Capsule Art Reviews: "Dennis Harper — Ritual Prototypes for the Afterlife," "Get a Rope," "Sarah Sudhoff — Repository," "The Puppet Show"
"Dennis Harper — Ritual Prototypes for the Afterlife" Dennis Harper's delightfully subversive installation at Lawndale features a video interview with a man describing his religious upbringing, how he never really believed in the afterlife but felt obligated due to family pressure. He even wanted very much to believe but always had a gut feeling that when you're dead, you're dead. "And you wonder if anyone else honestly believes," he says. "It's like when they put those bullshit model boats in the tomb for the journey to the afterlife. How about a real fucking boat?" They are the words of Tutankhamen, portrayed by Harper as a middle-aged man who happens to be the second-coming version of the boy pharaoh. This brilliant narrative maneuver fleshes out the display of slickly made trompe l'oeil sculptures meant to evoke the interior of a tomb where monumental artifacts and furnishings have been placed to guide a spirit into the afterlife. There's American Idle, a massive golden engine; Remote Control Killer Bulldozer, which emits a video projection of its intended victims, most likely UH art students running for their lives through a campus parking lot at night; Mega Bennu, a giant, winged motorcycle; and Lazyboy with Jackals, a silver-lamé upholstered La-Z-Boy chair supported by two statues of the underworld jackal-god Anubis, which faces a flat-screen TV playing the Tut interview. It perfectly suits Harper's fictional exploration of Tut's spiritual journey that his tomb would look like a basement storage room at FAO Schwartz. Through April 13. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — TS
"Get a Rope" Named after that famous retort in the picante sauce commercials, "Get a Rope" pulls together nine New York City-based artists with varying connections to Houston. Curator Cathy Grayson specifically chose artists whose work bears an immediate and often sexually charged directness, the kind of perspective, she thinks, Texans might appreciate. Patrick Griffin, who grew up in Houston, contributes Country Music, which is perhaps the most literally Texas-themed work. Supported by mounted bull horns, his canvas reads "Lovin Losin Leavin Cryin" spelled out in lasso-rope cursive. Dash Snow (grandson of Christophe de Menil) offers a quartet of photographs that suggest the end results of some obviously bizarre circumstances — one features a naked butt with a twisted sprout of paper poking out. That said, "anal" certainly describes Terence Koh's five-hour silent video GOD, an explicit, stupid, cliché-ridden "art porno" in which a man in a rabbit mask plunders a willing male bottom. (That was the film's only narrative element I could, or was willing to, discern.) It should be said that Koh's non-video pieces on display fare much better. Aurel Schmidt's Silent Night is maybe the most nakedly provocative piece in the show. A Christmas tree, decorated with cigarette-butt chains and sprinkled with tiny gold crosses, is hung upside down from the ceiling, suspended over a statuette of Jesus hugging a little boy and a little girl. The children's mouths are covered in black tape. But Schmidt has a fun side—her drawings of phallic vegetables and fruit sheathed in condoms balance the exhibit's more raw works with a playful lightness. Through April 18. CTRL Gallery, 3907 Main, 713-523-2875. — TS
"Sarah Sudhoff — Repository" San Antonio-based photographer Sarah Sudhoff's first solo show scores for its bravery in depicting something as emotionally loaded as cancer treatment with bold austerity and subtle humor. The artist underwent surgery for cervical cancer in 2004, survived it and began examining medical environments through photography and video. Included are nicely saturated color photos of sample cups, bloody gauze, uninhabited examining rooms and tissue samples, along with large-scale, elegantly composed self-portraits in varying examination poses. One, Exam 2, in which Sudhoff sits upright on an exam table dressed in a plaid smock and bright green stockings, her feet resting in the stirrups, references the portrait series for Matthew Barney's overtly masculine Cremaster films, but from a feminine perspective. Sudhoff extracts herself from the photo's accompanying video — in which she passes time going through drawers and medical tools (she eventually administers her own pap smear and reads The New Yorker) — to pose for a picture. In another video, she bathes in a stainless steel basin. The clinical and stark nature of the work sustains an earthbound, taut tension that suggests stifled emotion ready to explode. Sudhoff is keeping it together while ugly, bloody reality lurks in the hospital's various repositories. Through April 17. Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — TS
"The Puppet Show" The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is packed with puppets for an exhibition called — what else? — "The Puppet Show." Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, the show features work by artists incorporating puppets in the broadest, as well as the narrowest, sense of the word. Numerous works incorporate actual puppets. Probably the best-known puppet-based contemporary artwork, Dennis Oppenheim's 1974 Theme for a Major Hit, greets you as you walk into the exhibition. The piece features five automated marionettes clad in dark suits, all created in Oppenheim's likeness. Every 15 minutes or so, a soundtrack of the artist singing "It ain't what you make, it's what makes you do it" plays, and the puppets — the artist's performing surrogates — begin to frantically tap dance, seeking to entertain the audience. Other standouts include Laurie Simmons's creepy ventriloquist dummy photographs; Terence Gower's Puppet Storage, a plywood room displaying puppets and puppet-related objects; and Louise Bourgeois's vintage-fabric sculpture featuring four "figures" hanging from four metal arms radiating from an iron stand. Video is also a big part of the exhibition, with works by Matt Mullican, Guy Ben-Nur and Cindy Loehr, among many others. "The Puppet Show" does have its share of less interesting selections in which "Hey, it's got a puppet in it!" seems to have been the primary reason for their inclusion. But as a whole, it is intriguing...and creepy. Through April 12. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — KK
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