Capsule Art Reviews: "Devendra Banhart: Some Drawings," "Kirsten Hassenfeld: Dans la Lune," "Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper," "Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome," "Ryan Geiger: Secret Garden"
"Devendra Banhart: Some Drawings" Better known as a leading figure in independent music, Devendra Banhart is as much of an enigmatic storyteller on paper as he is in song. Ancient in language but contemporary in execution, "Some Drawings" reveals a surprising loneliness in its methodical intensity and repetitive themes. In controlled, intricate pen strokes, most of the works employ a hand motif: Banhart uses repeating little illustrations of hands — which almost resemble bear claws — to render larger images of birds and faces. Teeth, as well, make repeat appearances. The use of white-out provides an intriguing effect, like the naturally yellowed paper, usually blank pages torn from books, has been carefully bleached. Eight Deer Jaguar Claw contains monstrous heads, both beastly and humanoid. Wavy pen strokes add movement, causing the figures to tremble. Spirit of Six Point Cloud People, a representation of facial hair (but without a face), is mythologized somehow by the inclusion, again, of the hands. It becomes a kind of tribal emblem, like a tattoo — perhaps symbolizing the hirsute Banhart himself. Through December 15. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-223-8346. — TS
"Kirsten Hassenfeld: Dans la Lune" Technically, Kirsten Hassenfeld's ornate sculptures are impressive and fascinating to the eye. Made of different types of paper and connected by paper chains, the six large-scale works resemble chandelier versions of Fabergé eggs, encrusted with crystalline obelisks and forms that look like uncut quartz. Elegantly lit from within, some pieces include a central 360-degree fanning paper accordion that forms a double-sided profile of a female face. Others contain little paper scenes, like a woman walking a miniature horse — a picture of wealth. There's an incredible fragility to this show; the environment is delicate to the nth degree, and you're watched like a hawk by a museum guard — as if these were the crown jewels. Hassenfeld is a kind of alchemist; she turns paper into riches. On view through December 9. Rice Gallery, 6100 Main, 713-348-6069. — TS
"Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper" Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Nipper creates works that seem fixated on the recording process, or which use a recording element (audio, film and video) to explore time and spatial relationships (and probably not much else). For her stark exhibit, part of an ongoing series at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's Zilkha Gallery, the intimate confines of Nipper's images and video projections contrast nicely with the volume of gallery space between each piece. Love with the Sound Technician, a series of five nearly identical photographs, documents a hanging mobile made of wire and ice being recorded by two boom mikes in a recording studio. Could it be a statement on the entropic state of radio? Evergreen consists of four large color photographs of a green theater curtain. By the fourth photo, a sound technician has set up two microphones in front of it. According to Nipper, she had asked the sound guy to set the stage for the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson duet "Evergreen" from A Star Is Born — it's a detail that, once known, might even manage to bolster the piece's banality. The only home run here is An Arrangement for the Architect and a Darkroom Timer, an hour-long video of two total strangers, one male and one female, standing less than a foot apart and facing each other. They don't speak, and it's hypnotic to watch the two attempt to dominate each other, leaning in and out, cushioned by the space between them. But at certain points, there's the sense that they're each thinking, "What have I gotten myself into?" Luckily, we have the luxury of simply stepping away. Through December 9. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS
"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, 2008. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK
"Ryan Geiger: Secret Garden" The otherworldly aviary of Ryan Geiger's imagination is rendered in "Secret Garden," an impressive exhibit currently on view at Rudolph Projects/ArtScan Gallery. These surreal paintings find Geiger working in a brilliantly efficient mode and honing his considerable skill. Recurring motifs (birds and trees excluded) include five-pointed stars, clouds and floating, conical rock formations. The environments evoke the background landscapes in Warner Bros. cartoons — zany and exaggerated. Text sometimes augments the imagery as a self-referential comment on a theme. Memory Is Long employs curved lines and an arrow to mark the flight paths of birds exiting an ordinary birdhouse hanging from a tree branch. In a Magritte-inspired touch, the tree trunk's bark has been exposed to reveal a red-brick core. Empty speech balloons sometimes appear next to birds, as in Oracle, a painting influenced by Greek myth. Of course, bird speech is unprintable, but Geiger solves that issue by manipulating the balloon somehow, painting it as if it were dripping or imbued with a foul substance, communicating an emotional state. And don't miss Geiger's foray into sculpture, a huge cardinal named Earnest, with whom you may have your photo taken in various scenes of Hitchcock-inspired mayhem. Through December 29. 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836. — TS
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