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.

"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.

"Luis Tomasello" With this exhibition of works, Sicardi Gallery brings yet another little-known Latin American master of avant-garde work to the attention of Houston. Luis Tomasello's body of optically kinetic art is rooted in three-dimensional form. He attaches 3-D, geometric objects to panels that hang on the wall like paintings. The attachments physically alter and activate the picture plane. It's like creating a topographic map of an abstract painting. The artist's fascination lies in the way light strikes these protrusions, changing the appearance of the work. The Sicardi exhibition is dominated by white-on-white works that use the simple materials of wood and paint to create optical effects. When color does appear in the whiteness of the show, it is judiciously and subtly doled out. Tomasello is much more interested in reflections of color than in pigment itself. In works such as Atmosphere Chromoplastique No. 315 (1973), Tomasello paints color on the back sides of polyhedrons anchored to the surface. The viewer hardly ever sees the color, only its reflection on the white surface. Tomasello's art is dominated by his interest in form, pattern and subtle, reflected color. The way light hits his works and creates shadows continually alters their appearance. The decidedly low-tech materials he uses are an intriguing aspect of his work. There's something appealing and down-to-earth about taking a humble, imprecise natural material and trying to create geometric precision out of it. Through August 27. 2246 Richmond, 713-529-1313.

"POPulence" This show is filled with pop-fueled, beautifully crafted opulence -- think bright, vibrant colors; lush imagery; glossy, perfect surfaces. A lot of those glossy surfaces come from a liberal use of resin. It's not just for entombing ephemera on tables in theme restaurants anymore; it's a cool material with kitsch appeal. And the resin effects in the show are pretty amazing. Fred Tomaselli follows in the restaurant-decor tradition with works that encase unlikely objects. His art would be wonderfully suited for a drug speakeasy. In 13,000 (1991), there are, allegedly, 13,000 aspirin tablets lined up on a black panel between slats, creating a striped painting. In another piece, a brain is made out of pills and tablets set against a black background. Tomaselli creates lovely, fanciful works with a fascinating "insect in amber" quality. In her vividly colored abstract works, Kim Squaglia uses resin in layers to physically separate her loose, organic, painted forms and to create a sense of depth. Veloce (2004) has lyrical swirls and drips, while Turquine (2005) uses poured veils of clean color. They're lovely paintings. The matte resin makes them feel like objects rather than images. The other resin proponent in the show is L.C. Armstrong. Armstrong's paintings, Happy Hour -- Heaven (2004) and Sunrise over Sleepwalkers (2005), are filled with lush tropical flowers of the Hawaiian-shirt variety set against backgrounds of water, sunsets and sunrises. And Chiho Aoshima is also into glossy surfaces -- her digitally produced images are undermounted to Plexiglas for added luster. Other featured artists take their work in a different direction. There's Rachel Hecker's cartoon-explosion paintings, Beatriz Milhazes's labored, ornate surfaces filled with concentric circular designs, and Lari Pittman's jam-packed works, which draw heavily on early-'60s cartoons and graphic design. There are a couple of clunkers, too, but "POPulence" is definitely worth a visit. Through August 27 at the Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston, 713-743-9530.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer