Capsule Art Reviews: "If We Only Knew Now What They Knew Then," "Kaneem Smith," "The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Painting and Sculpture"

"If We Only Knew Now What They Knew Then" Doilies meet fringe in "If We Only Knew Now What They Knew Then" at the Houston Arts Alliance's space 125gallery. The show pairs Individual Artist Fellowship recipients Melanie Crader and Katy Heinlein. Crader is known for her deadpan "girly" abstractions referencing feminine decorative elements. In this show, she uses her work to build up a narrative about a domestic space. Doily patterns are crisply cut into shiny enameled paper; a drawer excised from a dresser opens to reveal a flocked interior and the word "theft." Katy Heinlein presents swagged and fringed fabric sculptures that extend from and angle out from the wall. In one piece, a wooden frame is slipcovered so precisely, its bold stripes seem to be painted. As always, Heinlein has some great stuff, but if she could double or triple the scale, it would be amazing. Through September 9. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-9330. — KK

"Kaneem Smith" Kaneem Smith's installation of brown wax bones looks like the spoils of archaeological grave robbing. In Smith's solo show at TSU's University Museum, the cast bones are hung in a line on the wall, as if a researcher is categorizing and labeling them. And in a project located behind the old Jeff Davis hospital, Smith has done a public art piece that relates to this work. She filled grave-like metal ellipses with gravel and placed them over the unmarked African American burial ground behind the building. Although development has encroached into the area, the graves were never relocated. Will some archaeological team of the future excavate, clean, codify and display those remains of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters? Issues of memory, loss and a fascination with the body permeate Smith's work. Her University Museum exhibition is filled with materials like raw cotton, rope and handwoven fabrics, sometimes coated with plastic or rubber to create visceral and highly evocative objects. Through September 26. Texas Southern University, University Museum, Fairchild Building (south wing), 713-313-7011. — KK

"The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Painting and Sculpture" This exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is overflowing with ham-fisted painting. Russell's subject matter, rather than his artistic talent, is the driving force behind his popularity. While his early works on paper are surprisingly nice and his illustrated letters are charming, it's when he moves into oil on canvas that things get hokey. Some of the first paintings you see in the exhibition are images of Native Americans. Waiting and Mad (1899) could have served as cover art for a Western-themed bodice ripper. A Native American woman reclines like an odalisque in her tipi, her dress falling from one shoulder as she stares out, as if waiting for her tardy date. She rests on a decorated buffalo skin; a shield and spears hang decoratively on the wall behind her. A "peace pipe" rests on the floor in the foreground, an oddly casual placement for a ritual implement used for a sacred practice. The woman is basically surrounded by what were probably collected as "souvenirs" by white people. But aside from the exoticizing Russell indulges in, his depiction of Native Americans is fairly empathetic and respectful. He painted cowboys coming upon one of their cattle being carved up for food by the starving Native American family who had killed it. The outcome of the meeting is unclear, but Russell's empathy for the family's predicament is evident. Above all, Russell was a storyteller, both as a person and as an artist. He knew plenty of characters and plenty of tales. And like any great storyteller, he would exaggerate for effect. The painting In Without Knocking (1909) depicts cowboys riding their horses into a hotel, while The Tenderfoot [No. 1] (1900) shows them harassing a dandy easterner. We can imagine that man coming back and telling the tale to his buddies, and it is the anecdotal appeal that saves the work. Russell's painting improves over the years, but it never gets very good. Through August 29. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. – KK

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer