Sue Scott Gallery

Check two exhibits before they're gone

Douglas Britt
The Houston Chronicle, June 2010

The clock's ticking on a chance to catch a pair of exciting gallery exhibitions packed with smart juxtapositions.

San Francisco artist Darren Waterston's solo show Anatomies converts Inman Gallery into a personal Kunst- und Wunderkammer — an art-and-curiosity cabinet like those that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries and were forerunners to museums.

Late-Renaissance collectors tried to create a microcosm of the world, placing biological specimens and other souvenirs from nature alongside man-made curiosities and artworks. Likewise, Waterston lines the gallery's west wall, which includes a shelf built for the exhibit, with foxtails, minerals, artifacts and other objects he's collected for inspiration over the years, interspersing them with dozens of his own small paintings, which often evoke nocturnal or cosmic landscapes.

Waterston often draws on the illustrated pages of old scientific books, adding his own mutations to the specimens they depict. This intensifies the traditional Wunderkammer's conflation of art, science and pseudo-science, making it tricky to spot which objects are purely artworks or purely found objects.

An overall feeling of nature gone awry is heightened in wall-mounted works so thickly painted they become 3-D objects rather than flat images. Waterston compounds that effect with his first free-standing sculptures. Two sensuous pieces resembling the marks on Chinese scholar's rocks are built up entirely of many layers of black oil paint over a small clay armature. For others, he fuses crabs' bodies or small animals' skeletal remains into composite forms, again layering them in black oil paint. They predate the BP disaster - a case of human activity gone awry - but you can't help thinking of it.

Nor can you help thinking of the Menil Collection's latter-day Wunderkammer, the permanent Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision exhibit in its Surrealism galleries, which Waterston has visited many times. It's a tribute to the strength of the work in Anatomies - and the way Inman Gallery has installed it - that Waterston's show would look right at home at the Menil.

For Precarity and the Butter Tower at CTRL, which is next door to Inman, New York-based artists Jackie Gendel and Tom McGrath take on the role of guest curators. They use an offbeat premise to present a disparate group of their colleagues, many of whom were previously unfamiliar to Houston audiences.

The quirky title incorporates an Anglicized version of a French word, precarité, which the curators define as "being unable to plan one's time, being a worker on call where your life and time is determined by external forces." Migrant and seasonal workers experience this, but so do lots of self-employed people, including artists. Gendel and McGrath invited two dozen artists to consider precarity in their own lives and works - how they navigate the tension between the impulse to create and the need to put food on the table.

The second half of the title refers to a 16th-century addition to the Rouen Cathedral funded by donations from wealthy citizens in exchange for being allowed to eat butter during Lent.

Because the show presents artists with thriving careers alongside relative unknowns struggling to make ends meet, the implication is that some artists - the market-savvy pros - are never without butter while others wait in vain for a pat. Based on quality and mood, it's not obvious who falls into which category. The price list is a better giveaway. But some works wear precarity - or at least its litter-mate, anxiety - on their sleeves.

In Sean Mellyn's painting The Interview, a boy with a paper bag on his head smokes a cigarette through the mouth hole while a light bulb dangles nearby. Houston sculptor Katy Heinlein keeps getting better. The way she uses fringe and satiny fabrics in Put up - an abstract assemblage of cloth, wood, brick - lends the work an opulence that offsets its off-kilter quality. Kristopher Benedict's small, thickly encrusted canvases depict a decidedly humble dwelling, a cross section of a chain-link fence and a pair of hands clinking wine glasses at sunset. They're priced for precarity, but he handles paint like butter.

Other standouts include Vera Iliatova's painterly, enigmatic urban scenes of groups of adolescent girls in mysterious situations; Luisa Kazanas' darkly humorous Untitled (black waterfall), which is like a contained oil spill running through a boutique-y knickknack perched on an unnecessary number of pedestals; and Joshua Marsh's exquisite still life of a blue pitcher rendered in otherworldly colors.

You can't always put your finger on how the works on view relate to the exhibit's theme, but you can feel the show's internal logic even without grasping it. Gendel and McGrath have great instincts for playing interesting artists off one another. Upcoming group shows have a tough act to follow.

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