Fantastic 4

A hefty woman lies on the bathroom floor next to the toilet, her shirt hunched up around her waist, her pants at her ankles and her crotch in full view. There's a trail of unspooled toilet paper on the floor, and a man and a woman are crouched beside her, trying to do CPR. The man wears glasses and has a tape measure clipped to his belt. Looking for clues as to what's going on, you notice a diabetic's blood-sugar testing kit and syringe sharing the tiled bathroom counter with a set of Sunbeam hot rollers. The drawing, San Francisco Peaks (2006) by Michael Bise, is part of "Perspectives 152: 4 Artists 4 Stories," an exhibition of Houston artists curated by Paola Morsiani at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Bise takes significant images from his life and re-creates them in highly detailed and slightly cartoonish drawings -- most of them are way too strange or specific to have been made up. The series of drawings The Kingdom of the Sick records Bise's stay in the hospital following heart surgery. In one scene, we see him sitting in his hospital bed puking into a plastic container; in another, an overhead view of the same room, we see illicit hospital copulation as he's straddled by his naked girlfriend.

The only drawing Bise wasn't actually present for was the toilet scene, which depicts his great-grandmother. His mother was the one who told him about it. Just imagining walking in on your grandmother, with her pants down doing an Elvis on the bathroom floor, is probably more than enough to sear an image into your mind. Bise has an incredible ability to convey a sense of place. Looking at the cherub-laden wallpaper of the suburban bathroom and the little framed Gainsborough reproductions -- yep, it's The Blue Boy -- will strike some chord of familiarity with practically every American.


"Perspectives 152: 4 Artists 4 Stories"

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250

Through September 10

Bise does line drawings in pencil with no modeling, an approach high school art teachers rail against. But he makes it work through his incredible telling details and liberal use of patterns. There's an awkwardness to his drawing style; in some works, that awkwardness feels integrated into the whole, but other times it seems affected -- everything is consistently rendered until you run into some extremely skewed depiction of an object. San Francisco Peaks has a lot of flattish areas of pattern, until you get to the sink cabinet, which is surreally warped. It's a little distracting, but the rest of the drawing is so richly detailed that it's easy to overlook.

Bise's skewed perspectives come off quite well in Walls (2006), which offers a warped overhead view of three rooms. In one, a small boy is sleeping in a twin bed and Bise is sitting on the edge. According to the wall text, the drawing is about Bise's relationship with an older woman with a child, and how he became attached to the child. In the next room, the boy's mother sits on the toilet in her underwear snorting coke off the bathroom counter. (There's a lot of drama going on in Bise's bathrooms.) We see down the walls and into slices of other rooms and the photos and objects hanging on the walls. It's kind of like the angels' perspectives in the movie Wings of Desire. Bise, with his gift for narrative, knack for detail and mental camera angles, could easily make the transition into film. In the meantime, he's creating some really great drawings.

Janakie Lennie also has some really strong work. Her paintings of the unnatural hues of Houston's skies conjure up their own sense of place. The smoggy lavender canvases could be minimalist paintings if not for the tree foliage and steel structures creeping in at the sides and corners. As one of the most polluted cities in America, we have some of the most spectacular chemically enhanced sunsets, and Lennie captures them with paint that's delicately nuanced to create a luminous sense of depth.

Looking at her work, you can feel the dank humidity and petrochemical mist of our fair city. (Are those mosquito trucks I hear?) With our mix of lush subtropical foliage, concrete, steel and toxic emissions, the natural and industrial coexist in a sticky miasma. The unaccountably seductive color of Lennie's paintings is edged with the towers of petrochemical plants and the occasional leafy branch. A light glimmers in the distant haze like the Star of Bethlehem, except it's a gas flare.

Lennie is an Australian transplant who, like a lot of Houstonians, has come to accept her environment. She has found an edgy beauty growing from its bizarre mix of the natural and the unnatural.

Darryl Lauster is interested in the stories of things, the how and why of their making. He creates models of historic furniture and decorative objects and casts them in resin or porcelain. The process and history of craft fascinate him; he loves to explore techniques and comes up with some great stuff. But his love of experimentation sometimes leads him to dilute successful works with pieces that don't really pan out conceptually or formally.

One of his strongest pieces in the CAMH show is his Cast Federal Parlor Chair (2006), made from sandblasted resin. The resin gives the elegant frame of the chair a frosty, crystalline air. You feel like it might shatter -- or melt. Beside it is Table Based on Isamu Noguchi Design (2006) -- he's remaking the classic mid-century modern coffee table. Unfortunately, the scratched acrylic top and slightly off walnut base give the whole thing the feel of an awkwardly realized home-decor project. Lauster obviously enjoys the process of replicating these things; he just needs to edit them out when they don't work.

His series of polyester resin eagles are cast from his models of 19th-century bronze sculptures. They're realized in pink resin, possibly to feminize and take the edge off any rabid nationalist associations. But the eagles are just too clunky and awkward -- one of them looks like a duck. I don't know if the originals had the same clumsy qualities, but the eagles feel unnecessary compared to more successful works like the parlor chair.

Lauster's brown Transferware plates turned out well. They're based on an 18th-century pattern that originally depicted the landing of the Mayflower in the center of the plate. The plate's decorative rims -- rococo flourishes and a harbor scene -- now surround more recent scenes of American history: photographic images from the Library of Congress's collection. Images of Malcolm X, Elvis and Nixon, the San Francisco earthquake and asylum inmates adorn some of the the 24 plates. Lauster is replacing a Waspy touchstone of American history with more recent, less idealized and decidedly more diverse American scenes.

Meanwhile, Soody Sharifi gives us stories from one of the "Axes of Evil." The Iranian-born artist's ongoing series Maxiatures digitally inserts contemporary Iranian men and women into Old Master Persian miniatures. It's an interesting idea, but because Sharifi puts way too many people into the scenes, the effect becomes diluted. Having a select and unexpected few would work better. Ultimately, the images rely too much on exoticism for their appeal. And where earlier works were outputted onto photographic paper, the ones at the CAMH are printed onto nubby canvas that gives them a cheap Pier 1 aesthetic.

What does work well for Sharifi is her series of straight photographs of young Iranians, often shown in domestic settings. Teen girls lounge in their bedrooms. One wears a headscarf and has carefully drawn red lips, while the other is stretched out on a rug on the floor, her face obscured by her long, dark hair as she contemplates a photo of Enrique Iglesias she has extracted from under the bed. Another image shows other young girls in headscarves cavorting over the ancient ruins of Persepolis. One of them looks directly at the camera, stretched out on her back on the base of a destroyed column. Sharifi's work is a reminder of the real people and ancient culture that lie behind the West's frequent stereotyping and demonizing of Iran, but that's a side effect. In her empathetic photographs, Sharifi connects with individuals to create intimate, thoughtful images.

And in the end, regardless of any missteps, "4 Artists 4 Stories" pulls together four strong, and decidedly individual, Houston artists.

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