Capsule Art Reviews: "Dynasty and Divinity," "James Drake: A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing," "Tony Smith: Drawings"

"Dynasty and Divinity" When you walk into this exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it feels like you are walking into a crowd of people. It's filled with the faces of distinct but long dead individuals, depicted in striking works of stone, terracotta and metal from the ninth through 15th centuries. First among the standout works on view are the exhibition's cast-copper-alloy heads representing the rulers of Ife, which are essentially family portraits. The cast-metal heads are highly naturalistic; you can tell that each was modeled after a specific person. They are, however, depicted in a way that idealizes them as rulers; neither fierce nor haughty, they emanate a calm, elegant serenity. Their smooth features are composed, with their eyes looking forward, their mouths closed. The heads were cast using a lost wax process which allows a sculptor to create a one-off metal cast. Basically, a clay core would be covered with a thick layer of wax that would then be sculpted. A clay shell would be created over the wax and heated. The wax would melt out and bronze would be poured in its place. When these stunning works came to European attention in the early 20th century, the initial response of some scholars was that they simply couldn't be African; there had to be some Greek influence. Thankfully, the museum world is past that kind of blatant racism. But non-Western art is still viewed through a deeply embedded Eurocentric lens. The MFAH press release stated, "These sculptures have been compared to the finest portraits of the classical ancient world of Greece and Rome," and MFAH director Peter Marzio is quoted as saying, "Remarkably, the Ife people were creating these sculptures before the European Renaissance began." For such an important show, the installation at the MFAH is lackluster. All of the pieces are stuck in one big, sterile white room — it not only feels like a crowd, it is crowded. This is a wonderful show and a coup for the museum. I just wish it got a little more of the royal treatment. Through January 9, 2011. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. – KK

"James Drake: A Thousand Tongues Burn and Sing" James Drake's 1982 installation Trophy Room, crafted from cut and welded steel, is a raw tour de force. Its steel-walled 12-by-16-foot room is furnished with a throne-like chair, weaponry and animal heads, all in blackened steel. Simmering with barely controlled violence, it feels like the lair of a gun nut Texas rancher or a drug cartel kingpin. Drake, who was born in Lubbock and grew up in Guatemala, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, could have been channeling either. The artist is widely known for his large-scale drawings, but they pale in comparison to works like Trophy Room and his two-channel video Tongue-Cut Sparrows (2007), also on view. The video focuses on the sign language created by El Paso inmates and their loved ones — women are shown signing on the sidewalk below; men are seen silhouetted in the windows above. Drake asked them to incorporate into their communications quotes referencing loss and distance from the likes of William Shakespeare, Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. It's an incisive and powerful work. Through January 9. The Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900. — KK

"Tony Smith: Drawings" Tony Smith's geometric steel sculptures are included in pretty much every modern art survey text — his drawings, not so much. And that's a shame, because they're pretty amazing. "Tony Smith: Drawings" is a little gem of a show curated by Bernice Rose, chief curator of the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, and focusing on work executed between 1953 and 1955, early in Smith's artistic career. In charcoal or colored pastel on brown paper, the drawings have abstract forms with a biomorphic vibe and sense of sculptural solidity. In a number of them, circular shapes cluster like molecules or morph and divide like microorganisms. The biggest surprise, for those familiar with the artist's monochromatic 3D work, is Smith's masterful use of vibrant color. It's a 50-year-old palette that feels surprisingly contemporary. April 3. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — KK

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer