Capsule Reviews

"Deep Wells and Reflecting Pools" David McGee combed through the Menil's vast holdings, seeking to create a dialogue between selected works. He chose ancient to modern art and objects related to people of African descent -- everything from a fifth-century BC Greek vessel to a certificate from a slave auction to a lithograph of Angela Davis. His choices and arrangement of the works become a pointed study in contrasts. Some works "ennoble" their subjects -- which can be patronizing and paternalistic -- and others basely objectify and exploit them. McGee sought to "take the art out" of the exhibition, focusing instead on cultural and historical import rather than aesthetics. But as a painter, he's still susceptible to painting's charms. A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo-A Fact Which Occurred in America, 1809 confronts visitors as they enter the Menil Collection. English artist George Dawe painted it in 1810, and it's beautifully and masterfully executed. But Dawe gives us the face of the buffalo, not the face of the man. The animal is more of an individual than he is. Faceless, Dawe's "Negro" has no name. There's also a bust of famed 20th-century Renaissance man Paul Robeson, which McGee placed opposite a carved wooden head of Nat Turner, with bulging glass eyes and rope marks around his neck. Nearby, a formal, stuffy 18th-century portrait hangs on the same wall as a receipt from a slave auction for a man, woman and sorrel horse ($700, $333 and $40, respectively). McGee uses these and other cultural and artistic artifacts to create a complex, disturbing and provocative exploration of race. Through June 12. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Inversion" It looks like someone shot a giant cannon at the old Art League studio building on Montrose -- you can see straight through it. Called Inversion, it's an amazing, traffic-stopping project; the elderly wooden bungalow has been transformed into a piece of art instead of an art studio. The culprits, Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, took the siding off the exterior of the building and used it to build a giant funnel-like tunnel that organically curves its way through the building. It looks like a wooden mold for a tornado. The site-specific work is up for only a limited time, until the demolition crew arrives to bulldoze the house to make way for a new Art League building sometime in mid-June. If only people had done something this great with the hundreds of other bungalows that have been obliterated in Montrose's town-home-ification. Through sometime in June. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530.

"Michael Nye: Fine Line" Michael Nye wants you to understand that "mental illness is not caused by a weakness of character" and that "mental illness is treatable." The artist has produced a series of striking, thoughtful photographic portraits of people with various degrees of mental illness. Knowing these are pictures of the mentally ill, we scrutinize them, looking for clues. Some look "normal," some don't, and some seem just a little off. Nye understands that we judge people by their appearances, and because of that, he has included their voices. Under each portrait is a set of headphones attached to a box that lists the person's name. You press a button on the box under the portrait of a woman named Adrianne and hear her calmly describe what schizophrenia feels like, when it started, how it changed her life and how it made her see the devil himself. John, also schizophrenic, tells us about when he went to college at Purdue. His roommate moved out because John was too weird. In these frank, poignant stories we see how people have been afflicted by and have striven to overcome these illnesses. Through June 5 at the Houston Center for Photography, 1441 West Alabama, 713-529-4755.

"The Orgies Mysteries Theater" Do you faint at the sight of blood? Here's a tip: Skip the Herman Nitsch show at the Station. It presents enough images of blood and guts to make an abattoir look like a paper cut. Nitsch is one of the core members of the Vienna Actionists, a group of artists who had their heyday in the '60s. His performances often use the bodies, blood and organs of food animals -- sheep, pigs, etc. -- that were (humanely) killed. They eat the animal afterward -- waste not, want not. Documentation of the events shows naked women and men blindfolded and/or restrained, with carcasses dripping on them or offal draped over their genitalia. But the sole point of the work isn't sensationalism, although that's an obvious by-product. In Nitsch's case, he presents his work as a link to something primal and base, providing a catharsis similar to that supposedly provided by horror movies. As the theory goes, if you immerse yourself in what you fear and what repulses you, you will transcend it. The work on view at the Station presents photographs, videos, objects and paintings. The spectacle of the artist's performances comes across best in a wall projection of rapidly changing images accompanied by an anarchic, oompah-pah, processional score composed by Nitsch. Sound is a big, and effective, part of the artist's work. The gory images move in time with the music, in such quick succession that you separate from what they actually are and instead focus on the spectacle. Through June 25. 1502 W. Alabama, 713-529-6900.

"Virgil Grotfeldt: The Remains of the Hand" They're photographs, they're paintings, they're both...Virgil Grotfeldt's most recent work uses photographs as both point of departure and end product. For the most striking group of images, photographs of nanoparticles brought to him by a student who worked in the science department at Rice University became intriguing grounds for his paintings. Using thinned oil paint, Grotfeldt created gorgeous, undulating strokes of translucent pigment over the tiny dark particles set in the midst of a white ground. He then scanned the finished products and reproduced them on a large scale (47 inches by 37 inches) as digital prints. In another series, Grotfeldt makes use of a collection of aerial photographs in a friend's Amsterdam studio. Taken in the '50s, they presented expanses of landscape in the then-Belgian Congo. There are some lovely images, but an even larger scale would be still more striking. The remnants of the images' past lives -- the numbering from the science photographs and the technical information framing the aerial images -- are distracting. Heightening the mystery of their origins would let viewers lose themselves in visual splendor. Through June 11 at Sicardi Gallery, 2246 Richmond, 713-529-1313.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer