"Bert L. Long Jr: An Odyssey"
If you can look on the bright side, this was some fortunate timing. The UAC Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University was putting together a small show of Bert Long's work late last year when the Fifth Ward artist was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died a month later, on February 1. In what turned out to be one of his last acts as a Houston artist, Long wanted to show work that even his friends and collectors hadn't seen before. Given his two-inch-thick résumé, full of local shows and press clippings, that would pose quite the challenge, but the resulting show is one that's full of surprises and a fitting tribute to the beloved artist. The 16 works on display were made in the last 30 years and include photographs of a trip to Cuba, paintings, sculpture and assemblage. One of the earliest works is "Persistence (Mums the Word)" (1983), a curious piece of mixed media that features an ax piercing black, stitched lips, with the word "art" carved over and over again into the canvas board. The most recent work on display, completed in 2012, also has a dark edge to it. "Purgatory" prominently features the flashing neon words "Hell" and "Open," as subtle a message as a stop sign. The heaviest piece is "Dear John, Dear Vincent, Dear Pablo, Dear Bert," an overwhelming 400-pound clock that's a wall of boots, giant nails and broken glass. That's right. These often unsettling works can be literally dangerous if not handled properly. Long strove to be truthful in his work, and, like the truth, these pieces are not always pretty or neat. One of the most prominent pieces is "Quest," an assemblage displayed in the middle of the small gallery. It was initially found buried in the middle of Long's studio, and looks as though it had collected everything in there. A trunk has almost too many items to mention affixed to it — an old credit card of Long's, a license plate, liquor bottles, an old newspaper, rope, a toothbrush, a lit lightbulb and a broken wine glass. The trunk is supported by two "legs," one foot wearing a white shoe and the other a black one, and there's a steering wheel on top. It looks like a walking time capsule, continually on the move. Long's massive bound résumé is also on display for your perusal. It's composed of hundreds of pages that document his shows and press from the start of his art career up to 2008, giving those unfamiliar with his work an insight into his prominence in Houston's art community. Of course, some of the best insight into his style will be right in front of you. These works are loud, strange, unsettling and anything but boring, and will leave you wanting more. Through April 18. 7502 Fondren, 281-649-3678. — MD
"Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lightning" Cruz Ortiz is known to work in wheat paste murals, video, street sculptures and guerrilla AM radio broadcasts. His latest solo exhibition is just gouache on paper and panel, but that doesn't make it any less quiet. "I Speak Lightning" at David Shelton Gallery is a loud, blaring show. It is full of bold colors, bright text and, yes, more than a few streaks of lightning. The Houston-born, San Antonio-based artist made a splash here three years ago with his solo exhibition at CAMH. That show introduced many to Ortiz's (to borrow the term) lo-fi aesthetic. There's a simplicity and crudeness to his paintings, a freestyle, rasquache technique that allows Ortiz to work really fast — he created the nearly two dozen pieces in the show just this year. I can see that crude flatness being a barrier to appreciating Ortiz's art — he doesn't seem to try all that hard — but I found it to be part of his charm. In fact, one of my favorites in the show was "Darlin." The piece features just the word "Darlin" done in a thin pink font of Ortiz's design — letters alternate between uppercase and lowercase at whim — against a teal background. Purple stars line the top and bottom of the panel in a free-hand style that, again, can come off as slapdash. But there's something about the combination of the bold colors, simple proclamation and unrefined drawing style that is just winning. The show alternates between these text-based pieces that speak of sunshine and "amor" and Ortiz's lovesick poets — cowboy hat-sporting, bandanna-wearing cowboys who are likely the originators of these texts and have literal stars in their eyes. This part can get a bit confusing, but Ortiz's black-lipped alter ego Spaztek (that's part-Aztec, part-spaz) also shows up a few times in portraits such as the sunburst Menudo Power. As the legend goes, Spaztek is on a cosmic search for love — complete with a ray gun. He's a prop, it seems, through which Ortiz can freely speak of personal yet universal topics like love and desire. Though it professes to be about love, "I Speak Lightning" isn't a romantic show; in place of hearts, Ortiz uses stars. But it is an eccentric, giddy celebration of the kind of love that causes fireworks and drives men crazy. When you're immersed in those graphic paintings, the enthusiasm is contagious. Through March 30. 3909 Main. 832-538-0924. —MD