Street Walking

The street of galleries known collectively as Colquitt (as in "Been over to Colquitt?" "Yeah." "See anything?" "Naw.") is a glorified strip mall, but one that has succeeded in dominating the Houston art world by sheer force of numbers. By holding their art openings on the same night, every couple of months the galleries command a cocktail-hour audience that rivals a street festival in size. And now that the dust has cleared from the latest stampede, the bright promise of one-stop shopping melted away in the sun, it's possible to assess the latest offerings. With the gallery season in full swing, there's a lot to pick apart.

Reading Colquitt from left to right, one begins with the Barbara Davis Gallery (2627 Colquitt, 520-9200), where in "Reconciliations" (on display through November 9) Sharon Kopriva is exhibiting solo in her hometown for the first time since 1989. Kopriva, whose work is currently included in the Smithsonian's "American Kaleidoscope" exhibition in Washington, D.C., is one of those Houston artists whose successes elsewhere are puzzling. Her sculptures are vignette-based, life-size scenes peopled by her trademark "mummies," fabrications inspired by mummified Nazca Indians she encountered in Peru. History has it that one of these rag-and-animal-bone creations was once carted off to the morgue by a local police officer, though whether that attests to their verisimilitude or his stupidity is a matter for debate. In "Reconciliations," Kopriva has constructed a series of dioramas of the Catholic Church as haunted house -- nuns play the piano, a craggy bishop sniffs in self-importance and the backlit mummy confessional is open for business.

If Kopriva means to capture the character of Catholicism's usual suspects, she does a job worthy of a Madame Tussaud tourist attraction. If she means to remind the viewer of his mortality, her craftsy creatures, which look like farmhouse dolls with dried apple heads, are not going to do the trick. Though too rancid to quite be cuddly, they are so Our Town-ish that even the satirical reading of these works -- that we and our clergy behave like corpses already -- is considerably dampened.

A short way down Colquitt, in the condo-plex of galleries that actually fronts onto Lake Street, McMurtrey Gallery (3508 Lake Street, 523-8238) features energetic, poster-size pastels by Renzo Barchi, a Houston artist originally from Peru. These pastels have a bold line and an appealing look, but their content is severely overpresented. "Picture Liberty" (on display through November 30), as the exhibit is called, is a look at the immigrant experience done as a series of tres faux motion picture posters in which the star is an empty, candy-striped suit of clothing. In Illegal Chameleon, a poster for "The South of the Border Show" proclaims "Watch them swim, crawl, hide and suffer." "All rights deserve" is one groan-inducing notation. Though Hollywood may well be one of the main ways in which an outsider experiences the U.S., the fake motion-picture poster is a tired ruse that should be reserved for novelty postcards. Putting the words "Now Showing" under a work of art doesn't do anything for its immediacy; rather, it invests it with nostalgia and cinematic remove.

Somos Libres and Oh Say Can You See are two non-poster works which, side-by-side, intend irony. But they're so cliche riddled and "clever" that they barely communicate. Somos Libres shows the flag of Peru, and incorporates a set of prison bars into the frame. Oh Say Can You See, on the United States side of the great divide, has the title phrase embossed in Braille on a metal plate beneath it. No, now that you mention it, I can't see. The frustration of trying to cope in a supposedly free country is conveyed with slick didacticism, like a magazine article that tells you "What to say on a first date" or "30 things you have to do before you're 30."

Further down Colquitt, where the galleries are grander, Lynn Goode (Lynn Goode Gallery, 2719 Colquitt, 526-5966) has a real hit on her hands with "Susie Rosmarin: New Work" (on display through December 1). For years, Houston painter Rosmarin's straightedged abstract work has used a matrix-based numerical game called Arithmetica. But in this show, her work has undergone a major transition, abandoning Arithmetica and playing against the rigidity of the grid format. In Rosmarin's Static paintings, the drift of television white noise is translated into a rigid pattern of tiny rectangles, which in turn construct an off-canvas shimmer. In the grisaille Dear Bridget, an homage to op art painter Bridget Riley, bandwidths of static, again ruthlessly constructed from tiny rectangles, float across the "screen," producing retinal jitters that rival the sickening optical twists of a Riley painting.

