The standout piece in Debra Barrera's debut show at Moody Gallery isn't one of her meticulously detailed black-and-white drawings (though those are very good) or unusual car door-balloon installation. No, it's a little red rearview mirror near the back on the gallery's wall.
Titled For Dorothy Levitt, the found sculpture, taken from a 1986 Pontiac Firebird, is named after the inventor of the rearview mirror. Levitt is known for more than that, though. She was a "motorina," a pioneer of female motoring and the most successful British female racer during the turn of the 20th century. She also notably advised women to carry a little hand-held mirror when they drive so they can see what's behind them at all times in her book The Woman and the Car -- the first documented use of what became known as the rearview mirror.
For me, what's so interesting about this piece, in addition to its being an elegant little homage to the kickass lady driver, someone I'm only just learning about now, is the sight of the mirror on its own. It's so rare to see it not attached to a car that, by itself, you can really consider its unique shape, form and angle. It's a neat little formal piece.
With a waiting list for future editions, the mirror is one of the most popular pieces here. That's saying a lot. The Houston artist's debut solo show is filled with a lot of strong material that references the automobile, a subject of Barrera's for the past year. In particular are her graphite drawings of old car models that come loaded with their own personal histories and associations. Skoda Favorit over Toroweap depicts a car headed toward imminent doom off the canyon's edge, frozen beautifully in time. El Camino on the Moon (Apollo 19) is a surrealist drawing depicting the mission and the model from that year, hood open for repairs, on the surface of the moon, making for a funny contrast of American ingenuity. Princess Grace Drives in Monaco is a nod to the car that Grace Kelly crashed in 1982, resulting in her untimely death. Destruction seems to always be a few seconds away in Barrera's drawings.
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Another significant part of Barrera's show are photographs from her "Salvage Yard Documentation Series." The suite was the catalyst for this show, and the images depict the left-behind remains from cars in auto salvage yards. There's a Precious Moments bible, a pile of dirty balloons, a Mr. Goodbar pencil from 1986, a yellow air freshener, a tiara and Jay-Z's memoir, "Decoded," all starkly photographed as if for some forensic file. These are items that weren't worth salvaging from cars not worth keeping themselves, though thanks to Barrera, they live on like timepieces.
Other works in the show, titled "Kissing in Cars, Driving Alone," toy with this idea of cars as time capsules. In particular, I'd rather have a Lamborghini than memories is a circular suitcase spray-painted Gallardo Blue, just like the luxury car. It's apparently filled with travel mementos of the artist -- movie and airline tickets, museum guides, restaurant mints, a love letter and a diamond bracelet (presumably a gift from an ex flame, too). This is the most romantic component of the rather romantically named show -- the suitcase is filled with memories and history, a rearview mirror to the artist's past.
Not all the works are as successful. A lime-green medical walker is confusing and out of place. Cases filled with air fresheners aren't much more than just that. And a random video of a rocket launch was included based mostly, it seems, on a bit of coincidence in timing, as it's connected to her "Drive Me There and Back Again" piece, the next installment of the Blaffer Art Museum's downtown "Window Into Houston" project, opening November 7. Still, it's a fresh show from a Houston artist with a strong voice worth watching.
"Debra Barrera: Kissing in Cars, Driving Alone" at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt St., runs now through November 21. For more information, call 713-526-9911 or visit www.moodygallery.com.