Capsule Reviews

"Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse" Bill Traylor and William Edmondson are two African-American artists whose work came to the attention of the art world and the broader public in the late 1930s because of its modern aesthetic. This Menil exhibition explores the modernist aspects of their work. Traylor was born into slavery in 1854. In 1939, at age 85, he began to make art on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. He made drawings, amazing drawings. His figures are abstracted into silhouettes or flat forms and patterns. Traylor was a keen observer of life, and rather than conveying a static geometry, his angular images of people are wonderfully attenuated and animated as they work, fight, talk and gesture. In contrast to Traylor's elegant, two-dimensional linearity, Tennessee artist William Edmondson's sculptures emphasize a solid, rounded geometry. Created from chunks of stone from demolished Nashville buildings, the figurative works aren't about creating an illusion that stone has turned to flesh. Rather than defying the blocky, massive qualities of his material, Edmondson embraced them. It has been easier for the American art world to deal with African-American artists in a paternalistic manner rather that treating them as equals. Traylor and Edmondson did not intend their work to participate in the modernist dialogue, but if something looks and smells like modernism, does that make it so? Depending on how you define modernism, there can also be something patronizing and elitist in trying to tie their work into the movement, as if doing so somehow elevated their work. Traylor and Edmondson's art is powerful, and it remains so regardless of what we decide to call it. Through October 2. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"David Simpson: Iridescent -- Interference" Seventy-seven-year-old David Simpson has been painting abstractly since the 1950s and was included in the famed 1964 exhibition "Post Painterly Abstraction" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was organized by Clement Greenberg, the czar of modernism. One wonders what the anti-minimalist Greenberg would have to say about Simpson's work 40 years on, given that it has become decidedly minimal. In this exhibition, Simpson makes minimalist paintings with a lush, iridescent beauty. Using layers of color and interference pigments that have the ability to refract light, Simpson creates paintings that shimmer like fish scales. Their burnished surfaces glow, and their colors shift according to the light in the room and the position of the viewer. A painting that appears lavender will shift to pink or gray. The works are quietly beautiful. No word on what Greenberg is doing in his grave. Through October 30. Gallery Sonja Roesch, 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424.

"Gego, Between Transparency and the Invisible" Gego was the Venezuelan avant-garde artist formerly known as Gertrud Goldschmidt. Sculptures, drawings, prints and collages by the artist are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The woman who would become a major figure of the Latin American avant-garde was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1912. After the Kristallnacht in 1938, she escaped to Caracas. In looking at her work, you can see evidence of Gego's Germanic training in architecture, engineering and drafting. Line is the dominant element in her art. But the lines she uses warp and subvert notions of geometric and mechanical precision, thwarting and relaxing them. For an untitled 1970 work, Gego used a ruler to draw an anal-retentive grid of angled lines. But then she disrupted the crisp regularity of the diamond-shaped cells of the grid. Cell by cell, she bisected each one with a tentative, hand-drawn line. In a similar untitled 1966 work, she covered a page with two ruled grids of lines. They look like they should meet in the center of the page, but they're intentionally off. With a careful, purposeful line, Gego carefully traced around where the lines should meet. In these drawings, she's setting up an expectation of precision and then subtly and delicately undermining it. Gego mastered the skills and precision demanded by her fields of study but comfortably discounted them, like a classically trained musician who strays and improvises. In her series "Drawings Without Paper," Gego used wire to break free from the page. Using random scraps like old coat hangers, she created whimsical drawings in space. In her later years, Gego was afflicted with arthritis and could no longer work with wire. She turned instead to paper, creating tejeduras by cutting strips from old catalogs and magazines and weaving them together in loose grids. Her pursuit of line continued unabated. Through September 25. 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

"Perspectives 147: Adrian Paci Adrian Paci hired a professional mourner for his video The Weeper (Vajtojca) (2002), one of the strongest works in the artist's show at the Contemporary Arts Museum. The artist left Albania with his family in 1997, fleeing the country's post-communist strife. In the video, set in his native land, Paci arrives at the vajtojca's home and changes into a dark suit while she carefully arranges a sheet over a Soviet-esque day bed. Paci lies down on the bed and neatly folds his hands over his stomach as the vajtojca sits in a chair beside him. She drapes a scarf over her head and begins to mourn. The mourner weeps for his children and for his exile through a poem she wrote. When she is finished, the corpse, Paci, rises from the dead to shake her hand, and they embrace. The ironic yet poignant work mourns the fate of a country as well as the fate of an individual. Through October 2. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

"The Splendor of Ruins in French Landscape Painting, 1630-1800" If you have a thing for classical ruins and fussy 17th- and 18th-century French painting, this is the show for you. The paintings abound with Greek and Roman architecture in scenic states of decay, but there are some unexpected images in the cavalcade of academic classicism. Biblical scenes seem to have been an excuse for many of the artists to wallow in verdantly overgrown architectural splendor. Pierre-Antoine Patel, also known as Patel the younger, painted Landscape with Classical Ruins and Figures -- the title is self-explanatory. The painting is dominated by crumbled columns and temple ruins lit with a warm, golden light -- you almost miss the tiny figures in the foreground. The exhibition catalog says the work appears to be the Stoning of Stephen from the New Testament. Squint at the tiny figures, and it does seem that one of them is about to brain the other with a rock. (Isn't smashing people in the head with a rock more of an Old Testament thing?) With its bizarre juxtaposition of miniature, macabre figures with lush landscape and romantic ruins, this painting is one of the exhibition's oddball surprises. Through October 16. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Wyatt Nash: Images of a Pathetic Youth" In this exhibit, growing up is fraught with mishap, angst and fiasco. Wyatt Nash's sculptures re-create a skewed, loosely autobiographical reality out of Styrofoam and joint compound. His life-size objects have a wonderfully strange fleshy-looking finish, whether they depict a hand, an electric drill or a telephone. In his surreal vignettes, failure is the only option: A lawn mower crashes into a street sign; java cascades from an old beige Mr. Coffee appliance; a guitar is lodged in an amp; a chair sits empty by the phone while a squashed bouquet lies on the floor in a litter of cigarette butts. Through September 10. Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer