Friday Night Gallery Crawl: Wendy Wagner; Stan VanDerBeek; Mary Hayslip and Trey Speegle

On a sunny Friday evening, going to Darke Gallery feels like going to a friend's house: The unassuming gallery is nestled in a residential area in the Heights, and with Wendy Wagner's soft, plush sculptures snaking out of the wall, the upstairs portion feels more like an attic playroom than a setting for an art exhibit.

The Houston artist, who also works in oil, multimedia and graphic design, said the fabric sculptures are a new endeavor for her, a medium she began as the characters she created on canvas and in animation became more three-dimensional. Her whimsical cartoons, which you can watch in a separate room, feature frog-like, octopus-like and worm-like characters that look like they were drawn from retro Asian animation, at one point dancing under a disco ball.

But the exhibit, which is at Darke until July 9, also shows off Wagner's talents as a multimedia and portrait artist. Her largest paintings are drawn from old family photos. Sgt. Rock, which was drawn from a photo of her stepson, shows a boy trying on what looks like a space helmet. Meanwhile, In Hoppity Horse Heaven shows a young girl (Wagner herself) in bed, snuggling with a toy horse. It looks peaceful and sweet, yet something appears askew: The toy horse's eyes appear empty and dead. Her work mixes the classic and the abstract, she says, and it does so with dramatic effect.

Onward to the Stan VanDerBeek opening at CAMH, where more people were schmoozing outside by the drink table than were inside observing the artwork. They missed out. VanDerBeek was one of the first artists to use film in the realm of multimedia, and CAMH did a great job of using its space to create spectacle. On one table, an array of slide, overhead and film projectors displayed on several screens films and photos by VanDerBeek, creating one giant piece of mega-art.

Perhaps most fascinating, though, was VanDerBeek's projects with the Belflix moviemaking system in the 1960s. Using punch cards and an IBM computer, VanDerBeek created a few proto-Atari-like films he dubbed Poemfields, his name flickering in monochromatic, highly pixellated schemes. The exhibit, which runs through July 10, also includes small collages ripped from newspapers, letters and telegrams as well as photos and films.

Unfortunately, this blogger grossly mistimed her visits to the galleries, and Art League of Houston had closed well before she made it to the opening for Voodoo Pop, a show for works by Mary Hayslip and Trey Speegle. Cursing under her breath, she resolved to make it back the next afternoon.

As it turns out, Speegle dropped by Art League the next day just as this blogger was about to leave, and the virtual emptiness of the gallery allowed him plenty of time to answer a few questions.

Speegle and Hayslip have been friends since the 1980s, when the two first met in Houston. Though Speegle eventually moved to New York, his and Hayslip's friendship continued, and the two have collaborated several times over the years. This show celebrates their relationship as artists and as friends. Postcards from Speegle occasionally show up in Hayslip's work.

"I think we both tend to recycle imagery and make a lot of pop references," Speegle says, clad in a light cloth cap and worn Lacoste shirt. "And we recontextualize it so it has meaning and purpose. I do it by using text and she does it with pictures."

A paint-by-numbers theme continually appears in Speegle's paintings, and there is positive messaging behind them. Yes (You Complete The Picture), a vintage poster-like print of the Arc de Triomphe with the word YES in white with paint-by-numbers patterns, invite the viewer to fill in the blanks.

Speegle has tons of stories, too: How he inadvertently designed Andy Warhol's gravestone; how he ended up in Ireland with Quentin Tarantino; but his appreciation for his friend's work is deep. When asked which piece from the show he likes the most, he says "My favorite work is Mary's." He motions to a Sgt. Pepper-like quilt that carries faces from pop culture fixed over the faces of a crowd. The work, "American Idols," is bordered by a blue field with white stars as the words E Pluribus Unum float above the motley crew, which includes Jackie Robinson, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. The show runs through June 24.

The Art League is also showing a collaborative work by Canadian print artist Sean Caulfield and poet Jonathan Hart. The work, titled Darkfire, is a collection of prints and corresponding poems exploring themes of metamorphosis and inspired by Dante (cleverly, they use the Dante font). The black and white images are amorphous and disturbing, somewhere between Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. The poems are correspondingly dark: "Poem #8," which goes with the print "Climbing Down," gives the show its title: "A small vessel will arise, as though out of the dark fire of the infernal lake below." It's strong stuff, but somehow, the clean black letters and clean black images on white paper are compelling to look at, as though we've never seen a book before. Darkfire also runs through June 24.

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