Artist in Wonderland

Elevatious Transcendsualistic, the title of the Paul Henry Ramirez installation that kicks off the visual arts season at DiverseWorks, suggests a project conceived by Mary Poppins and Carl Jung after they'd been introduced to each other by Lewis Carroll. And stepping around the pink-lit wall where the title spirals like a cheesy flashback/ dream effect from an old movie is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole into a phantasmagoric world of extravagant shapes and colors. Taking over almost three-quarters of the main gallery and applied to a custom-built curved wall, the installation focuses on 14 abstract paintings, each 18 feet by two feet and hung on the vertical, tight against one another and staggered, so that they present a jagged line at top and bottom. They almost get lost in the crowd of other visual elements -- large rounded squares and rectangles, raised varicolored circles and "appendages" -- but, fortunately for the bedazzled viewer, those elements also point the way to the paintings.

But some background is needed. Ramirez is a native Texan, born in El Paso in 1963, who now lives in New York, and this is the third version of Elevatious Transcendsualistic. Previous avatars have appeared at Caren Golden Fine Art in Manhattan and Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center; its fourth (and final) manifestation will be at the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, which will publish a catalog documenting the installation's journey and variations. In each incarnation, the installation has responded uniquely to the architectural space it finds itself in; here, for the first time, the paintings are presented as a single unit.

The paintings themselves are exuberantly frenetic, a more-than-lively dance of biomorphic figuration, suggestive of -- oh, the hell with it. A friend urged me to describe these paintings as being all "boobies and pubies and buttocks," and why not? A couple of women were heard wondering, "Are these paintings 'dirty' or is it me?" For the record, ladies, it's you -- I didn't see so much as a single smudge of dirt anywhere on these paintings.

They are riotously libidinous, however, pulsing with a vitality that pushes against their ornateness. Along with the three elements mentioned above, there are a lot of juices splashing around on these panels, lubricating the tension between their biomorphic sensuality and the more sterile pleasure of their decorativeness. Parameciumlike ovals bulge and contract, as if in the throes of division, while multicolored ova and monochromatic bubbles bounce and swirl past sprouting black tendrils and bulbous squirts. Indeed, there is so much energy here that the individual panels cannot contain it; some shapes come right to the edges of the canvases and disappear into the interstices between them -- or are they bubbling out of them?

The wall designs bring further tension to this little narrative of vital energies versus mere decoration. With their more regular forms and monolithic dimensions, the wall elements partake more of the architecture -- they're on its side, if you will. Marching along the wall from opposite directions, these architectural elements send out extensions to contain and even squeeze the paintings together; hence their staggered hanging. Is this some allegory about the antipathy of architecture to painting? No, it's much more playful than that. Otherwise, you might not be inclined to accept the invitation extended by the three colorful benches -- designed by local architect Keith Krumwiede -- to sit and linger for the accompanying sound installation by So Takahashi and Takako Minekawa. And you'll want to linger -- Elevatious Transcendsualistic is great fun and a terrific start to DiverseWorks's season.

"Channeling," a series of paintings by former UH student Tracie Brownlee, inaugurates the newly remodeled Project Space at DiverseWorks (designed by Krumwiede and Luke Bullman). Her subject is the voyeurism of our 24-hour television society and the odd juxtapositions created by the nonstop onslaught of images. In Siren, a closed-caption box that tells us "'Susan' does not want to show her face. (Audience groans)" is next to two women in burqas, and above both is the NBC Nightly News logo, and that's just half of the painting. The Blue Celica, a diptych, tells the somewhat disjointed narrative of a problematic relationship in text set against incongruous backdrops (like a street sign at the corner of Taft and Lovett). Beautifully executed, with bold strokes, these paintings work much like a poem -- by suggestion and indirection, hints and allusions -- and their expressionistic style further emphasizes the weird reality seen through that electronic window that sits in each of our homes.

If you're going to be in the neighborhood, call ahead and make arrangements to visit Dramos Studios next door (1121 East Freeway, 713-229-8583), where Denise Ramos is showing some new abstract paintings. These works seem almost sculptural because of their extreme narrowness (about six inches wide and three feet tall) and are beautifully painted in luminous greens and yellows. Ramos's work is a response to music and sound, and standing in the small gallery, you can almost feel the vibrations pulsing around you.

At Site Unseen in the same vicinity (1123 East Freeway, 713-256-6782), local "mad" scientist/wunderkind Jeff Shore is showing a new collaboration with composer Jon Fisher. Moving in Stereo is a sequential sculptural triptych, involving motion, light, color and sound that maps, in witty and poetic images, the arc of life, from the playground to the cemetery. It's his best work yet. Go see it.

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John Devine