Capsule Reviews

"African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection" This show is filled with fresh, smart and gorgeous work. But like every individual collection, it represents one person's taste and point of view. Jean Pigozzi began collecting contemporary African art 15 years ago; his private collection, the Contemporary African Art Collection, usually resides in Geneva. "African Art Now" includes the marvelously hyperreal and intoxicatingly colored paintings of the Democratic Republic of Congo's Chri Samba, one of the world's best-known and most in-demand African artists; Beninese artist Romuald Hazoum's masks and installations made out of found plastic gas canisters; Philip Kwame Apagya's photos of Ghanaians standing in front of backdrops; and the fanatically detailed futuristic machines of Abu Bakarr Mansaray, from war-torn Sierra Leone. It's an amazing show in many ways, but not everyone is thrilled by it. Otabenga Jones & Associates protested in front of the MFAH on the exhibition's opening night. Collective members Robert Pruitt and Jamal Cyrus held signs that said, "You cannot contain our blackness in your white box, give me concepts or give me death" and, pointedly to Dubya, et al., "Africa is not a country." Speaking for the collective, Pruitt says they feel the exhibition "reinforces certain ideas about African art" because of Pigozzi's focus on "what we would call naive or folk art here." It is a focus that tries to avoid work by artists with academic art training -- and apparently women, with only two in the show. Pruitt makes an important point. Why is the museum allowing one Swiss guy's taste to become the definition of African art? Should this show be titled "African Art Now?" or "A Random Assortment of 33 Artists from 15 Countries in a Very Large Misunderstood Continent"? Through May 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

"Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet" Most artists have little scraps of drawings and doodles lying around their studios, and they usually get tossed. But Ellsworth Kelly grouped them, mounted them and framed them to create Tablet (1948-1973), which is being exhibited alongside some of Kelly's paintings and sculptures in "Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet," on view at the Menil Collection. Tablet is not just a practical solution for preserving and presenting an artist's studio ephemera; it is a fascinating record of one man's artistic thought process and the way he views the world, presented through the little detritus of life. The project started in 1973 when Kelly, having just moved into a new studio, started unpacking all the bits and pieces he'd boxed up at the old place. Sifting through all those little doodles, he saw images that had later found their way into his abstract paintings, his shaped, monochromatic canvases and his sculptures. In the Menil show, chief curator Matthew Drutt's sparing selection of Kelly's paintings and sculptures provides a context for the sketches and ephemera. Tablet 89 focuses on arcing and angled lines. Kelly has cut a color picture from a magazine; it depicts a dark V-neck sweater with white bands around the neck, arms and hem. The artist excised the bands, drawing them as disembodied forms on a sheet of lined notebook paper. Green Angle (1970), a 20-foot-long, shaped canvas on the wall in the same gallery, could be the V-neck drawing inverted. It's intriguing that this painting, with its huge scale and dynamic presence, may have had its origins in a dorky 1960s pullover. Through May 8. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Homemaid" Upstairs in the divided Mezzanine Gallery at Lawndale Art Center is Julia Ousley's "Homemaid." Ousley has excised organically shaped sections of Sheetrock and neatly and concentrically stacked them so they look like a 3-D topographical map. Painted white, they grow out of and into Sheetrock walls, accumulate on the floor and fill up a corner. The walls are set in a "T" shape -- walk behind, and you see the unpainted reverse of the forms as well as a large concave amoeboid form that looks like the topography of a small pond. The rear view isn't quite as interesting or as necessary, but it's not bad. The nicely undulating forms of the painted section work best. It's a tight installation, but don't read Ousley's artist's statement. Calling the concave forms "womb-like" is really stretching it, as is trying to make the piece a comment upon modern women "torn between home and family and full participation in the world at large." Ousley went to college in the late '70s and early '80s -- tellingly, there's also a pomo reference in her statement -- and apparently still feels compelled to put a feminist spin on her work. That's fine if it's actually a part of the work, but here it seems irrelevant, except in the artist's own mind. Through May 7. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858.

"I Could Build Rome in a Day" J Hill is showing some provocative new work in the rear gallery at Lawndale Art Center. Lately, he's been playing with ideas of home and domesticity. (In a piece at Project Row Houses, he slipcovered a row house in clear plastic.) The first piece you see is the text of the show's title engraved in brass on a black plaque, a witty work that sets a scrappy, can-do tone. On one wall of the gallery is a stereo playing an audio track incorporating ambient sounds recorded from Hill's daily life: Tinkling music from his daughter's music box intermingles with scraps of Nirvana and not-quite-audible conversation. A photograph of part of the wood framing of a house is hung on an opposite wall, and mounted in the ceiling next to it is a "hypersonic sound projector"; when you stand under it, you hear the sound of voices and a running shower. The use of audio is interesting, and it feeds into the domestic and autobiographical themes, but it doesn't completely click with the other works. The show needs some sort of unifying element that would cinch everything together into an installation. The real gem is the video projection on the back wall. Hill sings his life story to the tune of "Camptown Races" while wearing clown makeup and a rainbow wig (yes, you read that correctly) in a close-up head shot. Hill's abbreviated account of his life goes from his being a kid who was "short and plump" and nicknamed "Stump" to an artist, husband and father. It's clever and touching and ballsy. Through May 7. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer