Capsule Art Reviews: "Existed: Leonardo Drew," "Perspectives 166: Torsten Slama," "Toil and Trouble"

"Existed: Leonardo Drew" This exhibition, on view at the Blaffer Gallery and curated by director Claudia Schmuckli, presents a mid-career survey of Leonardo Drew's work. The artist's aesthetic is influenced by the junk he played with as a kid in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Even when he builds things new, he artificially ages them — rusting metal, shredding fabric, gouging wood. He scavenges for many of his objects and materials, taking a shopping cart out onto the streets of New York. Drew hand-built each of the 880 boxes in his sculpture Number 43 (1994). They are packed tightly together, stacked into an imperfect grid against the wall. Grubby, rust-dusted scraps of fabric are jammed inside them; twisted fragments trail out of some; others have fabric stretched over the top, sealing them closed. Cutting wood and nailing together simple wooden boxes is the kind of tedious, labor-intensive task most successful artists would delegate to a studio assistant. Drew is an extremely successful artist, but he's not the kind of guy who relies on others to do grunt work. Manual labor — his own — is at the core of Drew's work. In 1992, he was invited to participate in the Senegal biennial, an experience that would deeply affect his work. While there, the African-American artist visited Gorée Island, a trading post for millions of Africans sold into slavery. They would be held for up to a year in horrific and claustrophobic conditions. Drew was deeply moved by these confined spaces that had contained so much suffering. The hundreds of boxes of Number 43 had to have grown out of that experience. In that context, it reads like rows of internment niches, and the labor Drew puts into his work makes even more sense. Crafting each box with your own hands is a meditation on, and a memorial to, the suffering at Gorée Island. Through August 15. 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston, 713-743-9530. — KK

"Perspectives 166: Torsten Slama" Austrian artist Torsten Slama's drawing style has its origins in the obsessive pencil sketches done by geeky adolescent boys. (You remember, the guys who designed elaborate rocket cars or painstakingly illustrated all their D&D characters.) I don't know what his high school sketchbooks looked like, but the 42-year-old Slama's work now depicts stark and ambiguous scenes. Bleak domestic and industrial structures (often with phallic tanks and towers) appear in barren landscapes — a baboon stands sentinel-like in front of one factory building. A strangely buff, bearded Sigmund Freud look-alike appears in multiple works, clothed and unclothed. The presence of "Freud" is initially amusing and then disturbing. Appearing alongside young men and boys, Freud seems more pederast than analyst. Slama's is an unsettling and painstakingly surreal world. Through August 2. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — KK

"Toil and Trouble" This curious exhibit spotlights seven artists whose work incorporates themes of chaos, the supernatural and a kind of ritualistic handling of technique. Virtually all the artists involved score on some level; it's strong work all around. Standouts include Robyn O'Neil, who delivers a set of recent drawings depicting tiny bodies and heads either interacting with, or floating against, hallucinatory images of weather or the elements, nicely composed by utilizing vast spaces of white paper. Pamela Chapman paints sections of riverbanks, elegantly rendered pools of swirling water, vegetation and debris, like trash, a pink comb and confetti, transforming otherwise banal subjects into strange abstractions. Emilio Perez's acrylic and latex paintings embody both the streetwise edge of graffiti and comic-book graphics. He meticulously cuts away layers of paint to reveal inherent patterns and abstract logistics that represent rapidly fluctuating chaos. And Natasha Bowdoin culls inspiration from literature for her incredibly intricate paper works that seem to somehow translate text into complicated 3-D textures and layers, like she's channeling a book's psychic shape and wavelength. Mind-boggling stuff. Through August 16. CTRL Gallery, 3907 Main, 713-523-2875. — TS

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer
Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze