“WHAT ARE YOU BEING TOLD, and who are you telling what you’ve been told?”

This is the question David McGee wants to explore in his aptly named exhibit The Telling and the Told at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. McGee tells me he seeks to encourage viewers to reconsider the pop culture, race, politics, and class that form our “image-obsessed world.” Effectively, he considers his art not just an examination of the African American experience, but a way to explore the human experience.

The exhibit was inspired by a love for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. McGee finds the novel completely re-evaluates the deconstruction of the body, leading to a conversation about what it means to be abandoned due to a lack of cosmetic appeal. His artwork also explores pop culture’s rigid beauty standards that proliferate through magazines, television, and music, allowing McGee to question the ways we define the erotic.   

Before entering the gallery, viewers are warned the work might alarm or offend; indeed, the gallery is full of imagery that might make you uncomfortable at first. Hanging on the walls, watercolor paintings play between aversion and appeal, yet McGee doesn’t just use this controversial material to shock his viewers, but to convey his message. “I use nudity and the human form to show that concealment doesn’t solve the problem,” he says.

With censorship of graphic material and as women are told to protect themselves by covering their bodies, McGee makes a bold statement that these measures don’t resolve the underlying issues of sexual harassment or violation. He uses nudity to demonstrate concealment is not the answer.

Specifically, The Collector: the three big nudes, considers the way that we collect images with three portraits depicting the same nude woman in different perspectives. In one painting, she captures the viewer’s attention by the scale of her massive breast that she grasps. By accentuating body parts like the monstrous, Frankensteinian head in one and gargantuan breasts in the other, he demonstrates the absurdity of looking at mass and scale to assign value to bodies. McGee references the evolution from art history’s celebration of the robustness of the female form to the shift towards the modern-day beauty standard. He asks the viewer to consider how they define sexuality in terms of the size and scale of different bodies.

My eyes are naturally drawn to other provocative images in the exhibit as well, like killers kiss: nude giving finger with a nude woman who flicks me off as I walk by, or Georgia cracker: THE MAN WITH WARTS, which is a portrait of a decrepit, wart-covered man with the words “a white person from Georgia” scrawled on the border. But I allow myself to embrace the discomfort I feel when viewing these words and images that aren’t politically correct, while trying to enjoy the beauty of the technique itself.

McGee further uses what he calls “the literary quality of watercolors” to engage the subject matter by controlling the paint to make clean, elegant lines which tell emotional stories. At the same time, these stories intellectually pursue issues like ownership of the body and racial stereotypes of the historical Southern white man in Georgia cracker.

At the bottom of many paintings, names of influential artists, composers, writers, and conductors are written in ornamental lettering; McGee wants names like Dalí, Hans Richter, and Duchamp to ignite the curiosity of viewers who might be unfamiliar with these figures and encourage them to consider how these names influence their relation to the painting itself. For example, McGee paints Dalí as an African American man so that the viewer can reimagine the artist with this new ethnic background. At a previous exhibition, a woman actually commented, “I never knew Dalí was black."

In bastard bed: has it written on it, McGee channels his love for film by playing with the positioning and juxtaposition of objects in the scene. The painting takes the format of a storyboard, with three different scenes partitioned into separate blocks. The sequence creates a narrative that seems to reference the cosmetic and sexual appeal of the body by featuring Frankenstein’s head, an arm tattoo, and an untidy bed.

McGee’s watercolor paintings tell stories that encourage the viewer to reconsider the fixed ideas they might have. He wants to reassign the situation and refocus the viewer to start an important conversation about what we’ve been told and what we’re telling others. Instead of accepting pop culture’s beauty standards or society’s perception of the African-American experience, McGee wants viewers to pursue their own understanding.

Thru Jan. 12. Free (donations encouraged). Houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline St. 713-526-1015. More info at hmaac.org.