Capsule Reviews

"Insistent Objects: David Levinthal's 'Blackface'" In the art world, a host of contemporary African-American artists have been appropriating racist imagery for their own devices. You might assume David Levinthal was one of them, considering his show at the Menil, which consists of photographs of blackface figures representing a pantheon of grinning racist caricatures. But as it turns out, he is white. Levinthal photographed mammies, Uncle Toms, bartenders, porters, bellhops, cooks, little kids eating watermelon, natives -- with huge red lips and bulging white eyes emerging from coal-black skin. Each is beautifully lit but straightforwardly shot against a dark background. But there doesn't seem to be any commentary in the photographs; they seem more like a display of technical expertise than a conceptual decision. It's hard to understand why anyone would address this kind of subject matter in this way, let alone a white guy. So how does a white artist end up making work with blackface figurines? It's doubtful Levinthal is a racist or that his goal is to glorify racist imagery. Looking at his past work provides an insight into his motivations. Levinthal has a long history of making lush photographs of toys and figurines many people would consider offensive -- from Nazi soldiers to pornographic statuettes of women. But the subjects of his past work have resonated with him; he had something to say about them. It seems this work fails because Levinthal doesn't have any reason to make work about African-American issues other than the impulses that led him to acquire these objects. Recording this stuff without comment doesn't work. People make mediocre photographs all the time, but mediocre photographs about incendiary material can come across as insensitive. Through May 7 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Portraits" and "Purse Portraits" Do you mind if people look in your medicine cabinet? How about if they peer at the contents of your purse? Well, two photographers are doing just that, presenting intimate -- but anonymous -- portraits of people through the stuff in their bathrooms and purses. Coke Wisdom O'Neal's "Portraits" and Chuck Ramirez's "Purse Portraits" at Finesilver Gallery are full of nosy and intriguing images. O'Neal lives in New York and has a day job photographing architecture for a real estate company, a gig that gives him unfettered access to the homes of complete strangers. An inveterate medicine-cabinet peeper, he's channeled it into his art, photographically documenting the objects of his snooping. He prints the images life-size, mounts them on the back of Plexiglas and hangs them away from the wall, just like the real thing. He has duplicated the experience of voyeurism just for us. Looking at the images, you naturally try to picture the person behind each cabinet. So, um, who has five huge jars of Vaseline? An obsessive hoarder? Ramirez also explores intimate territory. He photographs purses in lush color against a white background and prints them up to five feet high. High Times (Rudy) (2005) actually depicts a "murse," or man-purse. It's a gorgeous leather briefcase containing a copy of High Times magazine, the arts section of The New York Times and a copy of The Economist. There's a rolled-up tie, a Continental OnePass Elite membership card and a tin of "Embarassmints" with the top of Bush's head barely revealed. The contents create the portrait of an affluent, well-traveled, left-wing guy who likes to smoke weed. Through May 13. 3913 Main, 713-524-3733.

"Take One" There is a lot of work to sort through in this exhibition, but your best bets are the uniformly crackpot DVDs. Singing, bubonic plague-carrying ground squirrels, anyone? Get 'em while they last. CORE program critical studies fellow Domenick Ammirati asked visual artists (as well as writers, graphic designers, musicians...) to produce a work in multiple for the show, to be distributed to each and every visitor. Visually, the result isn't exactly overwhelming, and the financial constraints of producing hundreds of copies of something are obvious. While there are a couple of stacks of DVDs and one of CDs, the majority of participants went in big for Xeroxed pages tacked to the wall with piles of extra copies on the floor. Among the stapled sheaves of paper are short stories and political information, including an advance chapter from an upcoming book by T. Christian Miller about the Iraq war and private contractors. This contribution is locally relevant, as it focuses on truck drivers for KBR and the risks they endure -- 11 killed as of August 2004. On the lighter side, Laura Lark contributed a board game for visitors to play. Roll the dice and advance to a colored space, then draw a corresponding card bearing an aphorism collected by the artist: "Pretty Is as Pretty Does" or "God Doesn't Make Junk." The show is worth exploring, but even though it fits into the Glassell's tiny Upstairs Project Space, it requires quite a time commitment. If you wind up with way too many Xeroxes, Jonathan Horowitz's piece functions as a paper recycling station. Through May 7. Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7500.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer