Capsule Reviews

"Darren Waterston: Chimera" Waterston's show presents an ambitious, site-specific wall work and several of his lush and gorgeously atmospheric paintings. Running over three walls, the mural, also called Chimera, is the artist's first in a commercial space. Its imagery includes pale blue snaking forms, clusters of black tadpoles/spermatozoa swimming across the wall and translucent swirls of gray paint floating and trailing, umbilical-like cords. The mural incorporates an array of Waterston's fluid, calligraphic, organic and altogether otherworldly imagery. But it feels too stark on the white wall, and though it isn't badly composed, it ultimately comes across as some sort of hip interior design, especially in comparison to the richness of his oil-on-panel works, such as Phantasm (2004), which is phenomenally more successful. Paintings like Two Moons (2004) have sensual layers of color that make you want to be enveloped by them. And Specter (Orange) (2004) has a floating and looping calligraphic orange line that feels like a rococo fragment set free in the atmosphere. It's a carefree flourish among the artist's thin, meditative veils of color. Waterston makes some beautiful works -- he's just not at his best when painting on walls. Through September 4 at Inman Gallery, 3901 Main, 713-526-7800.

"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.

"Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" If you go to this exhibition expecting to see works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, you'll be disappointed. By emphasizing important but perhaps less familiar artists -- indeed, many of the works on display have rarely, if ever, been shown in the United States -- the exhibition makes the argument that Latin American art has played a more central role in the vanguard of 20th-century art than it's gotten credit for. Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea and filling every spare inch of the Caroline Wiess Law Building at the MFAH, the show comprises more than 200 works by 67 artists. But it isn't a survey in any sense of the word. Instead, "Inverted Utopias" focuses on the two periods when the avant-garde really was avant -- the '20s and '30s, and again in the '50s and '60s -- and is arranged into six "constellations," thematic groupings that show artists from different generations together. The constellation is a rich organizing principle. As you move from grouping to grouping, connections are made between themes, practices and generations. "Progression and Rupture" includes Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García, who first appears in "Universal and Vernacular," but also Lygia Clark (1920-1988), a Brazilian conceptualist almost two generations younger. She also appears, with very different work, in "Touch and Gaze" (most of that constellation, by the way, is interactive -- yeah, that means you get to play with the art). There's so much more in this groundbreaking exhibit -- Julio Le Parc's mesmerizing light murals; Cildo Meireles's playful subversion of your senses in Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975); Antonio Berni's wonderfully hideous Sordidness -- than there is space here to consider it. It's not often that an exhibition makes you rethink what you know about art, but "Inverted Utopias" may just be that rare event. Through September 12. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Olafur Eliasson: Photographs" Olafur Eliasson presents a world with a quietly powerful, contemplative and fascinating beauty. For his exhibition at the Menil Collection, he's taken photos of Iceland and grouped them in grids, creating series of images and recording his movements though landscape -- over a trail, down a river. He creates what are essentially portraits of the natural and man-made phenomena he explores: chunks of intensely blue glacial ice, boulders, broken stones, bridges. Portraits of rocks may sound boring as hell, but his carefully examined presentation makes them fascinating. Nature's incredible variety is a patently obvious concept, but Eliasson explores it without heavy-handedness. You go through the same process of discovery he did in taking his pictures, editing them and grouping them together. The path series (1999), a grid of 24 photographs, depicts lush green grass worn away to reveal rich, dark earth, footsteps embossed in a line in the snow, and a trail burnished into a desolate stony field. It's a record of different landscapes and a document of the artist's walk through his environment. And what a strange environment it is. In The moss valley series (2002), a grid of 16 large photographs records sections of rocky, moss-covered earth. The undulating carpets of dull green look like NASA shots of an alien landscape. They're beautiful and just a little bit creepy. The landscape series (1997) has some lovely images, but the scenic shots aren't as compelling because they're not as specific as his other investigations. Eliasson's work is at its best when parameters are more closely defined. Through September 5. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"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 Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

"Round 20 Artist Installations" Project Row Houses has always been as much about community as art, so it's not surprising that the idea of community should run through most of its new exhibitions. For its decade-long existence, PRH has used art to advocate for Third Ward residents, working to reclaim and revitalize the neighborhood -- and helping to build the pride of place that's encouraged residents to resist developers who've tried to move in. All over the Third Ward, you can see signs warning that "The Third Ward is our home and it's not for sale." Six installations make up the current round, counting an ongoing workshop that's making mosaic-covered benches for the neighborhood (they're starting out with just four, but the plans are ambitious). The rest are by artists both local and national. One of them, Seed House, is part of a larger project three years in the making, an exhibition and landscaping plan for PRH and the neighborhood. The installation serves as something of a progress report, with a neighborhood model, a Big Book of Ideas, books hanging from the ceiling, copies of a field guide to the neighborhood and, in one corner, a domestic arrangement of chairs and tables. If some of Seed House seems a bit cutesy, it still effectively makes the case that a community will grow with planning and nurturing, not by letting developers do whatever the hell they want and hoping for the best. Through September 5. 2500 Holman, 713-526-7662.

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John Devine
Kelly Klaasmeyer
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Keith Plocek
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