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Remaining Calm

When the new year began, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about Y2K. Even daily newspapers and the Red Cross were advising people to hoard water, food and cash. Y2K is closer now than it was then, but most of the daily reminders brought on by the year's rollover have died down. A premillennial calm has taken hold. And it is that calm normalcy -- of a pregnant woman napping, of hikers idling in a flash-flood canyon, of a night nurse checking a patient's heart rate to see that it is regular -- that this year's exhibit of work by the Museum of Fine Arts Core Fellows inhabits. Like one of those suspense-strung movie scenes in which small, everyday actions such as ironing a shirt or paying a cashier become fraught with tension because the audience knows something is about to happen, every piece in "Core 1999" manifests a deliberateness that makes it well worth a close look.

Some have read the calm surety as increased professionalism. The fellowship program, which gives a stipend and studio space to eight artists a year, has in recent years attracted a more international pool of applicants, many of whom already have their master's in fine arts. The bulk of the Core Fellows are here for their second and final year in the program; perhaps that explains why the show looks so definite and hangs together so well.

The piece de resistance is Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool. A masterpiece of simulated experience, from the outside the pool looks like a giant white cube. Step inside, and you are suddenly walking around in the soothing blue of a backyard swimming pool, complete with the curving walls and light-refracted patterns so familiar during a summer in Houston. Look down, and you can inspect the drain. Look up, and you can see a toy football floating on the surface, which is actually a thin layer of water on top of a clear Plexiglas barrier. Viewed from above, despite the fact that you can see people walking around inside it, the pool looks so real it beckons you to dive right in. Inside, you get an intimation of that weightless, soundless world in which humans locomote horizontally instead of vertically.

Much of Erlich's work has dealt with this kind of illusion. Last year, his old-fashioned elevator sitting on the gallery floor appeared, due to a mirror trick, to have a shaft extending both up and down. He also converted his studio into a living room that had one mirror that reflected you and the rest of the room, and another "mirror" that was actually a window into an identical living room, so that when you walked in front of it your reflection was unexpectedly absent, and you were left gazing at your own not-there-ness. Erlich's work calls into question the viewer's relationship to space, and some of his earlier work had the creepy edge of creating vacancy or "disappearing" the viewer. (Although Erlich himself doesn't bring this up, and it's not crucial to know it, he is from Argentina, where the government "disappeared" political dissidents.)

The pool, on the other hand, is much more about presence than absence, generously providing both the sensual pleasure of the swimming pool and the cognitive pleasure of knowing exactly how Erlich provides the illusion, even down to the fans that make ripple-shadows scud along the walls of the pool. Spectacle is a large part of sculpture, from Nancy Rubins's suspended airplane parts to Richard Serra's giant curving walls of steel. But Erlich's brand of spectacle is so dedicated to the viewer's delight, so not about itself, that I have heard people question whether The Swimming Pool is actually art -- a question that seems ridiculous, since we accept so many different things as art, and betrays a deep suspicion of art's capacity not just to convey experience, but to produce it. There is still a difference between Erlich's piece and a real swimming pool or even, for that matter, a theme-park version of a swimming pool. That the difference is narrower than that between, say, a painting of an object and the object itself makes it all the more interesting.

Beyond the pool, the entryway to the Glassell gallery is graced by Todd Brandt's compulsive "paintings." Brandt makes large grids (or almost-grids -- the rows are offset slightly like rows of bricks) by screwing clear plastic film canisters to a board. Then he forms patterns by popping in creamer containers, which happen to fit exactly into the film canisters, which is the thing I find most interesting about Brandt's use of commonplace materials. That is to say, somewhere in the enormous universe of nonessential objects that we humans manufacture (the creamer containers are ordered from WinPak Portion Packaging, a company whose catalog of this-and-thats is, I imagine, a subgalaxy of emptiness), there is a governing secret law that says: Yes, creamer containers will pop nicely into film canisters, and, yes, Todd Brandt will be the one to discover this.

Before he pops them into place, Brandt pours paint into some of his creamer containers. Pink, orange, black, green -- the colors of Chinese jacks -- spike his elegant patterns, which have been fussed over, with some elements perfectly regular and others slightly random, until they are teasingly difficult to trace.

The central space of the gallery is nicely shared by Dana Frankfort, Mailena Braun and Maggie Hills, all of whose offerings are deceptively simple. Braun's consists of four cardboard boxes and one found photograph mounted in two parts. The boxes are plain cubes, and they are placed on the floor the way you might set down four boxes you had just moved into an empty apartment, which is to say they are grouped together, but casually. They are painted the same exact color as, well, cardboard boxes.

When I try to explain why this is so cool, it makes my head hurt, but I think it has to do with the fact that by painting the boxes Braun has in fact made something real into a simulacrum of itself, a perfect version of a box that is still just a box instead of, say, a perfect Disney version of Main Street, USA, or a Mexican palapa-bar on the Richmond Strip, both of which bear more resemblance to collective fantasy than to anything real. As with Erlich's pool, Braun's boxes are self-consciously fake, a pleasurable abstraction that seems genuinely interested in perfection, instead of fake in a way designed to get you to spend money or feel nostalgic.

Braun has a light touch. Her boxes are simple and formally pleasing, and the idea behind them quite roomy. The small photograph, an aerial view of a complicated Los Angeles freeway sprawl that might as well be in Houston, is a hazy, urban, gritty scene that looks like it's from either an old magazine or a very, very new one. Although it is a separate piece, the photo functions with the boxes like a logo on a plain T-shirt, a point of focus or an identifying marker -- "I'm Mailena, and this is my aesthetic." As with elsewhere in the show, close examination yields something more: The two halves of the photo don't quite match up, and the lines of perspective seem to converge oddly on each other as if the halves are, in fact, two different cities that look exactly alike.

Dana Frankfort's small paintings are perhaps the most academic and at the same time the most humble objects in the show, which to my way of thinking is a proper attitude for abstract paintings. Two of the paintings have words (one "IS" and the other "STILL"), and the other two are diptychs. Together, the four form a sort of visual sentence. Frankfort describes the abstract works as the pause between a question and its answer. The paintings with words are almost as quiet, but they function on many levels: The act of painting is gestural; the result is "still," as in motionless; the painting is still in the world after its maker is gone.

It's not that there is something so new or so fresh about Frankfort's lyrical style. In fact, I could argue that she has produced these just when I happened to be ready for abstract paintings to look new and interesting again. Yet she is a capable painter -- a gossamer white against white, an elegiac beam of color in one corner -- and, more important, her work makes no grand claims. At a time when bigness in painting seems to unduly impress, these touchingly awkward paintings are small, taking up not an inch more than they need.

Of course, sometimes there are good reasons, other than the fact that you can charge by the square foot, for paintings to be big, and Maggie Hills's fall into that category. Her two large watercolors are blowups of souvenir postcard images, one a hotel courtyard with a swimming pool, the other a mountainside. Hills's renditions are as thin and honest as the images are banal; the bare canvas shows, as do breakdowns in Hills's faithfulness to the image: fuckups, drips and tiny hiccups -- like when wrinkled paper gets run through the copy machine -- that occur between sections (Hills could project only part of the image onto the canvas at any given time). In this new scale, Hotel seems ironically tranquil, told in the vacant yet faintly desperate tone of a Joan Didion novel.

That vacancy -- or vacation-ness, perhaps -- carries through in Missing You-ou Ooh Ain't 'alf, in which Hills's careful, elegant attempts to represent foliage with black india ink devolve into watery, illegible patches, mistakes about which the painter seems entirely unconcerned, the way one is unconcerned with how one's hair looks when one is camping. What we see is not the majesty of the mountain, but the painter's engagement with the image of the mountain, not altogether passionate, but not altogether mechanical. I'm not sure how the title relates, but more than half the bottom of the painting is considerably lighter and more blotchy than the top, as if it's seen through eyes full of tears. It's a sort of direct, even unsentimental, representation of nostalgia and memory.

