July 10, 2008

Last Call for These Houston-Area Art Exhibits

By Douglas Britt, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 9--For Forced Fields, Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand's installation at the Houston Center for Photography, the husband-and-wife collaborative have projected video imagery through, onto and around several large balloons.

This makes walking into the dark gallery feel a bit like entering a mini-solar system. Its planets look lit from within and seem to have volatile, swirling atmospheres.

They've got stars, too -- big, fat ones slowly emerging from a strange, primordial muck commonly known on this planet as cookie dough. Much of the imagery, which shifts in and out of abstraction, is of Magsamen and Hillerbrand's children, shot through Plexiglas, making star-shaped cookies.

On their Web site, maryandstephan.com, the Houston artists aptly compare their practice to what Edward Weston did with his photographs of bell peppers -- finding beauty and elegance in the mundane.

While Weston teased eroticism out of his peppers' curves, Magsamen and Hillerbrand, who both teach in the photography/digital media program at the University of Houston, take a piece of everyday life and defamiliarize it but not past all points of recognition.

The domestic sphere becomes multiple cosmic spheres, and the effect is gently disorienting, luminous and sweet.

Tim Lee at CAMH In the basement gallery of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the effect of Vancouver-based Tim Lee's conceptual shenanigans is mainly that of having someone tell you a series of one-liners -- some mildly amusing, others lame -- and then explain the intentions and origins of each joke.

Lee stages photos and videos in which he casts himself as actors, athletes, musicians or artists during what he sees as pivotal moments in their careers. For the best photo in the show, in which Lee imitates Iggy Pop doing a backbend, the artist hung upside down from a similarly dressed man's shoulders and cropped the top of the image.

That kind of trickery pervades the show, although gimmickry might be a better word since you can always tell there's some sort of manipulation going on. The wall texts dutifully spell out what the manipulation was, then quote liberally from Lee's interview with CAMH senior curator Toby Kamps, in which the artist overshares about his thought process.

There's a lot of explanation, but precious little payoff here, and the interview suggests what the problem is.

"I spend relatively little time -- about a few weeks of the year -- actually making work," Lee says. "Usually the rest is spent just thinking about everything."

Maybe reversing that ratio would make his work more interesting.

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