Capsule Art Reviews: "The Beauty Box," "Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada," "Self, Model, and Self as Other," "Wols: Retrospective"
"The Beauty Box" This is the brainchild of local mixed-media artist Robert Hodge, who, with partner Philip Pyle, a sculptor and digital artist, has converted an open-air space in the Third Ward into a replica of a living room, like "your grandmother's living room or dining room," says Hodge. The front door, located on Dowling Street, opens into a cozy home setting. A wooden dining table with two antique chairs upholstered in deep burgundy fabric greets you. A golden clock glows against red wallpaper. On the floor sits a 1970s Quasar television; above it, pictures of anonymous family members. On the top shelf of a wooden case sits a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta; farther down, a portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Jackie. About halfway through, that red wallpaper changes to blue, with a white couch seated between the two. A lamp glows. A chair sits. A mirror reflects. A Houston native and Third Ward resident, Hodge chose to create "The Beauty Box" as a way to connect with the community's rich past. Starting in the 1930s, the Third Ward became the pre-eminent neighborhood for affluent and aspiring African-Americans. After the oil bust of the 1980s, however, the economy of the area declined, families moved out, and a culture of drugs and homelessness moved in. The space that now houses "The Beauty Box" became a Third Ward eyesore, an empty lot filled with weeds and weed, emblematic of a neighborhood in decline and used, according to Hodge, "as a public restroom." Starting on July 5, the pair spent three days clearing the lot, mowing overgrown grass, tossing out used needles, and removing human and animal feces. About once a week, Hodge and Pyle clean the installation regularly, faithfully, hoping "The Beauty Box" will inspire a reversion to the Third Ward of yesteryear, a time when "painting your house, picking up trash, not drinking a 40 and then throwing it on the ground" was the norm. "I want this to mean a sense of pride," Hodge said. Until September 30. 3902 Dowling, 713-820-0520. — AO
"Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada" The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Posada's death with an exhibition titled "Calavaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada." The exhibit decorates the white walls between the lower-level staircase of MFAH's Caroline Wiess Law building. It is separated into three sections, looking to the viewer like an unfolded pamphlet. In the center are Posada's pieces, which include La Calavera Catrina, his "most iconic calaveras" and others, such as La Calavera Amorosa (The Skeleton of Love). Drawn in 1907, it was printed in a Mexican newspaper in 1911 as the principal image for a cartoon depicting the execution of two Guatemalan criminals who assassinated General Manuel Barillas. Posada's El doctor improvisado (The Improvised Doctor), hanging in the very center of the exhibit, tells a different story, albeit with the same outcome: a traveling doctor who comes across death. As a gesture of friendliness, the doctor offers the bony burier his coat; in return, Death gives the doctor the ability to know whether his patients will live or die. In the end, however, it's the doctor who dies. The expiration of both the murderers, who took life, and the doctor, expected to sustain life, makes clear that death is not a respecter of persons. It falls on the just and the unjust. The left and right sections of this wall "pamphlet" display the artists influenced by Posada's works. To Mexican-American artist Luis Jimenez, death is a dance. His Baile con la Talaca (Dance with Death) (1984) lithograph shows him in a lusty tango with La Catrina, while Self-Portrait (1996) shows the artist decomposing. That Self-Portrait was created after Baile is probably a coincidence, but it does help to illustrate the inevitable conclusion to being in death's clutches. Baile shows Jimenez and Lady Death as half-human and half-skeleton. They embrace each other, with Jimenez's hand grazing her ribs while her bony fingers clasp his head. Jimenez is also half-skeleton in the latter lithograph. He is not a completed calavera, but the process is under way, as his sagging, pockmarked flesh reveals bone underneath. Jimenez's eyes and lips are uncovered, revealing hollow eye sockets and an eerie grin. The image takes up the frame, forcing viewers to come close — and become entangled in death's permanent embrace. Posada's influence reached Texas, too. Jerry Bywaters, an American artist and native Texan, created a lithograph painting of a graveyard in Terlingua. This place, Mexican Graveyard-Terlingua, transforms every year during Dia de los Muertos, when residents of the city come to pay tribute to the dead. Through December 15. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — AO
