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.

"Perspectives 149: It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" isn't only rock and roll. The exhibition features almost 200 photographs of figures from the history of rock, but there's also a smattering of greats from hip-hop, folk, jazz, soul...It's the kind of show that would make a nice coffee-table book. But it's interesting to see in its entirety, with the subjects staring out at the viewers. The mainly black-and-white exhibition is hung salon-style, and the walls are jam-packed with images. It's filled with photos of music legends, taken when they were young, naive and unaware of what the future had in store for them. There's sexagenarian Mick Jagger looking like he's 12, a 1978 shot of Prince in a big Afro and a really dorky wedding photograph of Ringo Starr. In another image, Ike and Tina Turner pose beside a smiling painted portrait of themselves -- and Ike isn't smiling. There's a gorgeous color shot by photography great Lee Friedlander: a close-up of Aretha Franklin singing in a lime-green sweater, lavender eye shadow and Marlo Thomas hair. There are also people you forgot about...anybody remember Grace Jones? And there are photographs of the doomed Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Frank Zappa, Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Elvis... Through January 22 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

"Round 23" For the latest round of installations at Project Row Houses, Michael Golden has hung hundreds (maybe thousands) of keys inside one row house, covering an entire wall with these multicolored bits of metal. More keys dangle from other walls, placed there by visitors who have written their hopes and secrets on tags attached to them. The visual effect is appealing enough, but the accompanying literature drips more cheese than a plate of soggy nachos. "This installation explores the key as a metaphor to unlocking dreams and locking up secrets," it reads. If this project were in a museum, it probably would upset the stomachs of even the most lactose-tolerant, but at PRH it somehow works, especially when you see how many people have participated. In his space, artist Jimmy Kuehnle has set up 30 televisions, all stacked up and strewn about at odd angles. Tiny cameras are placed around the house, filming visitors and feeding the TVs. The trick is that the televisions are set up so you can never see yourself; every time you get within view of a monitor, you've just walked out of range of its corresponding camera. The installation is clever and does make a statement about how we're monitored all the time without knowing it, but it's pretty straightforward; there's little room for nuance in the confines of this house. Then again, it's easy to imagine how much fun could be had in there by the kids of the single mothers staying in the row houses across the courtyard. Then there's Kaneem Smith's installation, which deals with the unknown in a palpable way. She has covered the floor of her house in dirt and gravel, and from the ceiling hangs what looks like a large curtain of burlap. But as you walk around the curtain, trying to see what's on the other side, you end up right back where you started; it's a closed loop, a clever trick. And it's easily the most interesting installation in this round. Through February 28. 2500 Holman, 713-526-7662.

"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.

"Whatever you thought, think again: Feed Your Head with Cerealart & Installation by J. Hill" Mackey Gallery's current show is geared toward holiday shopping. A lot of other galleries have a similar strategy as they present a grab bag of artists from their stable for seasonal consumerism. But Mackey's show is a witty, hip and frank approach to Christmas/ Hanukkah/Kwanza commerce. The art goods are from Cerealart, a company that manufactures decorative and household objects designed by some big-ticket artists. Everything is presented in an installation by J. Hill, who painted the gallery a butterscotch color with a forest of slender silver tree trunks. He included big Styrofoam chunks of "ice" and piles of silica "snow" for maximum winter wonderland-ness. The show's objets include a green resin dog and a purple resin cat by '80s graffiti artist Kenny Scharf. Japanese pop master Yoshitomo Nara contributes an ashtray with a big-eyed little girl puffing a cigarette and the words "Too young to die." His equally pop countrywoman Momoyo Torimitsu takes the giant inflatable rabbits from her installations and transforms them into cookie jars in lime, tangerine and pale blue. Marcel Dzama has his own ceramic canisters, little weird melting snowmen that disappear into the floor. The gallery is also selling a gallery, a one-sixth-scale replica of the world's smallest gallery, The Wrong Gallery, in New York. The original was essentially a glass door with about a foot of space behind it. The replica includes the glass door, a brick facade and a light to illuminate your curatorial choices. It's a fun show with some nice artist-designed objects in an appropriately arty environment. Through January 28. 5111 Center, 713-850-8527.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer
Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek