Free for All: Alvin Baltrop, Julydoscope and Samuel Bak

On Friday, the best show in town may well be "Perspectives 179 - Alvin Baltrop: Dreams into Glass," currently at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. A photographer, Baltrop captured images of street life in New York City during the 1970s, when the Big Apple was a much different animal than it is today. At the time the economy was in free fall and empty, dilapidated buildings dotted the city, including Manhattan's West Side piers, where Baltrop spent a lot of time.

"Baltrop, who is no longer with us, still has a lot to say," says CAMH Senior Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, who put together the show. The show, the first major solo museum survey of Baltrop's work, is filled with images of sexuality in pre-AIDS America. Baltrop, who was bisexual, often turned his lens on the prostitutes, drag queens and gay men cruising the piers. (He constructed a harness so that he could hang from the rafters of empty warehouses and secretly shoot the scenes unfolding beneath him.) One photo shows a young man standing in an empty warehouse, half of his body bathed in bright white light. With a mop of hair and wearing a pair of short blue jean cutoffs, white knee-high socks and plain sneakers, he isn't involved in a sexual act, yet sensuality oozes from the image. The same is true for Three Navy Sailors, which shows one young man, his hat at a playful tilt, looking directly at the camera and sticking out his tongue while two other sailors standing nearby look on.

Audio from Baltrop's interviews with some of his subjects and a slide show of more of his photographs accompany the exhibit.

Viewing hours for "Perspectives 179 - Alvin Baltrop: Dreams into Glass" are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose. For information, visit the museum's Web site or call 713-284-8250.

On Saturday, The Wiz screens at Julydoscope, part of QFest: The 16th Annual Houston GLBTQ International Film Festival. The Wiz features Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow in the Afro-centric remake of The Wizard of Oz. True, The Wiz might not be along the same lines as the other groundbreaking films being screened in the festival, but it's still lots of camp fun. And if MJ as a weak-kneed scarecrow isn't enough of a draw, the magnificent Miss Lena Horne as the Good Witch gives a showstopping performance.

Other films in the festival include Cloudburst, with Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis as one half of an older lesbian couple who run off to Canada where they can legally marry rather than be forcibly separated by narrow-minded relatives. There's also the documentary Rites of Passage, a look at the life of Maya Jafer (formerly known as Mohammad), an Indo-Muslim transgendered man who travels to Bangkok for sexual-reassignment surgery. (Both director Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer will be in attendance at the screening.) A total of 19 screenings are scheduled at six venues for the five-day festival, but only Saturday's The Wiz is free.

Julydoscope, with live entertainment before The Wiz, starts at 6 p.m. at Discovery Green at 1500 McKinney. For a full schedule, visit the festival Web site.

We suggest a visit to "Returning: The Art of Samuel Bak" on Sunday. Two things are certain about this exhibit currently at the Holocaust Museum Houston. One, the paintings are brilliant. Two, the show is about to close. So, be smart and see this exhibit before it leaves.

It helps if you know the background to Bak's paintings, but even if you don't, the soft-edged, vibrantly colored imagery is captivating. In 1941, Bak was nine years old and already a budding artist when Nazis forced his family from their home and into a Jewish ghetto in eastern Poland. As they were leaving, Bak ran back to his bedroom and tucked his teddy bear in for safekeeping. On the way out, Bak's mother shoved a pillow in his arms, saying, "You don't know where we'll be sleeping tonight." Marching in the rain, Bak eventually threw the wet, soggy pillow away along the side of the road. Decades later, teddy bears and pillows both became staples in Bak's artwork, as symbols of loss. (Bak's first exhibition ever was held in that Jewish ghetto; he was ten years old. Adult artists in the ghetto took him under their wing and nurtured his talent amid the ongoing genocide.)

Another reoccurring image in Bak's work is of a young boy standing with his arms up in surrender, fashioned after a famous World War II-era photograph. He's seen in The Star of the Ghetto, a ghost-like figure walking through rubble. We see him again in Bak's Self-Portrait. He's standing near a young Bak, who is sitting, half hidden in a burlap sack. (Bak's father smuggled the boy out of a concentration camp by hiding him in a burlap sack filled with firewood.)

Bak and his mother made it out of the camps, escaping to a Catholic convent and eventually making their way to a relocation camp after the war where U.S. armed service members found him watercolors and paints.

"Returning" is in its final few weeks at the museum. See it noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The exhibit continues through August 12. Holocaust Museum Houston is at 5401 Caroline. For information, visit the museum's Web site or call 713-942-8000.

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