Capsule Art Reviews: "Defending Democracy," "Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom," "Heroes Alter Egos," "Neo HooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," "(Re)Vision: A Preservation of Houston's Inner Loop"

"Defending Democracy" "Defending Democracy" displays work by artists who share the belief that art can be a catalyst for change. The show includes political graphic art of former Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, the murals and prints of the anonymous artist collective ASARO and the "teach-in" installation of Houston's own Otabenga Jones and Associates. The installation of Douglas's work contains rows of display cases with copies of The Black Panther weekly that he personally laid out and designed. On the walls are posters of his work, as well as his manifestos calling progressive artists to arms, along with other materials. In the front gallery of the Station are the graffitied stencil murals and prints of Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO), a collective of artists and arts groups formed in response to government oppression in Oaxaca. ASARO's guerilla artists spray-paint stenciled murals throughout the city in support of the populace's cause. The Otabenga Jones and Associates installation El Shabazz High School Gym is a re-creation of a high school gym complete with a scoreboard, bleachers and a basketball hoop. A projection screen stands opposite the bleachers, and a few posters are taped to the walls. I hesitate to say this, but the offerings of Otabenga Jones and Associates seemed like six degrees of separation from the revolutionary work of Douglas, and maybe five degrees away from ASARO. Otabenga Jones and crew need to get out of the museum setting and metaphorically kick ass against oppression. Through September 14. Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — BS

"Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom" Construction and real estate baron Derrick Joshua Beard assembled this Wunderkammer of artifacts documenting the African-American experience during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes documents, books, photography and other objects. There's everything from a postcard from Jack Johnson's 1910 defeat of "The Great White Hope" in Las Vegas to Confederate bills to the photographs of James Van Der Zee, who examined middle-class life in New York. The expansive Van Der Zee section stands opposite contemporaneous stereotypical posters for entertainers. A musician and the brains behind the Harlem Orchestra, Van Der Zee took on photo jobs to make ends meet over his 70-year career; his Newlywed Couple, 1922, and World War II Vet are good examples of his straightforward realism. Some of the most poignant pieces in the show involve education. British emancipation efforts in the Caribbean are recorded in a brutal political cartoon depicting slaves being boiled alive by a plantation owner, with arms and feet nailed to the wall behind the sour-faced murderer. A propagandizing Southern alphabet rhyme is horrifically graphic in its trivialization of blacks in America. And a newspaper image of a black man with a rifle is surrounded by threatening quotes from post-antebellum Democrats warning white people of an impending black rebellion. In the hands of Beard, these disparate mementoes become a beacon of hope in his enduring intellectual fight — not without their ironies, of course. Through October 31. Texas Southern University Museum, 3100 Cleburne, 713-313-7011. — SC

"Heroes Alter Egos" Utilizing images of Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes to represent the dark side of American culture has become an artistic cliché, just like JFK's visage gets used to symbolize good. Now that Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous Barack Obama poster has proclaimed open season on the presidential candidate's face as a tool for artistic expression signifying "hope," let the boredom begin. In "Heroes Alter Egos," a group show featuring works by Robert Hodge, Lovie Olivia, Michael K. Taylor and Lance Flowers, Obama makes at least three appearances, including a direct implementation of the Fairey poster. Conceptually, the show is meant as a mirror into urban culture, built around each artist's perception of a "hero," so Obama's inclusion makes perfect sense; it just doesn't bode well for art. The works succeed most when they're championing everyday people, as in Taylor's photo collages and Flowers's nicely layered and intricate patchworks of urban iconography. The most unusual (and humorous) depiction of a hero, though, is a wall of stacked, colorful boxes being navigated by Q*bert, the hopping, tube-nosed video game character. Credited to no artist in particular, it's a nice, simple statement amid the pop-cultural swirl of the exhibit. Q*bert's heroic mission, after all, is to change the color of things. Through October 2. space125gallery, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-9330. — TS

"Neo HooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith" Organized by Franklin Sirmans, Menil curator of modern and contemporary art, this exhibition is one of the most compelling Houston has seen in a long time. The artists in "Neo HooDoo" come from across the Americas, and much of their work is rooted in both African and indigenous practices, and also inspired by European culture. Cuban-born María Magdalena Campos-Pons's beautiful triptych When I am not here/ Estoy Allá (1997) is laden with symbolic imagery from both worlds. It consists of three large-scale Polaroids displayed vertically, all with tones of rich indigo blue, a reference to the practice of trading slaves for bolts of indigo cloth. In Storm at Sea (2007), New Jersey-born Radcliffe Bailey has created an installation that emits an almost inexplicable energy. A statue of an African goddess stands in the corner of the gallery, facing out toward a tempestuous sea created out of hundreds of dislodged piano keys. The area immediately surrounding her seems preternaturally calm. Oppression of other peoples is not a thing of the past, as observed by Regina José Galindo, a video artist and activist from Ciudad de Guatemala with three videos on display. In Confession (2007), her head is repeatedly held underwater for long periods of time by a big, burly man. There's also 150,000 Voltos (2007), in which she is Tasered by a man until she falls down, and Liempza Social (2006), in which the naked Galindo is sprayed with a high-pressure hose until she is knocked down, cold and obviously in pain. Of course, unlike the helpless and often innocent victims at Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib, Galindo could ask her tormentor to stop at any time. "Neo HooDoo" is such a great show, it would be a sin not to see it. Through September 21. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — BS

"(Re)Vision: A Preservation of Houston's Inner Loop" Shannon Duncan's odd installation is a kind of memorial to the passing of a product and to residential real estate. In February, Polaroid stopped producing instant film — a seriously profound event in consumer culture, when you think about it. So Duncan decided to preserve, in a way, Houston's Inner Loop residencies in states of flux, using the newly outdated film. Through searching, Duncan found Inner Loop houses and properties that were being demolished or were undergoing construction, drove to those sites and took snapshots. Many photos include piles of rubble, lumber, Port-O-Potties and Dumpsters, while others are simply vacant lots. Some pictures depict fully constructed houses; perhaps those have been scheduled for demolition. On the wall, Duncan arranged the photos in vertical rows of three, in order, according to Zip Code. Altogether, they form a random pattern that almost resembles a key. Duncan also has included items she recovered from some of the sites, random ephemera like an LL Cool J cassette, a karatetrophy, Happy Meal toys, slides of someone's vacation to Machu Picchu and, of course, Polaroids. You will be missed. Through September 27. Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — TS

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