Capsule Art Reviews: "Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand: Forced Fields," "The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art," "Ruth Pastine: Ever Present," "Jason Salavon: Annex and Catalogue," "Volker Stelzmann: Experimental Arrangements"

"Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand: Forced Fields" The collaborative – and married – duo of Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand make art with their kids. But the results are neither dorky handprint ashtrays nor the prodigy products of driven yuppie parenting. In their installation at the Houston Center for Photography, Magsamen and Hillerbrand project videos over and through giant translucent white balloons, creating a strangely beautiful and otherworldly environment. Their videos capture their children doing stuff like making cookies and eating dough, but you'd be hard-pressed to recognize the activity. Video was shot from below a sheet of Plexiglas and then projected over balloons. In one work, star-shaped sugar cookies become a night sky, and tiny faces become omniscient giants staring from above. Another video features the shadowy bodies of the family embracing a balloon -- a surreal meditation on marriage and parenting. Magsamen and Hillerband, both teaching in the Photo/Digital Media Program at UH, are a recent and exciting addition to the Houston art scene. Through July 13. 1441 W. Alabama, 713-529-4755. — KK

"The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art" Contemporary Arts Museum Houston Senior Curator Toby Kamps organized this show, which brings together art that takes apart our country's self-constructed mythologies and Disney-fied versions of history. The works in the show sniff out the weirdness we've tried to culturally deodorize. Sam Durant's installation Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006) features displays and worn-looking wax figures he purchased from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum in Massachusetts on a divided, slowly rotating circular platform. One side illustrates the famed story of how Native Americans taught the settlers to grow corn by fertilizing it with herring, while the tableau on the other side depicts Captain Miles Standish killing the Pequot man Pecksuot. Cynthia Norton presents Dancing Squared (2004), which uses hidden motors and what looks like an old umbrella clothesline to turn some bouffant square dance dresses into hillbilly whirling dervishes. Kara Walker is known for her appropriation of the genteel 19th-century pastime of silhouette making; her work addresses America's decidedly ungenteel history of slavery. Caricatured figures, both white and black, enact disturbing but satiric scenarios in her video 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005). Kamps has curated a fascinating exhibition that mines a rich and provocative vein of influence in contemporary American art – and culture. Leaving the CAMH, you look with fresh eyes at the weirdness all around you. Through July 20. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — KK

"Ruth Pastine: Ever Present" Ruth Pastine's paintings at Gallery Sonja Roesch have some amazingly subtle coloration going on. What at first seem to be shadows on ostensibly monochromatic minimalist works are actually faint underlays of color. Using a tiny brush and thin layers of paint, Pastine builds up delicate, luminous breaths of color in her work. Playing with the color opposites of red and green in Mobius (2008), she slowly shifts a line of seven small square canvases from a minty green to a rosy pink. At one end, pink burrows into the center of the green and gradually makes it way to the edges in subsequent paintings, while a green seems to simultaneously burrow out from the center of the pink. I'm not quite sure how Pastine pulls these paintings off; when you stand up close and try to "see" the color shifts, everything seems to be one hue. It's only when you step away that the color shifts reveal themselves. Maybe Pastine has a very, very long brush.... Through July 5. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. — KK

"Jason Salavon: Annex and Catalogue" Jason Salavon alters images using software of his own design. In early works, he averaged the colored pixels of ten years of scanned Playboy centerfolds in order to create a fuzzy, vaguely feminine, visual mean. He applied the same tactic to images of homes for sale in Dallas and came up with a vaguely ranch-style product. Recent video pieces by the artist are currently on view at Inman Gallery. Salavon is as smart as ever, but the work is disappointingly protracted. Catalogue to the Sun and Moon (2007) is a video projection of a realistic, digitally rendered living room furnished with "products modeled on the wares of IKEA, Design Within Reach, and other upscale retailers." Apparently, if you hang around long enough, the furniture slowly morphs from one product to another, the coffee table shifting from a simple metal number to a simple wood number, the generically clean-lined sofa shifting from fabric to leather. The overwhelming sameness of mass-produced, tastefully modern furniture is a point to be made, but the evolution is so slow nobody is going to stick around for it. To appreciate it, you'd have to buy the piece and live with it. Making people watch video for an interminable length of time while they wait for something subtle to happen is a tired and annoying strategy. Through July 5. 3901 Main, 713-526-7800. — KK

"Volker Stelzmann: Experimental Arrangements" Former East German painter and art professor Volker Stelzmann uses the stolid figures of Social Realism to create grim scenes of urban isolation – paintings whose dystopian scenes also reference the Weimar Era work of Otto Dix. No one in Stelzmann's paintings makes eye contact; there are clusters of awkwardly rendered individuals rather than united groups – a swipe at socialism's collective mentality. But rather than creating a sense of individual liberty, Stelzmann's figures, with their grayed flesh and expressionless faces, convey loneliness and alienation. Each seems to be in his own trancelike state, staring in a different direction, never making eye contact – not even a dancing couple in a painting seems connected. The only time anyone begins to look at another person is in an image of a woman attacking a man; she looks down toward him but still doesn't quite see him. Stelzmann's dark, unsettling and heavily varnished paintings leave you feeling alienated yourself. Through July 12. Rudolph Projects/ArtScan Gallery, 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836. — KK

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer