A Caravaggio in Our Midsts, and Other Observations from the Station's "HX8"

The Station Museum of Contemporary Art recently kicked off an ambitious new series called "HX8" ("Houston Times Eight") wherein the museum curates a show of eight diverse, contemporary Houston artists. By all accounts, this inaugural show lives up to the mission, with a mix of modern styles, from collage to street art to conceptual to experimental video, on display. But there's one artist who stands out among the rest for his clear embrace of something only rarely seen today -- the Italian Renaissance style.

Fabio D'Aroma is like a modern-day Caravaggio. Italian as well, D'Aroma has studied the genius painter and is an expert in the Old Master's techniques. He even has a piece in the show called "The Lost Caravaggio," a replica of the artist's "St. Matthew and the Angel," which was destroyed in a 1945 fire. It's an unabashedly bold move to imitate the revolutionary painter, but unlike other artists who claim a lineage with yesterday's greats, it's one that can be taken seriously thanks to D'Aroma's clear and impressive skill.

The meat of his work, found in the last room of the exhibition, is a grotesque procession along all four walls. There are naked bodies with thin arms, knobby red elbows and knees, and distended stomachs that are engaged with curious symbolism. There's a peacock and a menorah in one painting, a watermelon, some rifles and a bag of charcoal in another. There's so much coded in there, and it's all done in such jaw-dropping detail, that it's all a bit confounding. The awkwardness of these characters is especially unnerving, and D'Aroma has said he wants to convey the self-involvement and narcissism in these figures through their awkward movements and interactions. It's intentionally ugly stuff.

It's strange, compelling work, but one thing does nag. For a show that aims to represent Houston and all its complexities, the Italian-born D'Aroma doesn't even live here (he currently calls New York City home). He's spent some time showing work in Houston, but he doesn't have all that much city cred, especially when grouped with the rest of the eight. Take Daniel Anguilu. The street artist has left his telltale mark all over Midtown and brings his animal imagery inside for the museum show, painting an epic, abstract mural on a temporary wall constructed just for the exhibition to create separate, almost sacred spaces for each artist.

Across from Anguilu's towering piece are Robert Pruitt's powerful portraits. They depict three strong, fully realized African American women. Nearby, Prince Varughese Thomas's conceptual works criticize the wars in the Middle East, representing the lives lost, both of civilians and soldiers, through white, ghostly pennies and names in charcoal, layered until the paper turns black. They're obsessive, stark works that convey a lot with so little.

Lynn Randolph also focuses on matters of life and death, processing the death of her husband through ancient symbols of mortality -- birds. Her grief is overwhelming and beautiful in the sheer amount of work she has created and the number of birds that fill the walls of her room. Floyd Newsum's works are equally personal. His distinct, naive style and dense collages are loaded with personal materials, from chalk to photographs and symbols of his family. Serena Lin Bush explores concepts of family and bonds between sisters and friends through a video installation. Though with two audio tracks running concurrently, it's a bit difficult to follow.

In an appropriate bookmark to D'Aroma's social commentary, Forrest Prince welcomes visitors to the museum show with his works in wood and mirror. Compared to the constant symbolism of D'Aroma's work, Prince's unsubtle comments on political, social and religious issues are refreshing. There are calls to "love" and "repent," though the most biting words go out to his fellow artists: "If the work you are doing isn't contributing to the restoration of peace on our Mother Earth, or the health and welfare of all the creatures on her, then you are wasting your life and everyone else's time." Amen.

"[Houston Times Eight]" at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, runs now through February 17, 2013. For more information, call 713-529-6900 or visit stationmuseum.com.

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