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.

"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 April 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Double Consciousness" Organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, this show takes on the difficult task of curating a historical overview exhibition around race and a particular approach to art. Many of the works on view, like Adrian Piper's, are conceptual and deal with black issues, while others, like the hard-core conceptual, mathematically based drawings of Charles Gaines, do not. Obviously, African-American artists make a broad range of work that may or may not deal directly with black issues. In the end, the exhibition's works share two things: the race of their maker and a conceptual approach to art-making. Piper's 1988 video Cornered is one of the show's standout works, presenting a brilliant, razor-sharp analysis of racial attitudes and preconceptions in America. She cleanly dissects everyone from the overtly prejudiced to the self-congratulatory liberal. Videos of William Pope.L's performances are also on view. For Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), he sat on a toilet atop a high platform wearing a jock strap, reading The Wall Street Journal and swigging down pieces of it with a gallon of milk. It's the kind of work that shocks and revolts people, but that's part of the point. Houston artists have some impressive works in the show. Bert Long's vibrantly colored ice sculptures are spectacular and enshrined in their own enormous glass-walled freezer. Karen Oliver's 2003 work Bench (seating for one), in which a tiny little metal shelf/seat projects from a massive brick wall, is a study in loneliness and isolation. David McGee's watercolors tellingly combine portraits of hip-hop figures with the names of Dadaist artists. And Robert Pruitt spoofs white corporate pretension and exploitation by displaying a series of clocks set to time zones labeled Watts, Detroit, Haiti, Nyandarua... "Double Consciousness" has brought together some strong and provocative pieces. Through April 17 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer