It’s just a piece of paper

Student art shows remind me that it’s really hard to make great art. (And that you have to see them quickly; they come and go like holidays.) Gallery and museum exhibitions usually pass through some sort of curatorial process, and in an age when the Texas journal Artlies deservedly devotes an issue to “The Death of the Curator” it’s easy to forget that this process weeds out a fair amount of work that is either beautifully executed but uninteresting, or ambitious but poorly made.

But these end-of-semester catch-alls almost always offer a glimpse of profound talent-in-development. It seems almost unfair to place recent Artpace resident Katie Pell among the students at UTSA Satellite Space, but hell, if pro basketball players are eligible for the Olympics ... The usual art suspects will recognize Pell’s cheerful, romantically graphic forest settings from her recent installation at Blue Star, where you could have your picture taken in a glorious alcove surrounded by adoring woodland creatures. For this show, Pell has created “Storm,” an installation consisting of a pair of 1.5-foot-wide drawings that begin on the ceiling overhead, run the length of the wall, and stretch toward the viewer on the floor: lifesize swaths of forest, in which chipmunks and bunnies play among magnolia blossoms at our feet, birds and a lemur nest in the leafy trees, and above us, a pair of eyes stares from the clouds. From these ojos de dios a pair of curlicue drawings filled with bees and bits of flora unfurl to the floor. It’s another of Pell’s arresting fairytale settings, but the eyes hint at an evolving cosmology, and the suggestion of environmental doom in the title is enhanced by the drawings’ profile, which resembles a hangman’s scaffolding. If her Blue Star installation was “Less Than Half of What You Deserve,” this set of drawings suggests that one-sided relationships are doomed to failure.

Scott Oldfield hangs a lifesize, white, headless ape torso — resembling Rudolph’s Abominable Snow Monster — from a movable metal scaffolding, like a skeleton in a science lab, making it both alarming and pitiably tragic. It’s our 19th-century explorer/acquisition impulses strung up for examination.

The irony of Tommy Gregory’s mixed-media sculpture, “Neiman Pinche Marcos,” is that for its inflammatory, revolution-inciting name, it’s just beautiful. A long, organically arching branch rises through a narrow cage of artful scaffolding, which ends in two wooden platforms. Above these platforms, small bronze steps are wedged into the wood for another foot or so, evoking the magic of Jack and the Beanstalk and the folly of the Tower of Babel, but also casting plainly lovely shadows on the wall behind.

Another, but by no means final, standout is a surreal dual portrait by Carlos Donjuan, “The cool guys,” pairing a b-boy classically attired in shades, cap, hoodie, and watch, with a man in a red keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress. The latter’s face, whited out, tilts to look at a watch while he holds a cell phone to his ear. In the wake of 9/11, and more immediately, Mumbai, it’s tempting to read him as a potential terrorist. Behind them, pale dunes rise against a washed-out anime landscape. Donjuan lets the grain of the underlying birch show through in several areas, giving texture and an added layer of what feels like timelessness to the figures and their background. Perhaps one man is a sleeper, the other still asleep to himself.

The UTSA student show at Lone Star Studios, juried by St. Philip’s prof Regis Shephard, also features artists worth adding to your “To Watch” list. In Hiromi Tsuji’s delicately drawn challenge to genetic engineering, a braided bird perches on plate cradling three fur-covered eggs.

Tammy Mills’ “Marilyn Says ‘A Woman’s Hairdo Is More Important Than Her Virtue,” is as over-reaching as the title suggests, but baby, is it fun and cool nonetheless. A doll wise beyond her wide-eyed years is divided into three panels. In the top frame, her head is covered in colorful curlers. Her torso is cloaked in a heart-covered sundress, while her bare arms abjectly offer a tray of cookies. In the bottom frame, bare kneeling legs end in exotic dancer heels. The tarnished backgrounds are like ’50s atomic pop on a bad ’60s trip. It doesn’t quite all work, but it hints at a quirky personal vision that can create insightful mashups from current trends.

And I’m interested in seeing anything the multitalented Juan de Dios Mora produces. At Lone Star he showed both a sharp linoleum print with a tightly wound narrative, and an over-the-top acrylic painting that imparts just enough early Willem de Kooning and Alice Neel to make “Lambiendo los Huevos” (A self-portrait?) interesting.

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