Capsule Reviews

"Beth Secor: atavistically speaking" Beth Secor loves to tell stories, writing and delivering funny, poignant and autobiographical monologues. In her visual art, she makes portraits inspired by people's stories. Her current show at Inman Gallery presents a range of people young and old, modern and historic. The paintings are small and tightly cropped, like 15th-century Netherlandish portraits, with the sitters' faces as the primary focus. They're cropped so closely that they leave few context clues to help the viewer pinpoint the works' time periods. Secor builds her paintings up, adding layers of tiny swirling strokes. Her portrait of a chubby, peachy-pink baby is frothy and spot-on. Another work, Henceforth shall be known as Alfred Joseph Marrs (2005), depicts the ruddy, lined face of an old man with close-cropped hair and thin lips set in a firm line. With his face at a three-quarter view, he looks tough and uncompromising -- instead of staring dreamily into the distance, his eyes cut to the side to give the viewer a hard, appraising stare. The collar of his denim workshirt barely makes it into the painting. Whether the conclusions we draw from his face have anything to do with the actual subject is unknown. Secor approaches her portraits with empathy and sensitivity, but they leave us wanting someone to tell us the stories behind the images. It's a satisfying show, but if Secor ever finds a way to integrate her writing with her visual art, it will make for some really amazing work. Through February 18. 3901 Main, 713-526-7800.

"The Birth of a Nation -- Yo! Bum Rush the Show" Dawolu Jabari Anderson's new works at the Art League Houston use D.W. Griffith's infamously racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation as a source of inspiration. Anderson creates large paintings on paper that are reminiscent of vintage comic book covers. Each one has the headline "D.W. Griffith Presents, The Night Rider" in vintage script and lettering, with a muscle-bound white hero in Klan-esque garb defeating menacing black men. The Night Rider brandishes a flaming cross while pursued by winged black men in "Protecting Our Aryan Birth Right from a Negro Nation." In another image, The Night Rider battles it out with the likes of Uncle Ben; Anderson has stripped any PC veneer from Uncle Ben to reveal a racist caricature. In yet another, The Night Rider dukes it out with Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who sparked race riots when he won his title in 1908 and was later jailed for associating with white women. Anderson sums things up with the headlines "The Menacing Nympho Negro" and "Only our Aryan Knight can save the heavy weight championship of the world and the chastity of our white women from the Ethiopian." The paper of Anderson's paintings is tattered and aged, and while the issues are presented in a vintage context, they aren't exactly a thing of the past. White paranoia and demonization of African-Americans continue. Remember the Katrina coverage with black people shown "looting" diapers and water, while white people were said to be "finding" necessary supplies? D.W. Griffith's spirit lives on. Anderson's images are well composed and the text is pointed and savvy. The images have spots of color but are dominated by black line drawings on the yellowed ground. Shown all together, they run together a bit -- a less restrained use of color would make them more dynamic. It's an opportune time for Art League Houston to present his work, as Anderson is a founding member of Otabenga Jones & Associates, and his work and work by the collective will be included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Through March 3. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530.

"Emerging 2" The Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County is presenting its latest exhibition of recent CACHH fellowship recipients. This round includes Jamal Cyrus, a young artist and member of the artists' collective Otabenga Jones & Associates. Cyrus uses found objects -- records, books, bric-a-brac and bricks -- to make sculptures that combine wit and social commentary about "post-King African America." Hair -- black hair -- is one of Cyrus's materials of choice, and he uses it well. For the sculpture Africanismus 023 (2006), Cyrus took some massive '70s-era headphones in bright red-orange and lined them with clumps of hair. It looks like they come complete with their own Afro. At the opening, Cyrus incredulously reported that someone had tried them on, dislodging a pile of stray hair. It's a really funny sculpture about music and identity -- black identity -- and white people trying to appropriate black identity through music. Cyrus's work, as well as his work with fellow members of the collective, has been selected for the prestigious 2006 Whitney Biennial, which will open in March. Through March 1 at Space 125 Gallery, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-9330.

"Virginia Fleck" San Antonio-based Finesilver Gallery has opened its new Houston branch with two exhibitions. Virginia Fleck's show is the standout. Fleck is enamored with the artistic potential of plastic bags, a material generally overlooked, even by inveterate art-materials scroungers. In the past, Fleck has taped together plastic bags to create a giant patchwork balloon, producing a lightweight work she showed in Cuba. Her current series of works plays on mandala forms -- but with shopping bags from chain megastores. There are all the usual suspects -- Wal-Mart, Walgreens, The Home Depot, Target -- as well as generic "Thank You" bags and plastic packaging from toilet paper and My Little Pony. Fleck takes all that consumer detritus and creates enormous circular wall works with multicolored bands that radiate out from the center. It's all held together with dense layers of obsessively applied Scotch tape. Her choice of imagery can be pointed. The creepy Wal-Mart smiley face stares out like a corporate Big Brother. And in allah dollar mandala (2006), Fleck ringed the circle with script Ws from the Walgreens logo because of their similarity to the Arabic script for Allah. The works display a dramatic visual impact peppered with a topical wit. Through February 18. 3913 Main, 713-524-3733.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer