"Heroes Alter Egos" Utilizing images of Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes to represent the dark side of American culture has become an artistic cliché, just like JFK's visage gets used to symbolize good. Now that Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous Barack Obama poster has proclaimed open season on the presidential candidate's face as a tool for artistic expression signifying "hope," let the boredom begin. In "Heroes Alter Egos," a group show featuring works by Robert Hodge, Lovie Olivia, Michael K. Taylor and Lance Flowers, Obama makes at least three appearances, including a direct implementation of the Fairey poster. Conceptually, the show is meant as a mirror into urban culture, built around each artist's perception of a "hero," so Obama's inclusion makes perfect sense; it just doesn't bode well for art. The works succeed most when they're championing everyday people, as in Taylor's photo collages and Flowers's nicely layered and intricate patchworks of urban iconography. The most unusual (and humorous) depiction of a hero, though, is a wall of stacked, colorful boxes being navigated by Q*bert, the hopping, tube-nosed video game character. Credited to no artist in particular, it's a nice, simple statement amid the pop-cultural swirl of the exhibit. Q*bert's heroic mission, after all, is to change the color of things. Through October 2. space125gallery, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-9330. — TS
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"Houston Collects: African American Art" In 1865, a North Carolina father built a desk for his little girl, who was learning to read. Such a desk may not seem noteworthy, as it is rough-hewn and made from mismatched scraps of old furniture, with some pieces painted and others written upon. But this desk becomes almost unbearably beautiful when you realize it was created by an enslaved man during a period when it was verboten for people like him and his daughter to learn to read or write. Such acts were punishable by lashing, mutilation (cutting off of the fingertip or tongue), imprisonment and death. The lovingly made Child's Desk (1865, Ann and James Harithas collection) can be seen in "Houston Collects: African American Art," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It's a massive show that includes more than 250 works of art, through which the museum showcases institutional and private efforts to collect, document and preserve African-American art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Divided into eight artistic and historical groupings, the show includes work by 19th-century artists and craftspeople; artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement and historically black colleges and Texas universities; and contemporary, folk and outsider artists. The show, although strong, demands editing, as there are a dozen or so mediocre pieces interspersed among the good and the great. Our advice for museum-goers at "Houston Collects"? Take two days to see the show — it's that big! — and forgive the handful of less than worthy works. Through October 26. Carolyn Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — BS
"Joe Mancuso: Still Still Life" As Barbara Davis Gallery describes them, the works on display in "Still Still Life" are a departure from Joe Mancuso's usual "formal and meticulous" process. It's true they're different from the singular subjects of previous works, but they're still meticulously (even obsessively) made. Working within the milieu of abstract collage, Mancuso uses several different materials and techniques to construct balanced interactions of shape, texture and imagery (mostly flowers). Latex paint, carefully dripped from a syringe, forms grippy sectors that look like linoleum. Works like Satellite Heart contain a flower motif executed using different techniques — those may or may not be chemical transfer, screen print, watercolor, stencil, latex paint, resin and encaustic. White is usually the background for Mancuso's Day-Glo patchwork, but the artist isn't afraid to expose the bare canvas, either, and there's an appealing mystery in that choice. A painting like Firecracker feels like it blasted onto canvas from across the room, but in reality the jagged shards of red paint were lovingly applied without haste. It's high energy in slow motion. Through October 4. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. — TS
"Heroes Alter Egos"
"(Re)Vision: A Preservation of Houston's Inner Loop" Shannon Duncan's odd installation is a kind of memorial to the passing of a product and to residential real estate. In February, Polaroid stopped producing instant film — a seriously profound event in consumer culture, when you think about it. So Duncan decided to preserve, in a way, Houston's Inner Loop residencies in states of flux, using the newly outdated film. Through searching Communitywalk.com, Duncan found Inner Loop houses and properties that were being demolished or were undergoing construction, drove to those sites and took snapshots. Many photos include piles of rubble, lumber, Port-O-Potties and Dumpsters, while others are simply vacant lots. Some pictures depict fully constructed houses; perhaps those have been scheduled for demolition. On the wall, Duncan arranged the photos in vertical rows of three, in order, according to Zip Code. Altogether, they form a random pattern that almost resembles a key. Duncan also has included items she recovered from some of the sites, random ephemera like an LL Cool J cassette, a karate trophy, Happy Meal toys, slides of someone's vacation to Machu Picchu and, of course, Polaroids. You will be missed. Through September 27. Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — TS
"Transcendental Smoothie" This is a visual feast, literally. For the exhibit's main work, Forced Fields, Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand have loaded the gallery with hanging translucent balloons, through which video is projected, creating spherical screens that display (among other things) one of their children making star-shaped cookies. The video is shot from under a sheet of Plexiglas, over which the child cuts a slab of dough with a cookie cutter. It's a brilliant effect; occasionally we see the little girl's eye through the star-shaped hole left by the cookie cutter, and projected through the hanging balloons it creates a warped starscape across the room. The images create a lysergic world of childlike incorruptibility. The ever-present drone of crickets emphasizes a state of uninterrupted bliss. Other works somewhat miss the mark. Let's Get Married features three separate frames, again shot from underneath Plexiglas, in which Magsamen and Hillerbrand devour slices of bread, peanut butter and jelly. They lap it all up using only their mouths, smearing it and smushing it all over the glass. Then the video reverses, so it looks like they're regurgitating it back out. It's really fun to watch, but it's unclear why Magsamen and Hillerbrand feel they need to augment their imagery with spoken words — basically the words "peanut butter and jelly" plugged into different phrases. It makes you want to turn off the music and the words and just look at the pictures and listen to the crickets. Through September 27. Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — TS