearns: Between Heaven and Earth," "Little Known Facts," "Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone," "Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection,"
"Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976" It's difficult to look at a Robert Ryman painting without an initial feeling of being cheated. The artist has limited himself almost entirely to the color white as a way of boiling down the essence of painting to a reduced process, the very act of laying paint on a surface and subsequently installing the work in a viewing space. Ryman once said, "There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint." To many viewers, Ryman comes off as a snake-oil salesman — selling pennies for a dollar. It's somewhat infuriating, and that's exactly the feeling you should have, but you should also keep looking. Once you've broken through that exterior facade, Ryman's work begins to release rewards. These three 1976 specimens, part of the Menil Collection's "Contemporary Conversations" series, are very stark examples of Ryman's oeuvre; all-white panels of pastel and oil paint on Plexiglas and blue Acrylivin are fixed to the wall with steel fasteners and bolts. It's the most distilled version of performance art ever, and the "I don't get it" exhibit of the year. And in a weird way, it's kind of thrilling. On view through February 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — TS
"Jerry Kearns: Between Heaven and Earth" After the 2001 terrorist attacks, artist Jerry Kearns began a series of works inspired by the blue sky that was the backdrop of the twin towers collapsing. "Between Heaven and Earth" captures the confusion and conflict of that day, as well as the absurdities and paradoxes it has spawned. Kearns creates digital collages made up of Islamic mosque architecture and images from weightlifting magazines, pornography and anatomy books, and he superimposes them onto canvas. He then fills the negative space with acrylic blue. The results are dynamic, funny and troubling images with recurring motifs of violence, sex and infant-operated weaponry. A subtitle for the entire series could be "The Sky Is Falling." Also included are religious-themed works like Ripped, an image of a bodybuilder with the head of Jesus (complete with crown of thorns and halo) flexing his muscles and glancing heavenward to a bit of text that reads "YOU WANT THE TRUTH...WHY?" And then there are utterly ridiculous pieces like Burger King, a rendering of someone who looks like Johnny Knoxville surrounded by floating cheeseburgers (obviously Wendy's, though). Through January 5. Deborah Colton Gallery, 2500 Summer, 713-864-2364. — TS
"Little Known Facts" For "Little Known Facts" at Lawndale Art Center, curator Michael Guidry convinced artists to let him borrow and exhibit their prized collections of stuff. The participating artists did that and more — they also threw in some of their actual artwork. The results are pretty interesting. David Aylsworth, he of the bold abstract brush-stroke paintings, has a really funny collection of old homoerotic literature — there are muscle mags from the '50s and dime novels from the '60s with cheesy beefcake covers. (This kinda puts a new spin on Aylsworth's recent show at Inman Gallery, "A Mixture of Catholicism, Pasta, and Pornography," as well as his pairing with Tom of Finland.) Andrew Groocock has a phenomenal collection of 300, count 'em, 300 toy robots that are reminiscent of his angular and segmented sculptures. Meanwhile, Gabriela Trzebinski's work, along with her collection of clippings, presents a fascinating and poignant insider's take on her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, and her experience as a white African in America. Through January 5. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — KK
"Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone" The main show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is an engaging and, at times, exasperating retrospective of Mary Heilmann's work since the late '60s. Heilmann, born in 1940 in San Francisco, went through a "beatnik-surfer-hippie-chick" phase in the late '60s, then moved to New York and began painting in the style of her heroes, minimalists like Donald Judd and Agnes Martin. Her early work bears that cool-school influence; during this time, Heilmann honed her original touches, such as the juxtapositions of geometry and fields of primary color seen in the diptych L.A. Pair (1976) and French Screen (1978), two works that alternate pairings of red, yellow and blue. Heilmann's work was influenced by music. Her '80s paintings reflect the brightly colored, checkerboard-emblazoned fashions of the decade. Sentimentality persisted through the '90s, and Heilmann's once-hard edges softened. Much has been made about her story — she even penned a memoir in 1999. This aspect can get a little frustrating, probably because there's so damn much of it, and because Heilmann's bio shouldn't be necessary to analyze this retrospective. But it's made clear to viewers that works have specific connections to the artist's personal experiences. When the backstory feels as important as the painting itself, we're left shuffling to decide from which perspective to look. Also, it seems as if the CAMH threw the show up in a day, covering as much of the walls as possible. Paintings hang in very close proximity with no rhyme or reason as to placement, and they're confusingly labeled. Through January 6. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS
"Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection" This show includes approximately 300 works from the 1960s to the present. The artists in the Drutt collection approach jewelry as an art object, with ideas taking precedence over the intrinsic value of the materials used. Jewelry started getting avant-garde in the 1960s, when even the likes of Alexander Calder, Lucio Fontana and Salvador Dalí, far better known for their sculptures and paintings, made forays into the realm of jewelry. German artist Gerd Rothmann's work has a slightly surreal bent, in particular his gold casts of Helen Drutt's nose (1994) and index finger (2000). Other works have a more minimalist bent. Dutch artist Gijs Bakker's blue Möbius loop bracelet (1967-69) in anodized aluminum is simple and elegant. Some of the work has an edgy, body-oriented focus, with things that are cool sculptural objects but not especially geared for wearablity. British artist Caroline Broadhead's 1983 woven nylon monofilament necklace is otherworldly, extending up to veil the wearer's face. Contemporary jewelry isn't exactly a field many people know a lot about, and Helen Williams Drutt has been a pioneering educator as well as a collector. Cindi Strauss, MFAH curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design and the curator of the exhibition, threw herself into the subject matter, and the exhibition, four years in the making, is impressive. Through January 27. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK
"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" Among the portraits on view in this exhibition is one of a British tourist named Robert Clements. To commemorate his trip to Rome, the 21-year-old Clements posed casually, leaning against a pedestal that displayed a bust of the blind poet Homer. He clasped a book in his hand as if he were about to hold forth on the Iliad. While today's tourists might bring back a snapshot of themselves on the Spanish Steps, in 1753 wealthy young British men like Clements headed to Pompeo Batoni's studio to have their portrait painted. To show where they had been, Batoni obligingly painted them surrounded by icons of Italy — Roman artifacts and scenes from the Italian countryside. Batoni practiced history painting, the supreme genre of the period, but portraits of the British elite (and their dogs) on what was then known as "the Grand Tour" became his bread and butter. We see in Batoni's subjects an eagerness to show where they have been and to pose in exotic garb the same way contemporary tourists don loud shirts on Caribbean cruises. Beyond creating a cultural record from the period, Batoni was a renowned and highly skilled painter. His ability to render likenesses of sitters, record the details of their dress and convey the gestures of their hands was widely remarked upon, then and now. Batoni's careful compositions, appropriately symbolic objects, detailed renderings of his subject's fashionable dress and tactful likenesses remind us of the time when craft dominated painting. Through January 27. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK
"Traci Matlock and Ashley Maclean: The Much-To-Consider Season" In the first exhibit at Gallery 1724 since 2006, Traci Matlock and Ashley Maclean are showing their photography, adding a sense of drama to the domestic space. The two artists met by chance online and have gone on to forge an emotional artistic collaboration. In the past year, they have combined their love of modeling, fashion and documentary photography into a body of work that acknowledges the strengths of commercial photography. The artists use small Polaroid prints for their photos of themselves and of popular local models, coaxing narratives out of tightly cropped images. They also have branched out into large-format digital prints that act as counterpoints to the manipulated or damaged stylization of the Polaroids, allowing them to focus on clean images and better identify their intentions. Matlock and Maclean record intimate moments in anonymous domestic settings in soft-edged focus, mostly documenting regions of the female body in photos that mix sexuality and violence and suggest emotional or physical pain. But the artists worry more about their images being too pretty than about their disturbing themes. Their haunting works show both a talent for composition and lighting and a firm grasp of the compelling narrative. Through January 14. 1724 Bissonnet, 713-523-2547. — SC
"Will Boone: A Man's House Is His Coffin" The use of "House," not "Home," is on purpose – there's a difference between a physical address and the feeling of belonging that comes with a true home. A wandering soul, Will Boone takes his sense of belonging with him as he embarks on a tour of American counterculture in the 21st century. Boone's artwork exists where indie rock, emo and noise meet art, drugs and hip-hop; it brings to mind late-night house parties and disillusion. His text paintings reveal a decidedly pessimistic worldview: In one work, gothic Old English lettering spells out THIS PLACE SUCKS. In another, called Ferocious Guest, hand-drawn letters tell a hilarious, crushing tale. In other works, Boone uses found imagery in awkward, simplified ink drawings that conjure the album covers and flyers of Raymond Pettibon. Will Boone's ink drawings and paintings are a reminder that home is where you find yourself — the mosh-pit mayhem of My War and the macho posturing of Live Long Nothing are icons of American life, as readable as the signs in a restaurant window. Through January 18. Domy Books, 1709 Westheimer, 713-523-3669. — SC
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