“Andrei Molodkin: Crude”
Station Museum of Contemporary Art
November 5, viagra 2011 – February 12, mind 2012


If there ever were a time to be outraged by the course of American Empire, it is now. Jobs are scarce. Unemployment is high. And, the antics of Washington, D.C. constitute a circus of perpetual distraction only matched by the American state of perpetual war.


Leadership has been trumped by greed in the form of bubbly, black gold, or crude oil, according to the artwork of Russian-born Paris-based artist Andrei Molodkin. It would seem pedantic and monological for anyone to reduce all of our political and economic woes to a single source, in this instance oil. In contradistinction, and very far from narrow-minded, Molodkin is persuasive and incisively perceptive. In short, he is exactly right with his art.


In a panoply of objects — from clothing to bags to car parts to the gasoline that makes cars go — oil is omnipresent in everyday life. It is the foundation and substance of the American way of life. Oil, gasoline, and automobiles are the reason why our cities sprawl. Oil makes consumerism go, commodities turn, and profit amass. Oil is the root of perpetual American war. This is Molodkin’s message. There is no subtlety in the way Molodkin strikes that message, but, at the same time, it is light on the literalism.


In the spirit of 1917 and the Constructivists of that moment, there is an abstract kineticism of machines that electrifies the air, as the whir-thump-and-wheeze of small pumps on the floor propel oil through hollow resin signage located on the floor, walls, and podia. Snake-like hoses connect signage to pumps, winding and twisting across the open floor of the gallery, weaving art work to art work creating a damning, unholy yet supra-powerful one. Like tentacles, the hoses capture the resin forms, crudeoil pumped words “Justice” and “Democracy” into a greater mythic totality reminiscent of the serpent-strangled “Laocoön,”the famous Roman sculpture of a Trojan priest and his sons being dragged under by a sea monster.


Striking an inversion of morals, if the vignette taken from the “Aeneid” tells of the founding of empire, Molodkin’s tells of its imminent demise. Like doing philosophy with a hammer, Molodkin delivers his politics with a mixture of a dark humorous sense of the cerebral and the forthright obviousness of social realism. Amidst the fray of rubber, oil-filled coils, there sit two video projections, “Liberty (Head)” and “Oil Victory.” In a complex play of immediacy and deferral, a camera captures oil pumping through resin blocks — one containing a small version of the head of the Statue of Liberty the other the Louvre’s “Winged Victory” — and projects it in real time on the wall. They carry the heavy political message that petroleum-based greed saturates any sense of freedom with formal and proportional aplomb. One headless, the other fully headed, they are video, live-feed portraitures of America teetering on decline.


In contrast to this high-tech diversion, “Empire at War” is a large picture of George W. Bush holding an open Bible meticulously scribed by hand in blue ink. Molodov learned to draw while in the Russian army, passing his time scribbling and rendering with ink pens. For the artist, ink-based doodles and drawings are directly to related criminal activity. “In my consciousness,”Molodkin explains, “the ballpoint pen has always been associated precisely with criminality.” Linking American politics to corruption and crime writ large, there is across the room a portrait of Obama rendered in green ink in the style of Shepard Fairey, the artist who made the famous Obama hope posters. Next to it sits a three-dimensional acrylic sign with crude oil chugging through it. The bottom of the Obama sign reads “Yes We Can,” while Molodkin podiummounted sculpture reads “Fuck You.” There are no bones about this message.


Based in Dallas, Charissa Terranova is a freelance critic and curator working globally.



“Related Clues: Jillian Conrad, Claire Falkenberg, Ian Pedigo & Brion Nuda Rosch”
Inman Gallery, Houston
November 4, 2011 – January 8, 2012


“Related Clues” is an apt title for Inman Gallery’s current group exhibition. Though the four artists in the show — Jillian Conrad, Claire Falkenberg, Ian Pedigo and Brion Nuda Rosch — employ a range of media and artistic techniques, each exhibited work offers a subtle clue to another.


