The Power of Three

Not since the final Hair Ball, its defunct fund-raiser, has Lawndale Art Center been responsible for such wonderful weirdness as is currently on display in its galleries. The three exhibits -- two by established Texas artists, the third by a local group of up-and-comers -- are distinctly different, but they all keep the viewer a bit off balance.

Julie Speed's series, "Alters of My Ancestors," in the Mezzanine Gallery, demonstrates the continuing richness of the surrealist legacy. The cubists may have started it, but the surrealists developed the practice of collage into a kind of poetry. Speed, already known for dreamlike paintings (one of which graces the cover of Shawn Colvin's CD A Few Small Repairs), has constructed collages from old engravings and portraits, adding touches of gouache and incorporating signature elements from her earlier work (she has, for example, a penchant for endowing her subjects with a third eye). And she readily acknowledges her debt to the surrealists: The catalog's cover is a work titled Portrait of Mr. Magritte (all are 2000), in which the head has been replaced with a large pear, a nod to that painter's fondness for painting apples.

Several of these figures have mouths agape as if horrified by their transmogrifications, but we needn't be -- most of these images are simply strangely beautiful riddles. Some are rather obvious: The Oil Baron is a man in profile, a 19th-century oil derrick perched on his head like a dunce cap and a third eye floating before him; Cabbagehead is -- well, you figure it out. Others are more sly: The Field Marshall and The Gunner's Monkey are two military figures, trouserless to reveal their feminization (don't ask, don't tell). And some have a haunting poignancy, like a vivid dream now barely remembered: In Mrs. Garfield's View, a bird-woman perches on a rock at the edge of a barren plain. Across the expanse, a small city, or perhaps a citadel, is aflame. The bird-woman looks away, as from a painful sight, her brow and cheekbones feathered with touches of pink and white gouache; her expression is stoic, but there's the slightest hint of melancholy in her eyes. An awkwardly coiled snake at the base of the rock completes this unsettling scene.

If most of these works never rise much above the level of amusing diversions, there are two, at least, that aspire to significant statement. Military Science is dominated by the bust of a mustachioed military man, his two right eyes looking in opposite directions. His head is framed by graph paper, constellationed with explosions, trajectories and mathematical formulas. Below him, a soldier lies prone on a riverbank, his life leaking from a hole in his temple, while his comrades and their horses contend with battle and the river's waters. Above our military scientist, there is order and (supposed) reason; below him, death and chaos. His fez is decorated with a Gustave Doré engraving of Golgotha -- "for they know not what they do." In The Edict, a man with a Phantom of the Opera half-mask appears to be proclaiming from a sheet of paper covered with Gothic script. The red background is covered with hash marks in sets of five, as if someone has been marking off the days. The man's hat and tunic feature Doré images again, this time suggesting the Day of Judgment.

In the Main Gallery, San Antonio-based artist Gary Sweeney embarks on a quixotic project. On each of the largest walls, he has reconstructed the first two paragraphs from the first volume of Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, using letters and words cut from commercial signage. Suggesting gigantic ransom notes, the immediate effect is hilarious. Then there's the pleasure of recognition: "Pulse" in the word "impulse" comes from an ATM; the word "political" is composed of politicians' campaign signs; the letters of "log" in "geological" are formed by drawn logs. There's a lot of visual wit at play here. But the real fun begins when you consider that, since Durant's magnum opus has ten volumes and the first volume alone is 938 pages, this is an inherently absurd undertaking. As Sweeney calculates in an interview that accompanies the exhibit, if he manages to stay reasonably healthy, he should finish this project in, oh, about 600 years. Like the story of civilization itself, it's a work, by turns ridiculous and impressive, that could never be accomplished by one man.

In the Small and Micro Galleries is "…until someone gets hurt," a collaborative installation by five Houston-based artists: Scott Burns, Sean Flournoy, David Medina, Teresa O'Connor and Kelly Pike. The title comes from your mother's warning, "It's all fun and games until…" In one of the best artists' statements I've read, the creators explain that they are an impromptu family of five, quietly battling it out in cramped quarters. The home they've created can only be called "dysfunctional." There are mirrors all over, so that everywhere you look you see yourself. A small table and chairs make an inviting gathering place, but a quilted cloth covers the whole ensemble, making sitting impossible. In a corner, a white tornado swirls out of an old-fashioned iron animal carrier (what were they carrying -- a Tasmanian devil?). At the rear of the installation is a small space that reads as either a backyard or a playroom, occupied by a pillow and a forlorn, child-sized plush elephant. Back near the animal carrier is a closet with a doorway to a winter wonderland. It's like Clara found a permanent portal through the clothes and storage boxes to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. But wait a minute -- what's with these feathers floating in the air, and this empty bird's cote in the center of the room? Is there a monster in this closet?

With the holidays just past, "…until someone gets hurt" is an amusing reminder that there's no place like home.

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John Devine