A retablo is, traditionally, a devotional painting, usually depicting Catholic iconography. In Houston, it can be pretty much anything.
Every year, the Lawndale Art Center invites artists to do their own version of the Latin American art form to celebrate the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. The center gives participants 8x10 pieces of tin they must use, and no other instruction. It's one of Lawndale's most-popular programs (this year, tins ran out in just two days), and the results of this year's experiment are currently on view until November 5.
In addition to being a fun, creative exercise, the show also serves as a benefit for Lawndale -- each year, the pieces are put on sale during a silent auction, with the proceeds going towards the center and its artists. This Friday, you can try your shot at landing one of the more than 250 small art works up for bids during this year's gala. But first, you can get a sneak peek at the pieces and see which ones you want to try your luck on at the space (if you can't make it out, the pieces are also up on the gallery's exhaustive Flickr page in all their tiny glory).
We got our own head start on Monday on the show's opening day (we weren't the only ones -- retablo enthusiasts were ready to check out the offerings as soon as the center opened its doors at 10 a.m.). As to be expected by a show inspired by the Day of the Dead, there were a lot of skulls. A lot. There's a skull made out of playing cards. A skull made out shell casings. A palm-size replica made out of corrugated metal and steel. Yet another embroidered onto an embroidery hoop. Another inspired, Rorschach-like, by a VHS tape. There's even an actual skull, courtesy of a raccoon.
Given the art tradition's origins, "Retablo" is also heavy on religious iconography. Highlights include a colorful collage of the Virgin, a golden Jesus, even a haunting piece that combines both skeletal and Catholic elements.
Some of the best pieces have nothing to do with either dead or religious imagery, but treat the tin as a canvas. There's Sarah Hazel's delicate oil painting of the "shadows of childhood"; Caroline Sharpless' flat, "Sunny Room" acrylic, which pulls you right in, even though it's smaller than printer paper; and Ken General's Kandinsky-esque "Beautiful Boy."
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We were also taken by the completely irreverent works, which had us wondering exactly how the artists got there. In particular, we always came back to two of the more woodsman-y pieces: Seth Mittag's deer head and Jason Makepeace's saw in a log. Such masculinity on a miniature scale is rather charming -- dare we say cute.
The gallery expects gala goers to clamor for the pieces by well-known Houston artists such as the Art Guys (who nearly destroyed their tin by punching 1,200 holes in it) and David Aylsworth, whose piece would blend in with the white gallery wall, save for some brush strokes and slices in the metal.
This preview hardly puts a dent in the cumulative works on display in this year's show, which presents an engrossing range of skill and creativity that could have you shuffling through the gallery for hours on end to truly take them all in. Bids for this year's retablos start at anywhere from $50 to $150, but even if you're not interested in getting your hands on one, they're worth checking out. Not all are great, but rarely is there so much prettiness, ugliness, humor, creepiness and sheer inspiration in one show.
"Retablo" can be seen at the Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, through November 5. The gala is October 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets $45. For information, call 713-528-5858 or visit www.lawndaleart.com.