Ian Pedigo literally connects the dots in “Signal Unavailable” (2009). The largescale installation includes fabric orbs that are diagrammatically connected by thin lines of graphite drawn directly onto the wall. The circular forms are airbags that have never been deployed, everyday objects that we (hopefully) never see. Though associated with accidents — circumstances beyond one’s control — there is nothing accidental about the composition of Pedigo’s work, which is akin to a mathematical diagram or a map of the night sky.


A visual reference to celestial space is also evident in Claire Falkenberg’s work. Combining the familiar with the unknown, Falkenberg overlays photographs of mundane landscapes with ethereal painted forms. Amorphous clouds of paint float over collaged Cprints like luminous nebulae, at once drawing the viewer into their depths and impeding the ability to discern the images that lie beneath the milky stains.


Brion Nuda Rosch similarly occludes pictorial space, manipulating images of mountains, waterfalls, and other geological monuments from old encyclopedias and nature books to create unfamiliar terrain. “Time as Concept (Infinity)” (2011) depicts six framed photographs of the same found image of a rocky landscape. Scraps of cut paper lie on top of the reproduced print, forcing viewers to look more closely at the visible areas that remain and simultaneously obscuring the scenic view.


While Falkenberg’s painted apparitions contribute a transcendental aura to her photographs of twigs, garbage, and dirty snow, Rosch’s cut paper — painted over with clumpy, poo-colored house paint — debases the monumentality of the rock formation on view.


Incongruity is likewise at play in Jillian Conrad’s work. “Casing” (2011) is a topographical map of materials, ranging from those found in a hardware store — plywood, cinder blocks, foam — to more refined vellum or paint. Conrad’s found vintage postcard of tourists standing on the bridge overlooking the Royal Gorge also reveals a tension between the banal and the extraordinary. Like the spectators in the postcard, so too do visitors to the Inman Gallery look out onto a re-imagined terrain both natural and man-made. Each betraying a concern for material, process, space and landscape in differing ways, taken together the artists in “Related Clues” create a constellation of formal and conceptual echoes that bounce around the room.


Katia Zavistovski is a PhD candidate at Rice University, and the Menil Curatorial Fellow at the Menil Collection, Houston.



“New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection”
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
November 6, 2011 – February 5, 2012


“New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde and Modern Glass” examines a new chapter of early 20th century art once occluded by the iron curtain. This exhibition focuses on the artists flourishing within this brief period of freedom to establish a national identity within the international avant-garde, but eventually succumbing to totalitarian censorship.


The avant-garde portion of the exhibition features creations from an array of artists, but closely follows three influential figures in the Czech vanguard: Karel Teige, Jindrich Styrsky and Toyen.


Teige appears as a key founder of the Devestil Association of Artists, a collective that sought to set itself apart from, yet flirted with international influences of cubism (French), expressionism (German), and constructivism (Russian) — a reflection of the Czech populous forging a new identity. Teige collaborated internally with Devestil poets, dancers, artists, and designers, playfully innovating book design typography.


Toyen, Styrsky and others found a second home in Paris, aligning with surrealists like Andre Breton and disseminating ideas back in Prague. However, the reality of censorship encroaches midway through the exhibition. Surrealist and Freudian ideas of the subjective unconscious were met with censorship, which ratcheted further with Nazi occupation that forbade surrealist expression branded as “degenerate.”


In reaction and witness to Nazi occupation, Toyen created three cycles of photograveurs (31 in total) from 1939–1944 that parallel Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” albeit through a surrealist lens. Haunting allusions of war pepper dreamlike deserts, as farm animals and toys fall into states of damage and disrepair. In later images, the dessert is polluted with smog, a skeleton dog, and other macabre projections from life during wartime.


The glass portion of the exhibition allows the viewer to meditate on design rather than the prevailing politics, and hones in on the rapidly changing styles of glass from 1908–1935. Renown for engraving and enameling techniques for decades, the collection shows artisans skilled in cold-working techniques adapting to prevailing styles from classicism through art-nouveau and deco. Influences from Italy and abroad crop in with lighter and fanciful shapes, and closes with a more traditional bohemian treatment of glass like a carved stone.


This exhibition is as much about ideology and subsequent intellectual reactions as it is about a particular art movement. Grounded in a geopolitical context, the exhibition reveals free thinkers and the glass industry altering under the shifting and threatening political climate of the early 20th century.


Geoff Smith is a twenty-something arts enthusiast with a background in printmaking.



“Seeing Stars: Visionary Art from the Collection”
Menil Collection
September 23, 2011 – January 15, 2012


I became, and have since remained, a fan of outsider art in 1988, when I started working at The Orange Show. “Seeing Stars: Visionary Art from the Collection,” on view at the Menil and curated by Michelle White, does nothing to deflect my enthusiasm.


The exhibition opens with works by Jean Dubuffet, the original proponent of outsider art, which he dubbed “Art Brut,” after seeing the works of Swiss mental patients, including the schizophrenic Adolph Wölfli, whose self- mythologized drawings are in the Menil show, Variously referred to as “Art Brut,” outsider, or visionary art, these works are made by individuals who generally, but not always (as evidenced in “Seeing Stars”) are neither influenced by artists nor art history, and who may see visions, suffer from grief or mental illness, are incarcerated, or have taken up art to fill the void of their later years.


The artists’ stories are often as compelling as the artworks. Witness Charles A.A. Dellschau, whose fantastic and beautifully rendered aircraft are the stars of the show. The Prussian-born Dellschau, a former draughtsman for the secret California-based Sonoma Aero Club, whose members designed and built aircraft on the sly, moved to Houston around 1850. He began drawing imaginary airships (14 scrapbooks full!) in his spare time after the death of his wife and son.


Nearly destroyed in a fire in 1967, the scrapbooks were found by a Houston junk dealer, who promptly placed them under a tarp in his store where they were rediscovered by a St. Thomas art student, who brought them to the attention of Dominique DeMenil.


Other “Seeing Stars” artists worth noting are Bill Traylor, former slave, and master of the perfectly balance composition; Houstonian Henry Ray Clarke, a.k.a. The Magnificent Pretty Boy, who could only channel his creative forces while in a state of incarceration; and Surrealist Unica Zurn, partner in love and misery with Hans Bellmer, and creator of delicate and, at time, mescaline fueled inked works.


The only false note, by any standard, are the scrawlings of Eddie Jackson. If you can overlook this minor misstep, then prepare yourself for an aesthetically brilliant adventure.


Beth Secor is an artist, writer, and educator. She also blogs for Glasstire, teaches at the University of Houston Downtown and Houston Community College Central, and assists with Development at Art League Houston.


“Cinema Arts Festival”
November 9 – 13, 2011


After five days in the dark, 12 films, a handful of parties and a good dose of director schmoozing, I can safely say that the third annual Cinema Arts Festival Houston (CAFH) proved a smashing success.


Curated by Richard Herskowitz, CAFH is one of the few film festivals focusing on films about the arts.


The best thing about David Grubin’s “Downtown Express” was the dreamy Russian violinist Philippe Quint playing a dreamy Russian violinist. More of a concert than a movie, Grubin’s film points to the divide between popular and classical music. Nellie McKay proved less comfortable on screen, unless she was in front of her keyboard singing her wistful tunes.


I’d like to see “The Welcome” again, because my incessant weeping obscured my vision through most of Kim Shelton’s powerful documentary of a healing poetry retreat for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress. It’s an elegant film, exquisitely paced, and deeply respectful of the therapeutic container of the expressive arts.


Alex Rotaru’s “Shakespeare High” chronicles the Southern California Shakespeare Festival and several of the contestants. Rotaru doesn’t shy away from the full catastrophe of high school theater, showing the joys mixed with the craziness that comes with any competitive high school event. The film presents a compelling case to keep the arts in the schools and brought me right back to my years as a drama mama.


Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “!Women Art Revolution” (WAR) contained a sense of urgency. Raw and unpolished, much like the women’s movement the film documents, “WAR” is an important film, covering missing sectors of American cultural history.


Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light” combines macro and micro visions as the viewer travels from the star filled sky, examining Chile’s Astronomy heritage, to the desert sands with a group of women search for the remains of the “disappeared.” It’s a cultural memoir of the highest order, visually stunning and deeply moving.


It’s no wonder that local boy Robbie Pickering’s “Natural Selection” cleaned up at SXSW, it’s a strong first film. Think of a more earnest version of the Cohen brothers, but less subversive. Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary deliver spot on performances. Stay tuned for a Houston release.


Part of any film festival is listening to your friends rave about all the films they saw and you missed. There is another chance to see some of these films. “The Mill and the Cross” screens at the MFAH on January 7, 8, & 14, while “WAR” screens on February 5 & 12, and “Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter” airs on December 19 on HoustonPBS/Channel 8.


In a save the best for last move, the festival closed (for me) with Wim Wenders “Pina,” a brilliant remembrance of Pina Bausch’s time with Tanztheater Wuppertal, ultimately bringing a sense of closure to the loss since Bausch’s sudden death in 2009. In eye-popping 3D, Wenders’ film leaves us with joy and wonder for Bausch’s seminal canon of choreography.





“Music Alchemy” Ars Lyrica
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Zilkha Hall
November 12, 2011


Under the leadership of artistic director Matthew Dirst, Ars Lyrica Houston continues to lead the way for period-instrument performance in Houston and its recent program of “Musical Alchemy” in Zilkha Hall showcased the repertoire selection and artistic standard that has awarded the ensemble a sizable following in Houston, in addition to a recent Grammy nomination for its world premiere recording of Johann Adolf Hasse’s “Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra.” (Sono Luminus).


The centerpiece of the program was the “Brandenburg Concerto No.5” by J.S. Bach. Having heard this piece in recordings many times and even performed the solo violin part once as a student, I was shocked to discover what I have heard said so many times and never fully understood. Despite that on the surface this piece appears to be a triple concerto for solo flute, violin and harpsichord it is, in fact, a concerto for harpsichord. Dirst’s command of the keyboard is unquestionable and his deftness and ease of approach to the difficult cornucopia of notes was dazzling. He even seemed to be smiling throughout the expansive cadenza which allowed for the kind of delightful astonishment that listeners during Bach’s day might have experienced in the face of a musical form the likes of which had hitherto been unheard.


Making her Houston debut was violinist Ingrid Matthews, who is also Music Director of Seattle Baroque. Although it was sometimes difficult to hear where I was sitting, her oaky and mellifluous sound was a fine match for oboist Kathryn Montoya and traverso player Colin St. Martin. Making her Ars Lyrica debut as well was violist Suzanne LeFevre, who’s meaty baritone was also a delightful addition to the ensemble.


Chris Johnson is a radio host and producer, a violinist and a 2008 Fellow of the NEA Institute for Arts Journalism in Classical Music and Opera at Columbia University.



“Handel’s ‘Rodelinda’”
Mercury Baroque
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
November 19, 2011


A royal tale balancing human emotion and quest for power, Handel’s “Rodelina” is recognized as one of his most beloved operas exhibiting his mastery of vocal brilliance and musical poignancy.


Mercury Baroque showcased the opera seria form with an un- staged production, allowing for the singers to be the main focus of the evening tapping into the pure expression of the characters. The orchestra was masterfully commanded by Antoine Plante who brought out magic between major and minor shifts along with the clarity of the lines of Handel’s composition. During the first act, the audience was treated to the ornamentation and elaboration of the music.


