The center of Grecian is a risqu piece of sheer black.
The center of Grecian is a risqu piece of sheer black.
Courtesy of Art League Houston

Color Me Nostalgic

I remember watching The Lawrence Welk Show as a kid, not because I wanted to, but because my polka-loving Grandpa Ulfert made me. What struck me more than the show's hokey tunes and skits were its colors. Sure, it was the '70s, but the color schemes of the show's sets and costumes still looked like they were from another planet. The show was an extravaganza of lurid synthetic fabrics -- the pastel tones of Welk's wide-collared tuxes, the unnatural nylon hues of the Lennon Sisters' gowns, the shiny, billowing and bilious polyester draperies of the sets.

Sheila Klein's new work looks like it was scavenged from The Lawrence Welk Show -- and that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's kinda wunnerful, as Welk might say. Klein uses Welk-esque synthetic materials in cheesy vintage hues. Her fabric work, along with sculptures by Kate Petley, is on view in the color-saturated exhibition "Similar Differences" at the Art League Houston.

To make Grecian (2006), Klein sewed vertical strips of diaphanous fabric together into a rectangle and hung it on the wall like a painting. There's a section of ruched peach nylon and a segment of frothy ruffled blue the color a Welk tuxedo. In the center is a risqu stripe of sheer black, like a stocking with a garter line. Another panel of bouffant white netting might have been filched from a polka dancer's skirt. It's a wonderful exercise in color, kitsch and fabric.


"Similar Differences"

Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530.

Through March 2.

Klein's installation Thin Place Threshold (2007) consists of six curtain panels, all hung on parallel tracks in the center of the room. The front of the installation could be mistaken for a backdrop for a number by the Lennon Sisters. Cranberry nylon is gathered like a theater curtain, and the red-hued fabric frames another curtain panel in avocado-tinged gold as the retro colors radiate against each other. All of the curtains can be pulled open and closed to reveal and conceal different colors. Viewers can walk in between the various panels, with the curtains functioning like movable layers of paint.

It's an interesting idea, but looking at the flat sections of fabric, I found myself wanting them to be baroque and over-the-top, more like Klein's "painting" Grecian. It seems like the impressive sculptural potential of the fabric should be pushed to do more than just create colored panels.

Kate Petley's sculptures share the gallery with Klein's work, but unfortunately the proximity doesn't do either one of them any favors. Their "similar differences" -- color and architecture-ish sculpture -- just make the room look disjointed. And in spite of similarities, the works aren't similarly successful.

Like Klein, Petley is also working with some interesting materials: resin, acrylic and sheets of polycarbonate. But where Klein just needs to ratchet up what she's already doing with the materials, Petley needs to figure out what to do with them at all.

Her sculpture Complementary Relationships (20062007) runs along one wall of the gallery. Petley has taken long rectangles of clear polycarbonate plastic and bent them into semicircles, punching grommet holes and lacing cord up the back to keep their curved shape. The plastic is digitally printed with translucent swirls and smears of color, and the semicircular tubes are propped against the wall at an angle so light passes through them, creating colored shadows.

But the forms printed on the plastic aren't very engaging, and the row of tubes leaning against the wall doesn't really relate to the architecture of the room in any relevant way. Also, the cord used to bend the tubes is distracting. It might work better to hang them more discreetly in rows across the ceiling, letting light pass through and cast shadows onto the floor. That way, she'd be using the plastic primarily as a vehicle for color. Ultimately, work like this needs to have a more compelling visual effect.

Suspended in the corner is an even more disjunctive work by Petley. Colored squares of acrylic are covered with lace and coated with resin in deep jewel tones. They hang from a chain made from white plastic ties looped together. It has a slightly weird, retro feel, similar to Klein's work. With the swag lamp-like chains, it could be arty home dŽcor from some Austin Powers bachelor pad. But the piece isn't excessive enough for its campy-feeling materials.

Petley's got the stub of a good idea with her evocative materials, but she just never pulls it all together. The two sculptures look like they were made by two different people. Rather than working from a particular point of view, Petley just seems to be dabbling with materials without much conviction.


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