Art League's "Bas:" Enjoyable With Some Cohesion Issues

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This weekend, Art League Houston opened in its front gallery a collaborative exhibition that focuses on history, social and societal characteristics of ethnicity. Bās, which runs through August 2, is the fourth collaboration from artists Rabéa Ballin, Ann Johnson, Delita Martin and Lovie Olivia. The artists' styles are night and day, which is absolutely fine, but there are some cohesion issues.

The title of the show, itself, is a play on the word "basic," which is somewhat misleading. The technique of the artists is anything but basic; much of the work is multi-media. Despite being rooted in printmaking, the four artists have vastly different modus operandi, which makes the show that much more engaging. The "basic" that the artists seem to be trying to capture is more of an emotional one; the core of the work feels like it wants to connect on a personal level. It is mostly successful.

Artist Rabéa Ballin's "History Slept On: The Original Dime Pieces" steals the show. Ballin has produced a series that explores feminine beauty through old-timey, circus-themed creations. Over and over, Ballin has recreated various prints of a woman with extremely large hair. According to the artist, these types of "Circassian" women were a staple of "dime museums" and "P.T. Barnum" era circus sideshows. They were considered to be great beauties. What is so wonderful about these images is that despite the obvious attention to the subjects' large 'fros, the women stare blankly back at you, despondent with their own beauty. What is it that makes someone beautiful, anyway? Contemplating the ever-evolving physical characteristics that society deems of worth, is always a fascinating topic, and Ballin's method for execution, antiquated, sienna prints, old tonic bottles and snake oils, is worth seeing.

Ann Johnson's "Nesting" hangs in the center of the room. Sixteen circular "nests" beckon you to take a closer look. Inside the nests, the artist has placed images, prints and found objects that are as appealing as they are thoughtful. The nests are homes, and Johnson aims to explore what makes up a human being. Despite the digitally social world we live in, there is much that is kept private, even within the digital realm. If someone was to look in your computer, your phone, your iPad, what would they find? Johnson wonders what our nests say about us as individuals.

Lovie Olivia "Between," I found to be the sore thumb of the collection. Olivia's composite of small printed pieces takes over the back wall and it is quite lovely. Small shapes come together to make up one larger, flowing movement; the medley of these small forms look like they want to fly. In an odd way her pieces reminded me of the conclusion of Leo Lionni's Swimmy; all the small fish come together to form something greater. But it's relation to the other work is perplexing. While the three other artists cultural and ethnic examination is obvious, "Between" did not fit in. Perhaps that not fitting in with the other work is purposefully, but I tend to doubt it.

Regardless of fluid continuity, Bās is attention-grabbing and thought-provoking. If you have a chance to see it during its summer run, I recommend it.

Bās runs through August 2. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information visit artleaguehouston.org

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