Many of the passages featured rapid flourishes of strings and impressive vocal runs especially in a ritornello form. Soprano Nathalie Paulin immediately captured the audience with a voice so striking, yet composed, a queen faced with discerning love in the midst of turmoil. The second act finally revealed the depth and emotion of the characters. Truly the star of the show was countertenor Tim Mead, who’s piercing voice soared as strings intertwined with the vocal stromentalo recitatives. Paulin and Mead’s duet shined with ornamentations that melded into one voice for the final note of the phrase.


Meghan Hendley is a pianist, vocalist, composer, teacher, and arts administrator.



“Memoirs of a Sistahood – Chapter Three – Ave Maria”
November 17 – 19, 2011


The Beaullieu sisters, Becky Beaullieu Valls and Babette Beaullieu, turn their memory sourcing minds toward their Louisiana Catholic upbringing in the 1950s. The Virgin Mary was huge for their family, especially their mother.


Mixing dance, sculpture, video and text, the sister team weaved a loosely narrative tale that sustains itself more from its bright spots than its overall cohesion. “Memoirs of a Sistahood-Chapter Three-Ava Maria” didn’t find its groove until Act II, where the most potent dancing and images occurred.


A mother daughter duet, sparely danced Toni Valle and Valls, had the dancers tethered by a shroud, reminiscent of the sheer veils obscuring statures of the Virgin Mary. The two struggle, reconcile and struggle again, revealing the complexity of their relationship, especially when you are one of many daughters.


A second, more agitated duet, danced by Valls and Joanie Trevino, contained the most intriguing movement vocabulary of the evening, and a rare chance to see Valls move. She’s an intelligent dancer with an authority to her shapes, holding the space with a quiet reverence and depth rarely seen on Houston stages.


Well into her 50s, Valls carries all that she knows into her movement, showing a grounded quality, a studied grace and a modern dance nobility. She’s like a great mother eagle when she spreads her wings. Although her dancing became the corner stone of the piece for me, it still couldn’t be the glue that held the entire work together. Slow transitions between sections interrupted the flow, making it more episodic, as if each section was made separately, then strung together. Perhaps memory is a fuzzy thing, and the structure mirrored that. Yet, it felt more of a production problem. A redundant video of Virgin Mary statues didn’t add much either. During the course of the show, Beaullieu methodically builds a sculpture of a woman’s form with wire, twigs, beads and other objects.


By the end, the piece becomes enshrined into a cavern of branches, as if the sisters have reinvented their own Virgin Mary.





“Sharon Isbin, Guitar & Mark O’Conner, Violin”
Da Camera of Houston
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
November 20, 2011


Da Camera of Houston brought together two virtuosic forces for a remarkable musical evening. The audience was treated to a flight of folk, classical, jazz and improvisation re-imagining classic solos while highlighting the dynamics of their duo.


Isbin opened the concert with the beauty of unpretentious mastery of her instrument. Her rubato was instinctual and her phrasing was shaped by the moment. Highlights included Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” with tremolos evocative of the ripples of the fountain that inspired the composer. Mark O’Connor opened his portion of the concert with a flare of a soul as the technical aspects floated and flourished from every strike of his bow. He surprised the audience with a purely improvised piece echoing fiddling styles of gypsy music while using effects pedals to expand the range and tone of his instrument.


The final piece featured both performers in the “Strings & Threads Suite,” 13 tunes composed by O’Connor. The suite revealed various folk styles flowing in chronological form, showcasing the evolution of American musical traditions. The “Fair Dancer Reel” was a rapid trip into a jig while “Texas Dance Hall Blues” allowed for the duo to swing and sway together with southern sweetness.





Opera Vista: “Powder Her Face”
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
Zilkha Hall
November 11 – 19, 2011


The fifth anniversary season for Houston’s contemporary opera troupe, Opera Vista (OV), has surely been full of mixed emotions for founder and artistic director Viswa Subbaraman.


After opening the season for an audience of 300–500 at Bayou Bend with a troublesome production of the rarely produced opera “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Philip Glass, Subbaraman and his company set a new standard for themselves as they turned out the best performance in their short history with the recent Houston premiere of Thomas Adés’ controversial opera “Powder Her Face” at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall.


