Capsule Art Reviews: March 12, 2015

"Mel Chin: Rematch" For the next few months, Houston-born and raised Mel Chin will be taking up practically the whole art atmosphere of the city with his 40-year retrospective. It's a progressive art feast so big that it takes four museums to hold it all. And as a special treat for hometown folks, there's even an added bonus of Chin drawings not included in previous stops in New Orleans and Saint Louis. Due at least in part to this retrospective, Artnet named Chin as one of only two Houston artists on its list of "The 50 Most Exciting Artists of 2014." Pick a nice day to see the show because you'll be driving all over town. And go with an open mind because your preconceptions about what art is will likely be soundly shaken. Chin has been called a "provocateur, environmentalist, activist, political subversive, community organizer, showoff and occasionally an artist; news maker, civic problem solver and a dreamer." Did you notice "artist" almost lost somewhere in the middle of all that? And you thought this was just another artist career retrospective. Wrong. This is not your granddad's idea of what makes art. Unless your granddad was Marcel Duchamp. But is Chin's work art or something else? Or does it really matter what we call it? As long as it helps us see things we might not otherwise see, goads us to think outside our usual box, motivates us to move in (positive) directions we might not take on our own? It is what it is — whatever that is, and you should take this opportunity to see it. Which is probably about as much as a prudent review should say. "Mel Chin: Rematch," Blaffer Art Museum, The University of Houston, 4173 Elgin, 713-743-9521, blafferartmuseum.org; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250, www.camh.org; Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore, 713-496-9901, asiasociety.org/texas; Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama 713-529-6900, stationmuseum.com; and "Paper Trail and Unauthorized Collaborations," Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530, www.artleaguehouston.org. Check each venue for exact dates and times. — RT

"Portraits of Denial & Desire" In his current exhibit at Rice University, "Portraits of Denial & Desire," activist artist John Halaka focuses on displaced indigenous Palestinians and their stories of exile, resistance and survival. He has enlarged his photographs, stripped them of color and printed them as triptychs on blankets, which serve as both a symbol of protection and an illustration of the temporary nature of refugees. Ibrahim Essa is flanked by the crumbled ruins of structures overgrown by vines. His family had lived in the same village for 700 years, tracing their connections back to the early Christians of Galilee. Elias Wakim stands in front of a church, between images of fragmented bones and overgrown cacti. He watches over the cemetery, where once-decorated mausoleums are now desecrated. He is unable to leave, since the bones of his father are here, now mixed with trash and the strewn remains of other graves. Umm Aziz displays a poster of her sons, who disappeared in 1982 when hundreds of men were herded into trucks and taken away. She still searches for her boys, who would be middle-aged by now, she herself trapped in the unknowingness of their fates. Hamed Moussa, with piercing, alert eyes, was born around 1910 and lived more than 100 years. He was one of the few Palestinians who was not displaced from his homeland and who was permitted to farm his ancestral land. He never felt that the land belonged to him but rather that he belonged to the land. Through March 13. Rice University, Department of Visual & Dramatic Arts, Media Center Building, 6100 Main, Campus Entrance #8 (University Boulevard at Stockton), 713-348-4882, arts.rice.edu. — ST

"Sandwalk" For his fourth solo exhibition at Inman Gallery, Gilad Efrat, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, continues to challenge himself as a painter. In his earlier works, he produced fluid representations of the expansive desert landscape. Evolving from there, Efrat created highly detailed architectural images from photographic references. Darwin Thinking Path demonstrates the artist's skill at applying thick paint over base layers and scraping away small and large areas with a frenetic energy. From a distance one sees the possibility of tree trunks against a red setting sun and its reflection on the desert landscape. Up close, a viewer finds small explosions, objects in flight, architectural forms and an urgent intensity. Survival in the desert is its own form of natural selection, and a great example is the tamarisk tree of the Negev desert, which can survive in highly saline conditions. Efrat offers brightly colored adaptations of this sturdy plant, rendered with heat, movement and extremely detailed texture. One of the pieces evokes images of the burning bush, with its ability to simultaneously be on fire yet not be destroyed by the sacred light. Tamarisk (Negev) calls on colors traditionally found in the '70s — harvest gold, avocado green and neon orange — but the resulting landscape is modern, fresh and highly interpretive. Ktzi'ot Prison on the Moon (Negev) serves as a bridge between the artist's previous linear works and his current experiments with color. His portrayal of the Ansar detention camp, veiled in secrecy, is rendered in cool, barren grays. He has scraped away the paint to emulate barbed wire and painted the expansive desert outside with verdant greens, holding hope for the promise of freedom. Through April 4. 3901 Main, 713-526-7800, inmangallery.com. — ST

"Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist" The title is formidable and the four huge 17th-century tapestries, made for a convent in Madrid and now on the walls of cavernous Cullinan Hall at MFAH, are indeed spectacular, but the real stars of this show — six small panel paintings from the Prado Museum, by Flemish artist/diplomat Peter Paul Rubens, used as designs for the tapestries — aren't just spectacular (such a Barnum & Bailey-sounding word), they're magnificent. There are lots of highfalutin' reasons to take time from your busy modern life to see this old stuff that isn't even French or Italian, reasons having to do with art history, religious history, political history — yada yada yada. The real reason is that the paintings are just so damn gorgeous. They are proof positive that "rubenesque" doesn't refer just to plump pink allegorical ladies showing a bit too much. Here the colors are lush; the brushwork is fluid; the compositions and foreshortenings are marvels. And the details — amazing: a cockatoo in the place where you might expect to see the dove of the Holy Spirit; a horse in the midst of turmoil biting his own leg (to scratch an itch?); an amazing celestial chorus line of angels and horses; a dark contorted bug-eyed head being crushed beneath chariot wheels that looks like the sketch for a Goya black painting. Ever since Rubens, artists have been looking closely at his work, and this is our chance to do so, too. Through May 10. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. — RT

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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.
Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney