Validated Vagueness of "Damaged Romanticism"

The group-show template is a strangely tolerated mainstay in contemporary art. It's a safe environment where curators can look smart while excusing themselves for being vague. FotoFest recently employed the stencil with its exhibition "Mechanical Perception," which slapped a broad, lamely connective theme on five artists' work. Following the tradition, the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery has constructed "Damaged Romanticism," which features the work of 15 internationally recognized artists, organized for the Blaffer by Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum (and former director of the Blaffer), along with David Pagel and Colin Gardner, professors at Claremont Graduate University and UC Santa Barbara, respectively.

Subtitled "A Mirror of Modern Emotion," the show is concerned with romanticism, what the Blaffer says has "been replaced by a defiant optimism." Well, many have argued about what exactly romanticism is, and "defiant optimism" is one definition. Romantic thinkers' fantasies of "life as it ought to be" have even invited accusations of irrationalism. Charles Baudelaire said, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling." Could the curators have picked a more vague theme?

Feasting on art's inherent subjectivity, this practice of suggesting that there is some kind of embedded emotional code that interrelates and flows between one gallery and another, between wildly different artists' personalities and sensibilities, permeating the psychic space between the objects on display, is the height of pretension. Most of the time, it's better to call bullshit on the title/theme right at the get-go and just enjoy the art.


"Damaged Romanticism"

Blaffer Gallery, 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-9530.

Through November 15.

And there's some compelling work on display. Italian artist Angelo Filomeno's silk embroidered panels are incredibly intricate. The ornate images, stitched into gold silk lamé, depict nature, but with a subversively comic tone. In Arcanum: Rolling Shit, a green beetle probes a coiled-up turd. Elaborate filaments and leaves coil around the fecal specimen, which is crusted in rhinestone, and continuing in the theme, small beads and crystals dangle from the beetle's butt. A tiny lizard approaches to check out the scent, and roaches encroach on the beetle's banquet. Excrement and decay are recurring themes in Filomeno's work, as well as death — skulls appear in other pieces.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, from Belgium, exhibits her two mixed-media pieces, which feature abstract, stuffed forms that could resemble excrement as well. One work is comprised of four wooden cinema seats occupied by wool blankets and five oddly shaped "pillows" made with drably colorful, collaged fabrics. The other is a wooden ironing board with a similar form resting on it. They're effectively surreal and evoke an entropic loneliness.

A series of large chromogenic prints by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky document a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Having recently seen the lamentable Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, I was astounded to see Burtynsky's photo Shipbreaking No. 50, in which a tanker ship's hull juts out of the muddy ground against a vast, pale blue horizon. It could have been a still frame from the aforementioned film. It's surreal in a Terry Gilliam way, like someone pulled the plug at the bottom of the ocean. In other photos, workers scatter like ants around the monstrous, rusted-out ships, retrieving scrap parts and dragging them through the mud. The photos are immediately epic and baroque, apocalyptic and, yes, romantic in subject matter — ships at sea. Here, the case can be made that the romanticism is indeed damaged, even if it's only replaced by the "romance" of the yard-workers' dangerous plight.

It's worth spending the 30 minutes it takes to watch Jesper Just's two films screening in an upstairs gallery. The Danish filmmaker creates sumptuous short films usually based around a male protagonist who is followed by a male chorus. It Will All End In Tears follows this formula. An older man, after stepping through a kind of portal into a landscaped garden, meets a young man on a small wooden bridge. A kind of supernatural confrontation takes place, and the older man floats in rapture while the young man plays a snare drum. When the euphoria subsides, the older man is taken away to be judged in a courtroom. The dream logic continues through the trial by a jury of schoolboys and ends on a bridge overlooking New York City, where the schoolboys commit mass suicide. It's capped off by a fireworks display in red, white and blue. It's devastating in the way Lars von Trier's films steadily grind on one's emotions toward a big payoff. Stylewise, Just is working in that weird world of big symbolism, minimal dialogue and high production values where Matthew Barney and David Lynch operate.

Like Tears, Just's A Vicious Undertow creates tension between three characters in a love triangle, until a female character escapes, climbing an endless spiral staircase. There's a sweeping, old-Hollywood feel to these films, definitely romantic in their exaggerated emotional tone and grand fantasy endings.

On the whole, "Damaged Romanticism" is well worth seeing; just don't get caught up in trying to figure out the ­thematic code. The artwork on display will do its own talking.

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