Capsule Reviews

"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). One type of wine vessel on display was used at all-male drinking parties and features two sculptural heads, a satyr on one side and an African on the other. Women were also depicted on these vessels -- but not Greek men, who were, by and large, slave-owning misogynists. 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.

"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.

"Ricas y Famosas" As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "The rich are different from you and me." But if "Ricas y Famosas" is any measure, the rich in Mexico are really freaking different. Photographer Daniela Rossell's portraits of "rich and famous" Mexicans are so shockingly over-the-top that they set off an international scandal. In Mexico, over half the population (53.7 million people) is considered to be living in poverty, but in 1997, a Forbes list of countries with the most billionaires named Mexico as fifth worldwide. Rossell's subjects' homes sport enough gold leaf to guild the Vatican and, as one writer beautifully put it, have "richly detailed theme rooms that would make Elvis weep with envy." Yes, someone chose to be photographed standing on a coffee table in a jeweled leopard-print bikini and flesh-toned fishnet stockings, surrounded by stuffed animals and Asian kitsch. And someone else chose to wear a zebra-print unitard with black sparkly leg warmers while, not coincidentally, crouching on zebra-print sheets, with ceramic zebras and a pile of ostrich eggs decorated with zebras nearby. The subjects treat their photo sessions like some weird amalgam of fashion shoot, soft-core porn, society portraiture and household inventory. These photographs aren't just great because Rossell has access to these people and their homes. She also has a marvelous sense of the theatrical and a knack for dramatic angles and lighting. Rossell takes bizarre environments and pushes them even further. The photographs' depth of field is amazing, with every ornate detail in crisp, voyeuristic focus. The fascinating thing about these works is that they operate on so many different levels. They're all the stronger because Rossell isn't promoting one particular agenda with this glorious cavalcade of kitsch; she lets the images speak for themselves. Through June 13 at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530.

"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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer