CRITICS PICKS: HOUSTON

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American Beauty (Navy)
1970
Alvin Baltrop
Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2″ x 12 3/4″
Photo: courtesy The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming, New York

Over the past several years, exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston have largely focused on work by previously under-recognized black artists, LGBT artists, or historical figures whose prescient contributions speak to the present moment but risk slipping into oblivion. Organized by CAMH senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, the first major museum show of the late Alvin Baltrop’s photographs fits into all three categories. An African-American bisexual artist who died of cancer at the age of 55 in 2004, Baltrop captured both the dilapidation of New York City’s Hudson River piers during the 1970s and 1980s and the sexual opportunities they presented to the gay and bisexual men who prowled them before–and in the early, confusing years of–the emergence of the AIDS pandemic. Despite the candor and often ravishing beauty of Baltrop’s pictures, the art world found their subject matter too hot to touch. While the CAMH show will go a long way toward establishing Baltrop’s historical importance, “for now this work is too fresh, dangerous, and undigested to be anything but contemporary art,” director Bill Arning writes in the catalogue. “Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass” runs through October 21 at CAMH.

Giant
2011
Will Henry
Oil on canvas
30″ x 72″
Photo: courtesy Hiram Butler Gallery

Houston-based artist Will Henry continues to cast his beautifully painted Southwestern landscapes, with their vast, arid terrain and starry skies, as surreal spaces where Marfa meets Magritte, often against a nocturnal backdrop that could have been painted by Frederic Remington. Echoes of Ed Ruscha, too, show up in Henry’s playful variations on Ruscha’s depictions of the iconic Hollywood sign. In one of the best works of Henry’s previous Houston show, the sign, seen from behind, actually spelled “Howdy y’all” minus the apostrophe. In Giant, a 2011 painting, the wooden letters return, spelling “Judd” in a reference to the minimalist sculptor and Chinati Foundation founder. Giant was recently featured in Henry’s AMOA-Arthouse exhibition celebrating his well-earned nomination for the triennial Texas Prize; it’s joined by the other works from that show in Henry’s latest Hiram Butler Gallery exhibit, including “Installation,” which depicts a campfire using fluorescent light bulbs a la Dan Flavin–another Chinati artist–as kindling. Previously, Henry has worked primarily with gouache on paper, but lately he’s switched to oil on canvas and increased the size of his pictures. Henry handles the change in medium, support and scale with confidence, and his canvases will be easier to view in Butler’s light-filled gallery than his framed works on paper. “Will Henry: New Work” will be on view September 29 through November 3 at Hiram Butler Gallery.

I Heard the Sound of Distant Thunder…
2012
Troy Woods
Mahogany and stainless steel
60 1/2″ x 20 1/2″ x 8″
Photo: courtesy McMurtrey Gallery

The only thing Houston-based artist Troy Woods seemingly can’t do with wood and stainless steel is make a bad sculpture. The organic, fluid forms he coaxes out of mahogany, ebony, maple and other woods often appear to be responding to invisible forces, whether being stretched taut, allowed to ripple and flow, or yielding to gravity. Sensual undercurrents, sometimes even a hint of kinkiness, accompany a sense of yearning for contact with the divine so palpable it’s earned Woods commissions to create liturgical furniture and chandeliers for local chapels. Although his sculptures are abstract, they often reflect thematic concerns–a 2008 exhibition responded to a text he’d read about the seven deadly sins–and Woods describes his newest body of work as “vis
ual storyboard” that begins with his vision and ends with viewers’ imagination. “The world we have been raised in and our life circumstances guide our thoughts and mold our sight,” Woods says. “Art is simply a talisman for the act of creating one’s own reality.” Opening September 8 at McMurtrey Gallery, “Troy Woods: The Story…” will remain on view through October 13.

Enterprise 12
2012
Danny Rolph
Acrylic on canvas
48″ x 60″
Photo: courtesy Barbara Davis Gallery

In previous exhibitions at Barbara Davis Gallery, London-based artist Danny Rolph presented collages that mined Pop Culture imagery, family photos and other sources. His approach to layering, however, was unusual: He placed the collages under Triple Wall, a corrugated fiberboard, on top of which he then painted colorful, hard-edge abstract compositions, leaving enough empty space for parts of the imagery to come through. In his new show, “Duke of Burgundy,” which takes its title from the name of a beautiful rare butterfly, Rolph, whose work has been collected by the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, veils his imagery with paint instead of building materials. His formal language, while similar to that of previous shows, yields to abstraction applied to the ultimate conventional support–canvas. In the dozen acrylic paintings on view, Rolph’s crisp, irregular shapes briskly float across backgrounds inspired by the colors of West Texas skies and the paintings of Tiepolo, revealing that Rolph remains open to disparate influences. The paintings’ exuberant mood is contagious, bolstered by a feeling of spaciousness and rhythm. Opening September 7 at Barbara Davis Gallery, “Danny Rolph: Duke of Burgundy” remains on view through October 5.

no I didn’t go to any museums here I hate museums museums are just stores that charge you to come in there are lots of free museums here but they have names like real stores (detail)
2012
Andy Coolquitt
Mixed media
10′ x 10′
Photo: courtesy Devin Borden Gallery

Weeks before his Blaffer Art Museum-organized traveling survey opens at AMOA-Arthouse, the recently merged Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse, Austin-based artist Andy Coolquitt debuts a site-specific sculpture cheekily titled no I didn’t go to any museums here I hate museums museums are just stores that charge you to come in there are lots of free museums here but they have names like real stores at Devin Borden Gallery. (The exhibition bears the same mouthful of a title.) Coolquitt combines disparate scavenged materials found near his studio into architecturally suggestive compositions divided by sheets of Plexiglas; recent examples include Plus Sign, a Blaffer-sponsored installation at last year’s Texas Contemporary art fair. Acknowledging the long shadow of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Coolquitt’s practice includes “somebodymades”–groupings of objects arranged exactly as he found them in the streets–and “in-betweens,” which incorporate his own interventions into the found assemblages. Coolquitt’s show opens September 7 at Devin Borden Gallery and continues through October 27.

String Bag #09
Karen Mills
Mixed media on linen
12″ x 12″
Photo: courtesy The artist and Booker-Lowe Gallery

One of just a handful of US galleries devoted to Australian Aboriginal art, Booker-Lowe Gallery has long been the city’s go-to venue for emerging and internationally renowned practitioners of what the late critic Robert Hughes dubbed the twentieth century’s last great modern art movement. Often seemingly abstract to Western eyes, the paintings reflect the “dreamings,” or ancestral myths, that Australia’s indigenous peoples have passed down for generations in communities that in many cases are largely isolated from other cultures. In a change of pace, the gallery kicks off its fall season with paintings by Karen Mills, an Australian Aboriginal artist who was adopted as a child by non-indigenous parents far from her ancestral home. Instead of the vibrant dot patterns or boldly outlined ochre fields often associated with Aboriginal art, expect textural paintings that draw inspiration from such sources as indigenous weaving patterns and her adoptive mother’s hand-knit garments. “I become deeply interested and fascinated by the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ spaces that emerge and are revealed when textural layers are constructed over an under-painting of looping interwoven lines that play across the surface,” Mills has said of works that use Aboriginal weaving patterns as metaphors for identity. Often the visual resonances between Australian Aboriginal painting and Western art are coincidental or misleading, but the well-traveled Mills also draws on her familiarity with international contemporary art. “Karen Mills: Woven–in 2D” opens September 27 and continues through November 14 at Booker-Lowe Gallery.

—devon britt-darby