Art Capsule Reviews

America the Beautiful Brandon Friend gets American culture. His mixed-media works include cow-riding Olsen twins, their ever-smiling faces affixed to naked, surgically enhanced bodies. Other pieces prominently feature creepy baby-doll heads, school photos of awkward teenagers, and boy-on-boy action, and all are rendered in a recognizable style of collage, with photography and paint successfully working in tension throughout the canvases. Sadly, these pieces are not on display at Friend’s current exhibition. What is? A whole lotta Chinese food. Homages to General Tso’s chicken, Cantonese lobster and fortune cookies fill the show, erratically interrupted with flashes of flag and dollar-bill detritus. And it’s not just a cohesiveness among Friend’s subject matter that’s absent — even the most basic formal aspects that work so well in his other efforts have gone missing. (Conversation witnessed regarding one piece: “How much is that lobster?” “Um … $725.” Sneer. “Color’s all wrong.”) Yes, America’s diversity is part of what makes it beautiful. A paean to steamed dumplings is not. Through Sept. 30 at Pi, 419 E. 18th Street, 816-210-6534. (A.F.)

Luke Firle: Transcending Forward It’s only fitting that Luke Firle’s paintings would be shown at a gallery called the Cube. Firle works with shapes — bars and stripes and circles — but makes them warm and inviting by choosing a varied palette in colors that remind us of sorbet. Up close, the viewer can see Firle’s pencil lines and the obvious precision with which he paints. He’s not afraid of texture (it’s there in copious amounts, within various zones in each painting) or hesitant to remove layers of paint to show what’s underneath. He seems to paint with a love of paint, as though painting is playtime for him. One of the simplest and prettiest pieces in the show leaves a stretch of canvas almost bare but for splashes of gray spattered across it; in one section, a mint-green, branchlike shape sweeps across, providing a lovely diversion from the geometry and lines. Through Oct. 15 at the Cube at Beco, 1922 Baltimore, 816-582-8997. (R.B.)

Greetings From Robot City One of the most unnerving things about the MoMO’s latest show is that it doesn’t seem all that far removed from present-day society. Upon hearing about Eliot Daughtry’s concept — na&ium1;ve art by Model_23, a robot lacking “designated art creation circuitry” who nonetheless constructs lighted cityscapes — we expected transportation to an eerie, futuristic land of automatons. But with various two- and three-dimensional views of high-rises, storefronts and street lights, peppered with helicopters and SUVs, we were routed instead to New York City. And those robots, incapable of original thought or free will? Um … we think they’re us. Had Daughtry (whose name suggests the best Jane Austen character that never was) toned down his show’s gimmickry, the work might have seemed less commercial. Through Oct. 2 at MoMO Studio, 1830 Locust, 816-645-3647. (A.F.)

Peter Max Lawrence: Sacred Monsters Here’s a show that sounds a little scarier than it is. Peter Max Lawrence’s monsters aren’t exactly what they seem. One toothy ogre has eyelashes and a coy look. A painting called “The Green Klansman” manages to make us feel a little sympathy for the racist. (“I’m just going through the motions,” reads the thought bubble above his head. A Klansman in crisis?) On their own, Lawrence’s paintings are funny in a sort of uncomfortable way — chickens wear boxing gloves, figures wear masks and pointy hats — but the titles make them downright hilarious. “Horatio Contemplates Fellatio” and “The Appreciation of Tampons” probably speak to our own sophomoric sense of humor, but it’s “Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” that’s become a catchy tune that won’t stop playing in our head. The painting itself, which imagines the ubiquitous couple as unrecognizable superheroes, is at once silly and striking. Through Sept. 30 at the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery, 2012 Baltimore, 816-474-1919. (R.B.)

Newrotic: Experiments in Eroticism With new gallery director Luis Garcia in place, the Vault has gathered paintings of women resembling Tank Girl, airbrushed hip-hop portraits and girls who look straight out of manga. But one person’s Playboy centerfold is another’s unsexy nightmare. Accordingly, the works in this group show are a bit of a sensual smorgasbord — what one viewer finds titillating, another might find mundane. Adrian Halpern’s delicate, disjointed figures (a screaming girl wields a sword in one hand; her other arm is a fish, her legs a mass of snakes) are set next to a series of photographs called “Mine Is Bigger Than Yours” in which Beanie Babies are placed in provocative positions with … mushrooms. The piece that provoked the most laughter on opening night involves Ronald McDonald proclaiming “I’m loving it” as a woman, naked but for thigh-high stockings and a corset around her midsection, goes down on his Big Mac. We’ll skip the joke about supersizing it. Through Nov. 24 at the Vault Gallery at Leedy-Voulkos, 2012 Baltimore, 816-405-3562. (R.B.)

Larry Schwarm: Rites of Renewal Larry Schwarm obsessively photographs immense prairie fires. His horizons glow, and flames appear to leap off the prints. Either nature has a keen eye for composition and graciously sets up all kinds of beautiful shots, or Schwarm — an artist and not, say, a firefighter — knows instinctively how to position himself relative to a fast-moving fire so that he catches mind-blowing moments where everything’s lined up just so. All this, and he still makes it out safely with his rolls of film. Some of the photographs are blurry from the smoke and look unreal, like watercolors. Others, taken from a greater distance, look almost too real to believe — a tree glows a strange golden brownish orange from the light of an off-camera flame that also renders the grass a hazy shade of purple — because they’re the kinds of things that most of us expect not to see without being in extreme danger. To stand back in awe without having to be afraid is a privilege. Through Oct. 22 at the Sherry Leedy Gallery, 2004 Baltimore, 816-221-2626. (G.K.)

Categories: A&E