Capsule Reviews

"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 the 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.

"Indelible Images: Trafficking Between Life and Death" This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston under the direction of Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator of Latin American Art. It's a well-chosen and provocative show featuring politically charged, often poignant works by Latin American and Latino artists. Los Angeles artist Daniel Martinez's TO MAKE A BLIND MAN MURDER FOR THE THINGS HE'S SEEN (Happiness Is Over-Rated) (2002) features an animatronic man crouched in a corner, swiping at his wrists with razor blades and laughing maniacally. Dressed as Martinez's double in the navy-blue work clothes we associate with maintenance workers in the United States, the wrist-slashing janitor becomes a metaphor for desperation spurred by socioeconomic inequality. True to its name, this tight exhibition is filled with ruminations on life and death. Mexican artist Teresa Margolles's art draws attention to the hundreds of women along the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border who have been sexually assaulted, murdered and dumped in the desert. Her DVD Anapra y Cristo Negro (2005) presents nighttime images of the desolate landscape surrounding Ciudad Juárez. Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres is represented with his 1991 sculpture Untitled (For a Man in Uniform), made at the time of the first Gulf War. Gonzalez-Torres, who lost a lover to AIDS and eventually died of it himself, was attuned to death and loss, not to mention the political climate for gay men. The sculpture consists of a mound of lollipops piled in the corner of the room. Viewers are encouraged to take away a piece, slowly disintegrating the "body" represented by the candy. Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz remembers the dead in Pixels (2003), portraits of assassinated men made of sugar cubes painted with coffee -- materials associated with his native country. This is an extremely well curated show built around intriguing ideas and interesting artists. Through April 30. 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

"Julian Schnabel: Amor Misericordioso" Costumed as an eccentric artist, Julian Schnabel wore purple pajamas to the jam-packed opening of his exhibition at McClain Gallery. In his sleepwear, the considerably dimmed '80s art star reportedly greeted the likes of Lynn Wyatt and Carolyn Farb. Schnabel's new show is something one art-world insider delicately characterized as "total dog shit." Not exactly a glowing recommendation, but you have to keep an open mind. Art people can be overly cynical, especially when it involves a target as big as Schnabel. They are big paintings, and size does work to Schnabel's advantage; it creates an immediate aura of importance. It's just that when you start to actually look at the paintings, things fall apart. Most of them are done over giant photo reproductions from parts of a religious print containing text that's also the show's title: "Amor Misericordioso." The phrase translates as "merciful love," a merciful love for the impoverished, sick and uneducated. How exactly that concept ties in to paintings with $300,000 and up price tags is mysterious. The billboard-size blow-up of Spanish catholica is what provides the works their scant visual interest. Over the vastly enlarged partial images of a crown resting on a pillow that reads "Christ the King," Schnabel has sparingly smeared lines of white and cerulean blue paint, scrawled and dripped magenta, and drizzled, dotted and squeegeed resin. This would be the artist expressing himself. The opening, it seems, was the real art. When you strip away all the hype, staging and mythology, what you're left with is a theatrical prop -- a dead thing, devoid of all the factors that made it appealing. Through March 4 at McClain Gallery, 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer