To me, "Trembling," Francisco Ruiz de Infante's installation at the Blaffer Gallery, feels like home -- but half my living room ceiling is gone and there's a pile of two-by-fours in the dining room. If you don't spend your days in a construction/destruction obstacle course of fractured Sheetrock, crumbling plaster and raw lumber, however, this environment is decidedly disturbing. Using an earthquake Richter scale as a metaphor, Ruiz explores unsettlings, both emotional and physical.
The entry to the exhibition is surrounded by raw Sheetrock with splotches and stripes of joint compound, causing more than one visitor to turn away thinking "Trembling" was still under construction. But those who brave the minimalist ramp of two-by-six boards and pass through the low door thoughtfully padded with gray foam are sent on a harrowing journey, the first leg of which they must travel by rickety catwalks of wood that seem to have burst through the raised floor. (Choose your footwear carefully, unless mimicking a tightrope-walking Wallenda while wearing backless mules appeals to you.) The sounds of muted thudding, explosions and alarms fill the dimly lit room, and you walk the plank pirate-style in the direction of the noise.
In the center gallery, platforms of wallboard and wood are massed with metal scaffolding and piles of lumber and Sheetrock. Nothing is plumb or level, and the slipshod structures have a matter-of-fact rawness. Black Visqueen covers sections of the walls, but the ceiling is distractingly unaltered, the unlit track lighting reminding you that you're in a gallery rather than a danger zone.
Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston
Through June 9. 713-743-9530.
Three video projections high on the walls show a radarscope. A hand sweeps over cloud cover to the sounds of muffled booms and beeping warnings. It feels like you're crouching in a Kabul basement with Dr. Strangelove. Is that the hum of planes? Numbers count down on the screen seemingly leading up to some frightening climax that never comes, leaving only the anxiety.
The effect is postapocalyptic: Is this what it would be like if Pasadena blew? You sit at a solitary desk, surrounded by the ominous imagery and sounds, as if you were alone at a disaster control center. The desk is a symbol of authority, organization and control, yet you must sit there ineffectually, unable to do anything but absorb what's around you.
In a back hall, more black plastic covers the floor and another raw wood table and chair face a phalanx of clamp lamps fitted with blue floodlights. An uncovered air-conditioning duct blasts frigid air. The works "blue sky" are written on the wall and a bright cerulean paint coats the ceiling. Has the roof broken open to reveal the heavens, or have the captives of this place tried to simulate what the outside world used to be like?
Moving back through the main gallery, you can breathe a little easier -- the pathways are broad and clear. Ruiz de Infante had wanted to make them cramped and narrow but ultimately had to change the installation to meet 36-inch-width Americans with Disabilities Act standards. (What of the catwalks in the first room? A side entrance allows visitors to enter the central space and bypass the balance beams.)
But the artist gets the claustrophobia going again before too long. As you push the door open into the next room, a network of cords pulls rows of hanging fluorescent lights that swing back and forth as you pass beneath them. The green fluorescence is oppressive. The room feels like a secret location. Is this where Dick Cheney was hiding? There is yet another authoritative desk, and "try to order" is crudely hand-lettered on the wall. Try to order what? Troops? Office supplies? Your life?
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With its awkward configuration of exhibition spaces, the Blaffer can be problematic for installations, but Ruiz de Infante has effectively transformed the galleries, creating an environment that conjures physical and psychic unease. The high-pitched, vibrating tone of anxiety permeates the experience as the familiar disintegrates into chaos.
Frasier Stables's installation, "Sundown Apex," at the Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery projects video on a purply-blue light box that alternately obscures and reveals the image of a man with defective teeth telling a darkly comic story about trying to hang himself for a video. The piece explores how an event changes in its telling and retelling, becoming an abstracted personal legend. In the gallery's entry, Katrina Moorhead's large Styrofoam letters spell "Ideal Total Now." Liberally covered with carnations, the letters started out looking frothy and fresh, but as the show progresses they are slowly rotting into a typographic funerary wreath. On view through June 5 at Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom Street, 713-863-7097.
Also in a horticultural vein, Moico Yaker creates paintings that are filled with obsessive and oppressive masses of leafy vegetation. The works are vaguely based on the biblical story of Susana and the Elders, which may explain their erotic undertones, but the paintings in which the foliage is constructed into overt labial references are the least successful. On view through June 5 at Sicardi Gallery, 2246 Richmond Avenue, 713-529-1313.