Capsule Reviews

"The Big Show" Curator Michael Ray Charles's own work makes clear why his eye was drawn to the pieces he's selected for the Big Show. Known for paintings dealing with African-American history and identification, Charles uses the vernacular of signage to make paintings that resemble old circus and advertising posters and handbills, rendering his figures in the naive manner of folk art. There's a funky folksiness to a fair amount of the work he's selected for this exhibition. Only a few artists appear from previous Big Shows: Denise Ramos, Betsy Odom, Tina Kotrla and Patrick Renner, all crowd and juror favorites. The other 55 are new to me. And that's the point of this show: to bring fresh eyes to the local scene and show something besides a roundup of the usual suspects. The strongest work tends to be among the paintings, especially Mojan Vadie's untitled 2004 oil and Misha Penton's 2003 acrylic work, untitled 2. Still, overall, this Big Show is less successful than last year's. Both have featured a manageable amount of art, never overwhelming you, but this year, too much of the exhibition strikes me as student work: amateurish, self-consciously quirky, half-baked if not completely uncooked, or obvious. Even Renner's circular sculpture Spore (2004) isn't as arresting as earlier work he's shown. Through August 22 at the Art Car Museum, 140 Heights Blvd. For information, call Lawndale Art Center, 713-528-5858.

"Diane Arbus: Revelations" Diane Arbus photographed midgets, giants, transvestites and circus freaks. She also photographed suburban families in their backyards. In her photographs, strangeness is the great equalizer, and she exposes it in seemingly "normal" subjects. "Diane Arbus: Revelations" is a retrospective of her work, with photographs from the 1940s up until 1971, when she committed suicide. The exhibition features iconic as well as lesser-known Arbus images, supplemented by installations with contact sheets, pages from her notebooks, books from her library, copies of correspondence and collages of collected images from her studio. One photograph, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970, shows an enormous, ungainly young man with two tiny, doll-like parents looking up at him. The son is stooped forward, and you wonder if the ceiling is even high enough for him to stand up straight. He leans on a cane, and one huge shoe seems to have an extra-thick sole, to compensate for one massive leg that is shorter than the other. It's a freakish image, defying scale and proportion. As you look at the photograph, you see the wry smile the son gives to his grim-looking parents, the plump mother in her neatly pressed dress, the father dapper in a dark suit with his hand in his pocket. This is no feel-good, triumph-over-adversity story; there is no happy ending. It simply is what it is. None of the photographs on view are comfortable; they make you feel ill at ease, and there's nothing reassuring or nice going on in them. The compassion underlying Arbus's images seems to stem from her understanding that all people are equally strange. Through August 29 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Houston Area Exhibition" Curator Bill Arning's selections for this quadrennial show indicate a sensibility drawn to conceptual work. Installation and video are popular media here, but there's also traditional media, photography and drawing on display. Actually, let's bracket "traditional." Laura Lark's BIG drawings (almost 11 by 7 feet) are done with marker on Tyvek, an industrial paper with a hair-like texture. That's appropriate, because her subjects, which are taken from beauty-product ads in fashion magazines, explore notions of beauty and the role of popular culture in self-image. The fact that the works themselves are beautifully executed gives them added depth. Chad Sager's drawings might have you saying, "My kid could do that!" But -- and I'm sorry -- your kid probably isn't this smart. The simple figures apparently are drawn on ordinary lined stationery; it takes a moment to realize that the lines and the margins themselves are part of the drawing. You might then notice that the unusual whiteness of the paper is a layer of gesso and that the paper is slightly larger than standard size. If you like magicians, you'll appreciate Sager's sleight of hand in these witty drawings. The coherent, challenging, engaging show also features interesting works by Maya Schindler and Hilary Wilder. Through August 29 at the Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston, 713-743-9530.

"Perspectives 142: Boys Behaving Badly" Chloe Piene's short film about a boy in his undies, Little David, is projected onto a wall at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The boy tromps around in the grass, flailing about in an imaginary fight with an invisible adversary. "I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em," he says, using words taken from letters written to the artist by an incarcerated pen pal. "I'm a barbarian." By slowing down the video and putting a murderer's words in her subject's mouth, Piene has shown us how all little boys can be demonic. The work is unique in the way it flip-flops a cliché: Rather than showing us how all murderers were once little boys, Piene has shown us how all little boys could be murderers. The CAMH's literature states that the exhibition "features work that explores the clichés, isms and myths surrounding adolescent male behavior." Too bad many of the other pieces -- like Jen DeNike's wrestling adolescents or Pia Schachter's death-metal guys with a sensitive side -- just wind up being cliché. On the other hand, with his obviously staged photos of skaters, knights, vikings and bullies, Olaf Bruening takes clichés and amplifies them to the level of parody. And Anthony Goicolea does an exceptional job exaggerating, and thus unmasking, typical clichés of male adolescence. In Porn, four clones of the artist himself hang out in a tackily rustic room, watching a kinky lesbo love scene on the television, eating Oreos and drinking beer. One of them signs a cast on the leg of another, writing things like "fart-head," "penis wrinkle," "fuck you" and, of course, "get well soon." Through September 12 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

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John Devine
Kelly Klaasmeyer
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