Capsule Art Reviews: "Defending Democracy," "Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom," Dust

"Defending Democracy" "Defending Democracy" displays work by artists who share the belief that art can be a catalyst for change. The show includes political graphic art of former Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, the murals and prints of the anonymous artist collective ASARO and the "teach-in" installation of Houston's own Otabenga Jones and Associates. The installation of Douglas's work contains rows of display cases with copies of The Black Panther weekly that he personally laid out and designed. On the walls are posters of his work, as well as his manifestos calling progressive artists to arms, along with other materials. In the front gallery of the Station are the graffitied stencil murals and prints of Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO), a collective of artists and arts groups formed in response to government oppression in Oaxaca. ASARO's guerilla artists spray-paint stenciled murals throughout the city in support of the populace's cause. The Otabenga Jones and Associates installation El Shabazz High School Gym is a re-creation of a high school gym complete with a scoreboard, bleachers and a basketball hoop. A projection screen stands opposite the bleachers, and a few posters are taped to the walls. I hesitate to say this, but the offerings of Otabenga Jones and Associates seemed like six degrees of separation from the revolutionary work of Douglas, and maybe five degrees away from ASARO. Otabenga Jones and crew need to get out of the museum setting and metaphorically kick ass against oppression. Through September 14. Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — BS

"Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom" Construction and real estate baron Derrick Joshua Beard assembled this Wunderkammer of artifacts documenting the African-American experience during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes documents, books, photography and other objects. There's everything from a postcard from Jack Johnson's 1910 defeat of "The Great White Hope" in Las Vegas to Confederate bills to the photographs of James Van Der Zee, who examined middle-class life in New York. The expansive Van Der Zee section stands opposite contemporaneous stereotypical posters for entertainers. A musician and the brains behind the Harlem Orchestra, Van Der Zee took on photo jobs to make ends meet over his 70-year career; his Newlywed Couple, 1922, and World War II Vet are good examples of his straightforward realism. Some of the most poignant pieces in the show involve education. British emancipation efforts in the Caribbean are recorded in a brutal political cartoon depicting slaves being boiled alive by a plantation owner, with arms and feet nailed to the wall behind the sour-faced murderer. A propagandizing Southern alphabet rhyme is horrifically graphic in its trivialization of blacks in America. And a newspaper image of a black man with a rifle is surrounded by threatening quotes from post-antebellum Democrats warning white people of an impending black rebellion. In the hands of Beard, these disparate mementoes become a beacon of hope in his enduring intellectual fight — not without their ironies, of course. Through October 31. Texas Southern University Museum, 3100 Cleburne, 713-313-7011. — SC

Dust Many of us hold on to stuff because we think things carry memories and sentimental value, and if we discard them, we lose a part of ourselves. If this particular rut sounds familiar, and you're looking for an inspirational kick in the ass, spend an hour or so at Rice Gallery meditating on Mark Fox's outrageous window installation, Dust. Fox himself has described the work as a "meditation on ownership," in which he, more or less, catalogued every object he owned before packing up his Cincinnati studio and moving to New York. On display is a 2-D inventory of over a thousand objects drawn, to scale or larger, in black ink on white paper. But Fox made the task even harder by drawing every object as a negative image, allowing the white paper to provide the detailing. He then meticulously cut out each object and gave it a coat of bright green paint on its underside. Using different lengths of spring-tempered steel wire, Fox pinned the flat drawings in a manner that allowed them to hang inches away and parallel to the wall's surface (with the green side facing the wall). As a result, each drawing casts an eerie green shadow that mimics wall paint. The seemingly random composition actually represents the order in chaos. A large oscillating fan in the center "blows" the objects, like dust, into a cloud of pandemonium. Large pieces, like chairs, a ladder, a table saw, and a section of chain-link fence, balance the space with tiny things, like kitchen utensils, batteries, bottles, keys, art supplies and toys: a Mr. Peanut figurine; a Fisher-Price clock; a miniature carousel. With Dust, Fox both nakedly displays his obsession and exorcises himself of it in one huge onslaught of imagery. Through August 29. Rice Gallery, 6100 Main, 713-348-6069. — TS


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