The Paintings at Isabella Court Run the Gamut

Shake It Off, 2015
Shake It Off, 2015
Courtesy of artist Clark Derbes and Devin Borden Gallery

Running the gamut from wonky abstraction to goofy realism, the galleries of Houston’s Isabella Court have some pretty great painting on view.

Inman Gallery presents the hard-won abstraction of David Aylsworth in “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.” The artist’s forms have a kind of elegant, mid-century vibe — there’s a sparing swoosh of a dusty teal and an arc of reddish orange in Upon His Caterpillar Knee, 2015, an archway of mauve interrupted by an angled jade green shape in Big Cocoon, 2015. His compositions are set against predominantly white grounds, the edges are clean but the colors aren’t flat, and they’re slightly brushy, with other hues worked in or showing through. It gives them a richness and body.

Aylsworth interacts with a painting like a dog with a bone. He just won’t let it go until he’s gotten everything he can out of it. Every painting has the layers of those that came before, the ghosts of forms repeatedly altered or eradicated by another coat of paint.

The canvases, with their brush marks, lumps and slubs, remind me of the gunky layers of paint you find on old wooden houses — the kind nobody ever strips down, the kind where they just keep adding coats of paint in an attempt to cover up the flaws. This description may make the paintings sound awful, but they aren’t. They’re almost always wonderful. The texture of these surfaces works because they have integrity. Aylsworth isn’t just slopping something on for “textured effect”; the surfaces are the direct result of his creative process. And the residue of tried and rejected forms becomes a player in the final result. Of course, until a painting is out of his hands and in the home of its new owner, it may easily have a few more iterations, even after being exhibited. That is the work of an artist with high expectations, constantly trying to get it “right.”

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There is a similar sense of labor underlying Clark Derbes’s exhibition “Square Dance” at Devin Borden Gallery. Derbes is showing wall pieces and sculptural objects that act like a kind of shaped canvas for his paintings. The works that strike you first are the skewed polyhedrons of wood placed on pedestals and plinths around the gallery. They have oddly faceted sides, blocks of wood roughly hewn with a chainsaw and then smoothed down at each angle with an orbital sander. The resulting objects are painted with irregular, multicolored grids as in Shake It Off, 2015. The visual interplay is quite amazing, these strangely loose geometric forms covered with more wonky geometry. It’s as if they’re meteorites from an arty Minecraft asteroid, one full of vivid color and skewed perspective.

The wall pieces are mainly slabs of wood with their thick edges cut at extreme angles, as if they were rectangular boxes squashed and distorted by some great weight. Derbes paints the slab edges out white, and sometimes, as in the 2015 Johnny Angel, creates a trompe l’oeil edge around the picture plane, conveying the illusion of another angle on what is actually a flat surface. The picture plane is filled with its own optically dynamic, warped pattern of colored geometric shapes. Derbes’s work is visually riveting, each piece drawing you in close to try to make sense of the space it occupies.

There are a few pieces that are less successful; these are the ones in which Derbes has left the surface rougher and the color paler and less defined. They feel kind of beachy and decorative; they lack the power of the more visually emphatic works. If there is an obvious new direction for Derbes to explore, it’s probably in scale. Everything seems to fall between ten inches and two feet in height. Seeing Derbes go really big once or twice would be interesting.

In “Simple Taste Is Popular” at Art Palace, Bill Willis and Bradley Kerl each solve the eternal “what to paint” question by selectively scavenging for found imagery. Willis culls most of his from vintage cookbooks or mid-century Italian food magazines. Kerl delves into flower photographs and girly playing cards. Their imagery and painting styles are different, but the work is close enough that showing them together may not be the best way to highlight either. The juxtaposition somehow mutes them both. This is especially true on the wall hung with Kerl’s brightly colored triptych of a naked girl playing cards on a tiger-striped patch of ground. Placed next to it are Willis’s fuzzily painted images of topless women with bouffant hair. You have to make an effort to view them separately in order to appreciate either.

But the wall that is hung salon-style with Willis’s untitled food paintings is fantastic. His images of carefully arranged meat products and molded gelatin are kitschy but also kind of loving and moody. They may spring from the artist’s wry sense of humor, but they’re ultimately more about making interesting paintings. Willis is tweaking his found images, playing with formal issues of composition, color and abstraction. The speckled cross sections of various pieces of salami become painted pattern rather than flecks of fat and flesh in a tube. The subjects are all softly rendered, as if viewed through a flattering lens. They’re often cropped abruptly off the canvas. The colors are wonderfully super-saturated — the rich red of pancetta stripes and tomatoes, the lurid phthalo green of an artichoke. The dishes are set against turquoise or hot pink grounds. Willis exaggerates the rich, unrestrained color of the mid-20th-century magazine printing.

In the 16th century, Netherlandish still life painters gave us images of newly discovered exotic foods. In the 21st century, Willis mines the dining aspirations of the 20th for these visually lush images, far removed from their original purpose.

In Kerl’s paintings, the colors are brighter and more pop than in Willis’s, and he sets his paint on the surface in thick, intentionally clunky strokes. His flower paintings (Four Florals, 2015, and the 2015 Floral Variant series) render the same image of flowering plants in various, slightly shifted color schemes. They are pretty great, the flowers and greenery so intensely hued and flatly rendered that they look like 1970s wallpaper.

Kerl’s girly images are less consistently successful. The small, clunky images of the playing cards on tiger ground are engagingly weird. The women’s faces are crudely rendered with a too-big brush, and the cards lean against some kind of specked fake stone ground. It’s a nice interplay of pattern and cheezy imagery.

A portrait of a topless woman hung in the gallery entry, Eight of Clubs, 2015, has intentionally goofy and badly painted eyes that are a little crossed. Kerl’s thick lines of paint make her dark hair look like yarn. It’s a solid, strange painting that makes us look more at the patterns Kerl creates with his highly textured strokes than at the cartoonishly rendered tatas.

Scale seems to be Kerl’s Achilles’ heel. His least successful painting is his largest. In King of Hearts (Two Peeks), 2015, a bare-breasted blond is set against a yellow and white striped umbrella. She pulls her neon-green bikini bottom to the side to reveal a landing strip of pubic hair. It’s as tacky as the rest of the images Kerl has selected, but this is the painting that feels like a high-school-boy art project. The paint is too thinly laid; it seems as if Kerl is just filling in projected images with color rather than making a painting. It lacks the surface appeal that makes the other paintings work in their strange, engagingly klutzy ways.

“David Aylsworth: Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea”
Through February 20. Inman Gallery, 3901 Main, 713-526-7800.

“Clark Derbes: Square Dance”
Through February 8. Devin Borden Gallery, 3917 Main, 713-529-2700.

“Bill Willis and Bradley Kerl: Simple Taste Is Popular”
Through February 20. Art Palace, 3913 Main, 832-390-1278


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