In Bridget and the four small paintings that make up Static Study, Rosmarin aims more for visual effect -- static is focused into bandwidths and concentric rectangles. But in the six Static paintings that are the body of the series, the artist has refined her mission. These are "all over" paintings in which the same tiny configuration, permutated in various canvases through all combinations of white, black and gray, is repeated across the entire canvas. The viewer has nowhere to focus -- strict pattern becomes no pattern at all. The modernist grid bleeds off into space. In a Herculean gesture that contains the futility of Sisyphus, Rosmarin has deciphered and re-ciphered the non-signal, the un-communication, the electronic blather of our time, fully engaging her audience in its mesmerizing quality. This is techno painting -- precision-based and trance-inducing.

While the show includes some interesting variations, including Harlequins that confound their strict design with sentimental suburban pastels and pattern paintings done in slightly off tints of red, yellow and blue, Rosmarin gets a bit cheap with Phlag. This painting is a hard-edged, gridded version of Jasper Johns' collaged encaustic Flags, a pat allusion that fails to unfold into something more. The exhibit also includes the transitional Grid Dialogue paintings, dull experiments with using different size grids in the same painting. One problem with these paintings is that the various sizes are perfectly relational, making each basically one grid instead of many.

There is a lot of "but/and" in Rosmarin's paintings, both in how she makes them and the art history she refers to. She achieves the paintings' regularity by layering acrylic paint and graphic tape. A painting's final appearance remains a mystery until she peels off all the tape, some of which is buried beneath 28 coats of paint, to reveal the busy circuit board of rectangles that remains. Just as when Rosmarin scrupulously followed her earlier numbers game, here her preplanning and measuring is more about faith in her process than hypercontrol of the result -- which is inevitably riddled with minute imperfections. Her painting is both classically minimalist (grid-based) and as lush as fussy '70s pattern and decoration art. Yet she imbues the wallpaper repetition of P&D with the perceptual discipline of op art, and the radical chic of op art with the mathematical blips of the information deluge, creating a 220-beat-per-minute wall of visual noise.

At Moody Gallery (2815 Colquitt, 526-9911), Colquitt's last stand, Houston artist Bill Steen has dredged up an entirely new body of work for his exhibit "Known Through the Senses" (on display through November 16). Until recently, Steen, influenced by such mavericks as Marcel Duchamp, Forrest Bess and Antonin Artaud, has used anything but paint and canvas. But now he has produced a series of delicate, Zenlike drawings and paintings in a limited palette of black, white, red and blue.

Those elemental colors are significant in the practice of Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet. Steen's developing interest in Bon, which is related to Buddhism, guided the creation of his simple works. While the project of producing art as spiritual practice for public consumption is dubious at best, Steen carries it out with unconcerned elegance. This exhibit looks like a sweet distillation of the Menil Collection -- in whose galleries the exploration of our collective unconscious often seems primary. If I were forced to watch someone meditate, I'd choose Steen, if only because he doesn't dress it up in the process.

If you're making a day trip of art watching, Devin Butler Hiram Borden Gallery (4520 Blossom, 863-7097), a nip and a tuck from Colquitt, is worth checking out. Of late, the gallery seems to be more than willing to step away from commercial endeavors. Last month they invited sculptor Dean Ruck to do an impressive installation using the entire main room, and now they've commissioned New York artist Meg Webster, who did a one-person show at the CAM in 1992, to make one of her butter pieces. That's right, butter. The art world, like the wife who could eat no lean, has a long tradition invested in pure fat, from Joseph Beuys' hoarded fat corners to Janine Antoni's gnawed cubes of lard. Now, Webster has continued the honorable tradition by troweling butter onto a nine-foot-square canvas. She's slathered it into an mockingly expressionistic monochrome that slackens into a shine late in the day, and hardens up again at night. The work, which you're allowed to touch and which is on display through November 15, is sheer indulgence, complemented by a suite of Webster's calorie-free spice drawings (that's right, spices). If you're still hungry for art by the time you get to the West End, this grimly oversize dessert will certainly cure you -- at least for a while.