Both Julie Mehretu and Charles Cohen construct their work from a language of semiprivate symbols. Cohen collects those neatly economical instructional diagrams that illustrate things such as how to tie a twist-tie and how to use a tape measure. In one piece, delay of the inevitable, he lays them out in a grid, disembodied hands inserting batteries or earplugs or adding-machine paper. Each diagram shows an action in progress, connecting it somewhat indirectly to the piece's title. A second piece, cosmology M-62971, is a kind of star chart of such diagrams mixed with more personal imagery and other symbols, such as Jewish stars. Graphically deft, Cohen's laser-printed cosmology is overlaid with a portrait of his late brother, which snaps into focus only if you back away. In Cohen's wheel of life, the diagrams take on a heightened, if didactically conveyed, meaning: A hand taking out a trash bag is paired with guns in the "death" section. My complaint with both these pieces is that decoding them is somewhat tiresome. The more you look, the more the meaning seems to telescope down rather than to open up.

Mehretu's paintings seem to be in transition. Normally her idiosyncratic drawings -- a cross between chalkboard football diagrams, blueprints, topographies and migration patterns -- are set on layers of vellumlike polymer over backgrounds organized into architectural spaces (such as the inside of a room). Here, she takes the dichotomy between a map and an interior one step further: Ringsite appears to be exploded architectural space, with floating staircases, doorways and bridges taking the place of her small armies of symbols against a spaceship-control-room-like backdrop, and Ringside, which is more like her earlier work, looks like the area where the spaceship landed. Still, Ringsite and Ringside seem to hover somewhere below resolve. Although they look just as refined as ever, I am eager to see Mehretu move in a totally new direction.

The final artist in "Core 1999," Paul Whiting, has made an interesting choice for a group show: He has created work that deliberately eludes attention. I think, in fact, that he means for us not to look at it at all. Not that it's small: Whiting drew with chalk, marker and primer on nine-feet-tall and 29-feet-wide backdrop paper. But it is intended as a backdrop, a setting, and as such it draws on other "backdrops" in our world, things we see through a car window but aren't really meant to notice, such as strip malls, camper vans and rocks.

This work transitions seamlessly from Whiting's earlier sculptures -- objects built from Sheetrock and other rough materials that camouflaged themselves as discount-store display shelves, airport security gates or other objects whose primary mission is not an aesthetic one. His work is quiet, perhaps because stealth is the only way to ambush and capture the visual qualities of things that don't have visual qualities. In the drawing in the show's catalog (each of which, extraordinarily, also contains an original drawing of a circle by Braun), Whiting combines elements from industrial trash cans, cabinets, car doors and stereo consoles into a long, uninterrupted sort of kitchen counter.

Other artists have been preoccupied with capturing the unnoticed; Uta Barth, for example, sets up a portrait, then takes the subject out of the picture before snapping the camera shutter. But Whiting seems interested, also, in how his organization of space affects the viewer, which is why he plays with scale. On one end of his untitled drawing, the viewer seems to be standing a few feet away from a truck with a searchlight, and on the other end to be viewing the silhouette of a storescape from a great distance, yet both truck and storescape are presented as if they are in the same flat plane; there are no perspectival clues other than size to indicate one is farther away than the other.

It's always difficult to write about a group show like the annual Core Fellows exhibit. There's no theme, no organizing concept, no curator. But this year there is a unifying attitude, which is perhaps most extremely expressed by Whiting's utterly unassuming work. It's a calm and purposeful generosity, one that doesn't so much set the stage for the viewer as create a space.

"Core 1999" will be on view through April 25 at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, (713)639-7500.


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