"Self, Model, and Self as Other" This exhibit of 50 self-shot photos from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's photography collection is more than a grab for attention. There is no Photoshop retouching, no Instagram filter, only subtle manipulations of perspective and clever backlighting that reveal each artist's portrait to be a facet of the psychological structure that Sigmund Freud defined as id, ego and superego. "Self as Other" correlates with the superego's job of restraining the untamed desires of the id. Again, these photographs don't have the luxury of digital retouching. There is, however, the use of addition or subtraction, with the artists hiding behind things so as to shield some part of themselves or dressing in flamboyant attire, as in the case of Kimiko Yoshida's The Divine Bride Praying, a piece from her 2003 "Intangible Brides" series. With "Model," the unrestrained id takes over. Ryan Weideman's Self Portrait with Transvestite, photographed in 1997, shows the artist in what appears to be a taxi. He is in the front seat; the transvestite peeks through a hole in the back. Juxtaposing himself — a man dressed in a conventionally masculine suit — with the transvestite — a man in full makeup with a conventionally feminine accent — affords the viewer two different meanings of what it is to be male. On the other hand, Weideman's placing himself in the forefront while the transvestite is confined to a hole in the background may give a negative connotation to the man's choice to feminize his maleness. Balancing the extremes of the superego and the id, the ego is the basis for the pieces that pertain to "Self." Through "Self," the photographers reveal themselves, as Oliver Cromwell said, "warts and all." Jen Davis's photo cleverly shows her "Self" by not showing herself — at least, not all of her. Instead of her face, we get her feet standing on a bathroom scale. The title of her photograph: Judgment. Through September 29. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — AO
"Wols: Retrospective" Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze's art is like his personality was: nonconformist and uncompromising. Wols was a principal adopter of "Tachisme," an outgrowth of the "Art Informel" (art without form) movement. Wols's "formless art" is different from abstraction in that, even in the ruin, there is still the faint outline of an image. Wols's art was also ever-changing. Thanks to this restlessness, the German artist's catalog is a bevy of photographs, watercolors, oils and the occasional ink doodle. What a fortunate coincidence that Wols was one of Dominique de Menil's favorite artists; her expansive gallery makes room for "Wols: Retrospective," an exhibition that takes up nearly the entire first floor. Starting with two big spaces, the exhibition disappears into smaller and smaller rooms. Turn right, and you come face to face with Wols's Tachisme paintings. Each of these oil-on-canvas works starts out as stains of one or two colors, with more and more color added toward the center, until in the middle, a smudged, abstract mess drips down the canvas. Careful observation reveals subtle images in the center of this pile of goo. Oiseau (Bird) is a picture of poultry; without the image of the bird, there would only be a green-stained background filled with a bevy of colors that looks like chicken (get it?) scratch. Turn left, and you enter a room filled with small- to medium-size watercolor, ink and gouache pieces. These are less polished than the oils, looking like something Wols scribbled down quickly while in art class. While the other pieces are a centripetal pull into a center of schizophrenic colors, these little works draw you in with ink markings. In a smaller adjacent room, the walls transition from white to blue. Washing the walls in baby blue encourages emotion as the viewer encounters the most personal pieces in the exhibition. The photographs in this room are of random odds and ends and of Wols himself. Self-Portrait (Wols grimacing) is a series of six photos that show Wols to be a funny, balding man with a heavy mustache and large, expressive eyes. Next to it, Untitled (Grety's Mouth) is a half-parted pair of lips, wet with either lipstick or spit. It's hard to tell which, since the photo is in black and white, and, with only a single name in the title and a monochromatic color scheme, it's difficult to discern if the subject is a man or a woman. The only tell is a crop of facial hairs sprouting from the upper lips, and even they are sparse enough to warrant confusion. These photos, however eyebrow-raising, are where the spirit of Wols truly resides. If the main rooms are where the viewer learns about Wols the artist, it is here, in this dark cove, that he or she learns about Wols the man. Through January 12, 2014. 1522 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — AO
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