Capsule Art Reviews: "The Buffalo Hunters," "Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976," "Devendra Banhart: Some Drawings," "Ryan Geiger: Secret Garden"
"The Buffalo Hunters" Eric Michael Jones should be applauded for thinking big. His digital photos, some printed as large as five feet tall, uphold my general thinking concerning photography exhibits: the bigger the better. Digital photography, though, presents issues. As much as Jones earns points for going extra large, he may want to think about downsizing, both in dimension and in concept. Of the eight images on display in "The Buffalo Hunters," many of which were inspired by fairy tales and short stories, only one truly gets under the skin. Nobody Said Anything, inspired by the Raymond Carver story, depicts twin girls disemboweling a tuna-size lionfish hanging by its tailfin from a noose, and it's wonderfully unsettling. The image contains elements of collage; Jones has obviously pasted brunette wigs on the twins, and their heads are disproportionate to their bodies, suggesting another cut-and-paste job. But the piece works as an example of well-composed digital imagery. Other works get convoluted. In The Buffalo Hunters I, II and III, four tween-aged girls jump off the same cliff. The nighttime setting and the girls' clothing suggest they snuck out of a pajama party to go midnight swimming. Jones relates it to "the historical practice of driving senseless, panicked packs of buffalo off the edges of cliffs to their death below as a means of harvesting the herd." Except here, Jones posits, the children take control and aggressively engage in the urge to jump. This pretension taints what are otherwise interesting images. There's no need to bring the buffaloes into it. Through December 21. Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — TS
"Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976" It's difficult to look at a Robert Ryman painting without an initial feeling of being cheated. The artist has limited himself almost entirely to the color white as a way of boiling down the essence of painting to a reduced process, the very act of laying paint on a surface and subsequently installing the work in a viewing space. Ryman once said, "There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint." To many viewers, Ryman comes off as a snake-oil salesman — selling pennies for a dollar. It's somewhat infuriating, and that's exactly the feeling you should have, but you should also keep looking. Once you've broken through that exterior facade, Ryman's work begins to release rewards. These three 1976 specimens, part of the Menil Collection's "Contemporary Conversations" series, are very stark examples of Ryman's oeuvre; all-white panels of pastel and oil paint on Plexiglas and blue Acrylivin are fixed to the wall with steel fasteners and bolts. It's the most distilled version of performance art ever, and the "I don't get it" exhibit of the year. And in a weird way, it's kind of thrilling. On view through February 17, 2008. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — TS
"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
"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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