Capsule Reviews

"Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings" Born in Turkish Armenia in 1904, Vosdanik Adoian would grow up to be Arshile Gorky, one of America's most important and influential artists, but he would never forget the land of his birth and the village of his difficult childhood. This intimate retrospective at the Menil Collection follows Gorky's progress from his apprenticeship to the masters through his cubist exercises to his breakthrough in the 1940s. Aided by a return to drawing from nature and abetted by the surrealists, Gorky experienced a creative explosion as he filtered the world before him through his imagination and memory -- he drew on his agrarian childhood for the sinuous shape at the heart of the lyrical The Plow and the Song. The vitality and energy of his drawings make their abrupt cessation (Gorky committed suicide at age 44) all the more poignant. As installed in the Menil, the exhibit has been judiciously edited down from the ungainly sprawl and visual overload of the Whitney's version. Don't miss the drawings of his mother, especially the portrait on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series. Through May 9. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"The Centaur's Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art" Centaurs, satyrs, sphinxes, the Minotaur, gorgons and the like are part of the ancient Greek panoply of half-human, half-animal creatures depicted in this exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. The artifacts provide a stroll back through the stories of Greek mythology, and there are elaborate mytho-genealogical explanations for many of the figures. Suffice to say, the Greeks were pretty freaky -- figures like the centaurs and the Minotaur are the product of human-animal couplings. The exhibition includes a variety of objects, the majority of them vases upon which Greek painters depicted human-animal creations and their stories. One of the standout sculptural objects in the show is a chunky little cast-bronze statuette of a satyr (530-520 BC) squatting down on his cloven hooves. It's a wonderfully comic piece that, appropriately, probably decorated a wine vessel (satyrs were known for being lushes). Flawed but fascinating, the creative and bizarrely fanciful ancient Greeks continue to have a hold on contemporary Western culture. Viewing the show is akin to rooting through their psychological and cultural dresser drawer -- you may find some weird shit, but it'll all be interesting. Through May 16. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Fade In: New Film and Video" This Contemporary Arts Museum exhibition, curated by Paola Morsiani, presents a group of works by eight international artists. American Luis Gispert's installation, Foxy Xerox (2003), is a witty take on the appropriation of hip-hop culture by white America. On one wall, a blond girl in a pale blue terry sweat suit and lots of gold jewelry dances to a hip-hop track. On the opposite wall, we see the same girl in a pink sweat suit, wearing a black wig and blackface, which is, of course, jolting for anybody who didn't grow up in the 1930s. It has obviously unsettling associations, but here Gispert is using it to effectively parody white emulation of black culture. A couple of the pieces could be vastly improved by some editing and self-restraint on the part of the artists. Israeli artist Doron Solomons has a lot of ideas going on in his video Father (2002). There's enough material here for more than one video: computer animation, home videos, news segments, car safety tests and videotaped suicide notes. The artist is commenting on being a father and living in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he's throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Artists have been using film and video since the early 1960s, but at a recent panel on new media in Houston, a local arts professional questioned its worth as an art form. It's a debate most people consider long over. Film and video are tools just like any other. Through July 4. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

"Manual: Two Worlds -- The Collaboration of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom" Artists Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom coined the collaborative pseudonym Manual in the spring of 1974 and have been working as a team ever since. Manual's body of work includes film, video and digital media as well as objects and installations. This watershed show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which hasn't exactly shown a lot of new media art, is presenting a retrospective of their work. It's an important show for Manual, whose role in the evolution of digital art is not widely known. These artworks succeed or fail independent of the technology used to create them. The earlier pieces and pop culture-themed works from the mid-'80s are the most immediately engaging. A quiet sense of loss and lament pervades many of the nature-focused works, but the later "Arcadia" series -- for which they used a computer to insert virtual 3-D constructions into nature scenes -- becomes more of a hermetic intellectual exercise. As Manual explores the natural world and its relationship to man, the pair's desire to avoid stridency and obvious advocacy sometimes results in images that are too measured or ambiguous to engage the viewer. This could be a side effect of the collaboration that has served the duo so well in other aspects. The rough edges of personal idiosyncrasy have been increasingly rounded off in Manual's works. Still, throughout their collaboration, Manual has worked on the cutting edge of new media, and that's not because they're technophiles. Their work isn't about technological showmanship; they simply use technology as a tool. Through May 23. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"17/15: A Selection of Art Made in Houston, 1950-1965" Work from the early days of Houston's contemporary art scene is on view at Brazos Projects, which adjoins Brazos Bookstore. Curated by Bill Lassiter, the show features pieces by 17 artists working between 1950 and 1965, when economic growth yielded support for the burgeoning artistic community. The exhibition has some pleasant surprises, like Jack Boynton's quirky little wood-and-nail sculptures and Ruth Laird's gorgeously modern ceramic vessels in lovely shades of pale blue, cream and white (the vase necks are reminiscent of Henry Moore figures). John Biggers's solidly graceful sculpture depicts the body of a mother enveloping her child. The show also features an elegant linear work by Dorothy Hood, as well as a vividly hued painting of an oil refinery by Frank Freed, an insurance salesman who began making his wonderfully idiosyncratic paintings as a hobby. Exhibition announcements and correspondence from the period help convey the zeitgeist. Through May 16. 2425 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701.

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John Devine
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer