Capsule Art Reviews: "Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976," "Nan Goldin: Stories Retold," "Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection," "Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome"

"Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976" It's difficult to look at a Robert Ryman painting without an initial feeling of being cheated. The artist has limited himself almost entirely to the color white as a way of boiling down the essence of painting to a reduced process, the very act of laying paint on a surface and subsequently installing the work in a viewing space. Ryman once said, "There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint." To many viewers, Ryman comes off as a snake-oil salesman — selling pennies for a dollar. It's somewhat infuriating, and that's exactly the feeling you should have, but you should also keep looking. Once you've broken through that exterior facade, Ryman's work begins to release rewards. These three 1976 specimens, part of the Menil Collection's "Contemporary Conversations" series, are very stark examples of Ryman's oeuvre; all-white panels of pastel and oil paint on Plexiglas and blue Acrylivin are fixed to the wall with steel fasteners and bolts. It's the most distilled version of performance art ever, and the "I don't get it" exhibit of the year. And in a weird way, it's kind of thrilling. On view through February 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — TS

"Nan Goldin: Stories Retold" The span of Nan Goldin's career (her life) is on display in "Nan Goldin: Stories Retold" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a 45-minute slideshow containing 622 images, is the must-see portion of the show. Beginning with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's song of the same name from The Threepenny Opera, Ballad sets us up for a very Weimar-esque vision of 1980s New York. There are photographs of young women waking from bed and slowly, languidly dressing for a night out, looking into mirrors, scenes vividly underscored by the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror." Shockingly, soon we're confronted with the aftermath of violence. Goldin indifferently displays the bruises and black eyes she sustained at the hands of her lover. These echo another Threepenny song, the Ballad of Immoral Earnings, in which Jenny sings, "He was so sweet he bashed me where it hurt," and later, "I had the bruises off and on for years." The confrontational nature of these photographs asserts itself further in a revenge fantasy. Goldin's female subjects wield firearms, flex muscles and handle pit bulls, as if to say, "We'll deal with this on our own terms." The act ends in a series of bathing photos, washing away the pain. Before long, we're back at the club celebrating among the strippers and working girls. Like Brecht, Goldin doesn't judge this environment. Even though many would point toward the drinking and drugging and sexual promiscuity as conduits for painful consequences, Goldin simply presents her world, at a time when youth compensated for the sore outcome. Through February 10. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — TS

"Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection" This show includes approximately 300 works from the 1960s to the present. The artists in the Drutt collection approach jewelry as an art object, with ideas taking precedence over the intrinsic value of the materials used. Jewelry started getting avant-garde in the 1960s, when even the likes of Alexander Calder, Lucio Fontana and Salvador Dalí, far better known for their sculptures and paintings, made forays into the realm of jewelry. German artist Gerd Rothmann's work has a slightly surreal bent, in particular his gold casts of Helen Drutt's nose (1994) and index finger (2000). Other works have a more minimalist bent. Dutch artist Gijs Bakker's blue Möbius loop bracelet (1967-69) in anodized aluminum is simple and elegant. Some of the work has an edgy, body-oriented focus, with things that are cool sculptural objects but not especially geared for wearablity. British artist Caroline Broadhead's 1983 woven nylon monofilament necklace is otherworldly, extending up to veil the wearer's face. Contemporary jewelry isn't exactly a field many people know a lot about, and Helen Williams Drutt has been a pioneering educator as well as a collector. Cindi Strauss, MFAH curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design and the curator of the exhibition, threw herself into the subject matter, and the exhibition, four years in the making, is impressive. Through January 27. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" Among the portraits on view in this exhibition is one of a British tourist named Robert Clements. To commemorate his trip to Rome, the 21-year-old Clements posed casually, leaning against a pedestal that displayed a bust of the blind poet Homer. He clasped a book in his hand as if he were about to hold forth on the Iliad. While today's tourists might bring back a snapshot of themselves on the Spanish Steps, in 1753 wealthy young British men like Clements headed to Pompeo Batoni's studio to have their portrait painted. To show where they had been, Batoni obligingly painted them surrounded by icons of Italy — Roman artifacts and scenes from the Italian countryside. Batoni practiced history painting, the supreme genre of the period, but portraits of the British elite (and their dogs) on what was then known as "the Grand Tour" became his bread and butter. We see in Batoni's subjects an eagerness to show where they have been and to pose in exotic garb the same way contemporary tourists don loud shirts on Caribbean cruises. Beyond creating a cultural record from the period, Batoni was a renowned and highly skilled painter. His ability to render likenesses of sitters, record the details of their dress and convey the gestures of their hands was widely remarked upon, then and now. Batoni's careful compositions, appropriately symbolic objects, detailed renderings of his subject's fashionable dress and tactful likenesses remind us of the time when craft dominated painting. Through January 27. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Will Boone: A Man's House Is His Coffin" The use of "House," not "Home," is on purpose – there's a difference between a physical address and the feeling of belonging that comes with a true home. A wandering soul, Will Boone takes his sense of belonging with him as he embarks on a tour of American counterculture in the 21st century. Boone's artwork exists where indie rock, emo and noise meet art, drugs and hip-hop; it brings to mind late-night house parties and disillusion. His text paintings reveal a decidedly pessimistic worldview: In one work, gothic Old English lettering spells out THIS PLACE SUCKS. In another, called Ferocious Guest, hand-drawn letters tell a hilarious, crushing tale. In other works, Boone uses found imagery in awkward, simplified ink drawings that conjure the album covers and flyers of Raymond Pettibon. Will Boone's ink drawings and paintings are a reminder that home is where you find yourself — the mosh-pit mayhem of My War and the macho posturing of Live Long Nothing are icons of American life, as readable as the signs in a restaurant window. Through January 18. Domy Books, 1709 Westheimer, 713-523-3669. — SC

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
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