The plot revolves around the life and sexual exploits of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, who during a scandalous divorce proceeding in 1963, became known as the “Dirty Duchess.”


Not since Houston Grand Opera’s 1997 production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” have Houston audiences seen something quite as risqué and provocative on the operatic stage. While Director Atom Egoyan merely added a couple or two in the act of fellatio in the back ground of “Salome,” Adés, along with librettist Philip Hensher created an entire scene complete with a vividly descriptive aria which, despite its subject matter, was portrayed tastefully and elegantly by Director Sandra Bernhard.


Cassandra Black dominated the stage with her powerful soprano and thoughtful character portrayal in the highly demanding role of “Her Grace.” Black’s vocal palette was rich in color and her acting commendable given that the libretto left her with a somewhat onesided character.


With his velvet tenor and boyish good looks, Benjamin Robinson was the perfect compliment to Black. Like his cast mates Kelly Waguespack and Kyle Albertson, he moved effortlessly through multiple roles throughout the evening including The Waiter, who, in the notorious scene described above, was the recipient of the “friendly welcome” for which the Duchess became known not only at the hotel were she lived for the 28 years following her divorce, but also throughout London’s high society of the mid-1960s.


Although OV is reliable for supplying excellent singers for its main-stage performances, an equally great instrumental ensemble to accompany them has, no doubt due to financial constraints, sometimes eluded the organization. Most remarkably, the orchestra for this production proved to be a happy exception. Adés’ score is surely one of the most difficult of recent times. Requiring a battery of percussion instruments, including fishing reels, a popgun and more, this music is not for the faint of heart. Despite what was an obvious exercise in mental acuity, Subbaraman led the performance with grace and ease, and the orchestra responded with impressive precision and fullness of sound.


Chris Johnson is a radio host and producer, a violinist and a 2008 fellow of the NEA Institute for Arts Journalism in Classical Music and Opera.



“My Cold Dead Fingers”
Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre
November 11 – 19, 2011


Joel Orr’s latest puppet show, “My Cold Dead Fingers” tells the story of a fragile lapsed Jew who must battle an army of kombucha soaked demons disguised as contemporary ideologues. The show is charming and irreverent. An audience member said to me, “It’s just like South Park. I love it,” but I think Orr’s show moves beyond the singular punch line dynamic of the Comedy Central show.


The script and puppeteers gracefully articulate physical and metaphorical gestures of indignation at the bobbling heads in society. The show assumes the risk of going all the way, confronting abortion head on with jokes (one of the hardest things to do in humor) without making an ass of itself or conceding artistic ground by way of omission. I commend Orr on the authenticity of the Joshua’s wife’s ramblings on probiotics. (I only wish my Whole Foods enthusiast neighbors could have been there to hear it and understand how they sound when they lecture on the benefits acidophilus.)


Only the foolish and charming Daniel, a Rambo/Rick Perry hybrid of a Christian warrior, can save Joshua the Jew and send him on a hero’s journey, which is fulfilled when he becomes more than himself, he becomes a Jew for Jesus. Puppeteers say the magic in puppetry resides in the things they can do with puppets that they can’t do with actors. When I watched Joshua, a mythical hero, proceed to climb into his own anus (perhaps the only sphincter puppet I’ll ever see), I might have felt the magic of puppetry.


Orr’s introduction to the piece, delivered in the spirit of a true bible thumping puppet leader, created a glowing authenticity to the satirical notion that some strange post apocalyptic Christians might actually travel the Earth telling the story of how an honest Jew fought to bring about the end times and defeat the evil kombucha monster. The decision to stage the show at 14 pews, an old church turned haven for artists, perpetuates the hilarity of it all. Good satire should make us laugh at and with ourselves and each other in hopes of grasping the infinite absurdity that oozes from society. “My Cold Dead Fingers” is good satire.


Joseph Wozny is a Houston based writer, videographer and musician.
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