Capsule Art Reviews: "The Beauty Box," "Fantastic Habitat," "Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection," "In Residence: Work by 2012 Resident Artists," "MURMURATIONS," "Self, Model, and Self as Other," "Texas Biennial Invitational"
"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
"Fantastic Habitat" "Fantastic Habitat" is a series of 11 photographs that begin before the camera points and shoots. Before hanging them in Lawndale Art Center's Cecily E. Horton Gallery, Susi Brister spent time gluing together wildly patterned fabric and textile materials, which she then draped over unknown objects in natural settings. Some of the fabrics and textiles look tribal, and thus more aligned with the second half of the exhibition's title, such as Black Trees (2013), while others, such as Crystal-Studded Shag in Dunes (2012), a cylindrical object covered in funky white fur, and Spangles, Limestone (2013), a tiny cylinder cloaked in red, silver and black sparkles, look more fantastical, doing service to the first half. Is Brister tampering with nature? A subtle manipulation is more like it. By taking these artificial, man-made creations and dropping them into organic settings, she creates a tug-of-war between the natural and the unnatural, challenging conventional notions of what is beautiful: the natural or the artificial? Or both? Maybe she just wants to spice up a mundane scene of trees, rocks and sand dunes with pretty objects. Speaking of pretty objects, what's underneath all those textures and textiles, anyway? That question is moot. Whether the covered objects are animate or inanimate is a matter of conjecture, and the anonymity is what makes these pictures so compelling. But don't worry. It's not the bogeyman hiding under those pieces of fabric, except in 613 Silky Straight in Swamp (2013), which is certainly Bigfoot bent over. He's alive! Through September 28. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — AO
"Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection" There sits in the Audrey Jones Beck Building at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston an exhibition that is equal parts art history and memoriam: "Gifts from the Past: The Isabel Brown Wilson Collection," donated to the museum by Wilson after her death, is a connection between Wilson's love of art, her love of the history that created it and, ultimately, her love of MFAH. The exhibit reveals an interesting intersection between ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian and Egyptian art and customs. The clearest connection that stands out among these ancient civilizations is status and wealth. For example, Mummy Portrait of a Young Girl, a wax piece from 30 B.C. to 100 A.D., fuses two cultures: the Egyptian practice of mummification and the Roman custom of creating portraits of the mummified. The young girl's pretty gold locket and fanciful purple robes are more than mere decoration; they tell of the upper-class stock she must have come from, since the hot wax used to make the work of art was fickle, drying quickly and requiring the artist to work swiftly, and families would pay a pretty penny for this service. There are also connections within each culture. Much of ancient Egypt's art could be used for practical purposes and then recycled into other pieces, either useful or artistic. A faience is finely ground crystal. Egyptians manipulated faience into jewelry, game pieces, furniture, bowls and cups, and later converted the crystal into small figurines that would lie with the mummified dead in the afterlife. The shabti of Tjai-en-hebu is one of three such figures on display just outside the gallery's front doors, ranging from tiny to small to medium in size. Through October 27. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300 — AO
"In Residence: Work by 2012 Resident Artists" Unlike a university's commencement festivities, "In Residence: Work by 2012 Resident Artists." is no corps of hundreds crossing the stage; instead, it's an intimate celebration of the creative efforts of six well-deserving and highly talented artists. Each year, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft selects a small number of artists to participate in its residency program. These residents work in the gallery for three to 12 months with the medium of their choice, creating a collection to be shown the following year. Clay, metal, jewelry-making and fiber were the favorites of this year's inductees, three of whom hail from Houston. Tarina Frank is a Houston artist and high school teacher who morphs metals and plastics into jewelry. Drawing on inspiration from the instant-gratification culture created by the proliferation of social media, her pieces display the best in social-media communication quips, e.g., "In a Relationship" or "It's Complicated." Her Paper Fan Rings series brings together elements of silver, nickel, brass, copper and paper (wood) to create movable rings. Each ring starts out as a piece of paper folded into the shape of a miniature Chinese lantern. Curved nickel, brass or copper is then affixed to each side of the little "lanterns." One flick of the finger and these lanterns spin, becoming baubles "full of kinetic potential." Rachelle Vasquez and Susan Fletcher King are also Houstonians. Additionally, the two are graduates of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts who both work with fiber. The similarities don't stop there: Both artists create works from this fiber that revolve around animal life. Go over each piece with a fine-tooth comb, however, and the differences appear: Vasquez stitches together colorful tapestries, while King creates quilts. Vasquez's When Winkie Comes Marching Home, despite its quirky name, is a traditional quilt with bright colors and the character of "Winkie" in the middle. In contrast, Schooling from the Jellies, made with commercial and hand-painted cotton fabric, silk and cotton threads; transparent acrylic paints; foil; and yarn, is a dark tapestry of jellyfish with a school of regular fish swimming through their ranks. It's sweet in its play on words, but scary in that the fish don't know their fatal fate. Jaydan Moore is similar to Frank in that he creates jewelry with metal; however, instead of shiny tributes to digitalia, he romanticizes found objects. Sediment/Sentiment is a rustic cylindrical piece made from "found materials." Intricate swirls are engraved in the piece. Because of this detail, Sediment/Sentiment is miraculous in its ability to look like two things: From one angle, it's a lovely bracelet; from the other, it resembles a crown. Robert Thomas Mullen is another jewelry maker. His accessories use wood, resulting in nature-inspired pieces that reflect his surroundings. As the Illinois native is currently in Houston, How I See/Saw Houston is a replication of the downtown skyline made with — what else? — Texas ebony, brass and cubic zirconia. The last is puzzling, though; why not a diamond? Better yet — since the city is part of a booming oil industry — an image of a well? Oil well, that is. Black gold. Texas tea. Through September 29. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — AO
"MURMURATIONS" In ascending order from the bottom of Lawndale Art Center's first-floor stairs are five small speakers. To the left of these speakers are five lights illuminating each of the speakers. Start climbing the stairs, and a congregation of sounds begins. First clapping. Then cheering. By the time you reach the top, a chorus of voices has surrounded you. It's hard to tell which sound comes out of which speaker; their close proximity allows the noise of one to melt into the next, a sum of strings that together create a whole symphony. Taking the elevator back down won't save you. It's really crowded in there, you think, as the doors slide open — only it's not, you realize, as you step in and the doors close behind you. That congregation of voices you're hearing is coming out of another speaker, this one attached to a corner. You are all alone. Don't bother looking for help on the third floor, either. You are surrounded by this sound, even on the gallery's highest level, where speakers await your movement once more. There is no more to "MURMURATIONS," Lina Dib's sound-installation exhibition at Lawndale Art Center, than a set of speakers strewn throughout the gallery. They're not even very big; instead, they look like something you could easily procure from Best Buy or some other franchise technology retailer. The wires that connect the speakers to their electrical power source are exposed and not very attractive to look at. The lights, if you look directly into them, are garish and blinding. And yet it's this humble setup that creates the mood for the entire gallery. The entrance and elevator installations play on four- and two-minute loops, respectively, while the stairwell and third-floor window's installations are triggered by the passing of your body. Therefore, you, walking in front of each speaker's motion sensor, become complicit in the exhibition, an accidental performance artist whose own movement propels this exhibit — and the rest in Lawndale — forward. The speakers' universal locations also affect the other exhibitions showing concurrently at Lawndale: "Fantastic Habitat" by Susi Brister, "Now, What Was There" by Cory Reeder and "Room Divider" by Susannah Mira. Whichever one you choose to view, a sound will be playing, determining your mood as you observe. The same or another sound will still be playing as you walk into or out of an exhibition, solidifying calming or congratulatory feelings about the previous, and pre-determining calm or congratulatory feelings about the next. Because of this, "MURMURATIONS" is the most powerful exhibition at Lawndale. Through September 28. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — 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
"Texas Biennial Invitational" Texas Biennial turns five this year. To celebrate, an exhibition will be on view from September 5 until November 9 at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio. As a special nod to past biennial participants, "Texas Biennial Invitational" is being held at Lawndale Art Center, honoring Christie Blizard, Marcelyn McNeil, Tom Orr and Brad Tucker with a showcase of the artists' current works (Blizard, McNeil, Tucker) and previous ones (Orr). The exhibition, in Lawndale's Grace R. Cavnar Gallery was curated by Michael Duncan (TX 9) and Virginia Rutledge, and is organized in a circle, with Tucker's nine-unit installation, "Body and Voice" (2013), situated in the middle. This is a clean, polite curation, one that allows movement around the pieces, giving viewers the opportunity to admire every artwork on view. Press releases emphasized abstraction as the exhibition's focal theme. It is a theme, but it is the rich color of "Texas Biennial Invitational" that pops out more, even in Orr's black-and-white silkscreen abstracts. Hanging as a set of three on the wall facing Lawndale's large windows, "Nothing More Nothing Less," (2013) "Orange Like A Pro" (2013) and "Red Herring" all display the exhibition's color theme, as well; splotches of bright pink and orange in no particular shape or order adorn each canvas beautifully. On the opposite wall, "Walk Project (visiting where I grew up in Columbus, IN) 7/4/13" (2013), is colorful, too, but identifies more as graffiti art than abstract, thanks to the bursts of rainbow color spray painted onto a canvas lying on the floor. "ZZZZZZZ" (2007) is an oxymoron, for there is nothing boring about it. The mixed media piece is a black-and-white silkscreen rectangle that runs nearly floor to ceiling. This big rectangle is accented by pops of bright color in random places next to or on it: a black square; a teal rectangle; a mirrored cube; a lime green neon string that dangles from the top of the giant rectangle. Its brother, on the other hand, is not boring, either, but might induce hypnosis. "Fingerprint 5," (2007) located on another opposite wall, is completely monochromatic, but designed in an elegant diamond pattern that moves when the viewer stands still. Stare at the center long enough and the horizontal and diagonal lines that wiggle start to look like Medusa's deadly locks jumping out at you, hell-bent on turning you to stone. As you stand there, immobile, staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the 81-by-81-foot piece, it appears they've done the job. Until September 28. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — AO
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