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Art Capsule Reviews

A picture of our opinions on local exhibitions

 "Brooke Stroud: New Drawings" and "Michael Petry: In the Garden of Eden" There are two new exhibitions at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery -- one is subtle, the other subtly subversive. Brooke Stroud's colored pencil drawings on gray cardboard have an Agnes Martin vibe to them. The cardboard looks like the kind of cheap stuff that backs a notepad, but Stroud makes it precious with careful horizontal lines of luminous color that cluster together and then spread out. Each piece is monochromatic, and the colors with more contrast work the best. In the main gallery, Michael Petry's "In the Garden of Eden" presents giant slabs of wood hanging from the ceiling, grouped like trees in a forest. They are cross-sections of various trees, with the bark edges intact. The trees -- lime, yew, chestnut -- are found in England, where the El Paso-born artist lives and works. With its beautiful, oiled surfaces, the wood has a low-key organic beauty, which is what the piece seems to be about -- until you notice the holes. A jar lid-size hole has been drilled into each plank. You could peer from one hole through to the others, but the holes aren't at eye height. The smooth, sanded and splinter-free openings are, ahem, at crotch height...Suddenly, the exhibition's title takes on a whole new meaning. Through March 10. 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097.

"Dirk Rathke: Room Drawing for Houston and Wall Objects" Dirk Rathke's monochromatic paintings on shaped canvases call to mind the work of Ellsworth Kelly. While Rathke's canvases aren't quite in the same league as Kelly's, they do have their own quirk: they're three-dimensional -- skewed from side to side, with surfaces that are concave, convex or lopped off at odd angles. He builds up his thick, smooth layers of pigment on the nubby surface of the canvas using colors like traffic orange or luminous, acidy yellow. For most of the pieces, the canvas is stretched over solid wooden forms rather than a stretcher framework. Rathke could more easily paint on the forms themselves, but using a traditional painting surface like canvas is part of his point. He leaves the sides of the canvases raw, emphasizing the material. The three-dimensional surfaces and the layer of paint flicker between painting and sculpture. Through February 24. Gallery Sonja Roesch, 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424.

"The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows" Michael Jones McKean's show at DiverseWorks is the best thing Houston has seen from the former Core fellow. Water, adventure and exploration are the loose themes of his epic installation. Some aspects of the show are amazing, but others are also amazingly frustrating -- especially if you actually try to follow the schizophrenic collection of influences cited for the installation. At the entrance to the main gallery, a gargantuan fan turns slowly and ominously. The breeze is ridiculously light for the imposing scale of the object. Next to the fan is another massive circular form, a weighty-looking ship's wheel made from papier-mch. A riverboat, or part of one, at least, dominates the main gallery, and it's a pretty fabulous undertaking. You expect to hear it creak as it bobs in water. So far, the installation is flowing pretty well, but then McKean starts to throw wrenches into the works with careful arrangements of disparate objects -- clothes, plaster masks, a dog leash, a conquistador's helmet and what looks like a pile of minimalist art. Nearby, a giant '80s-vintage boom box plays Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)." If you really want to try to figure out what's going on, you could try to consult the 14-volume reference section the artist has included with the installation. In the end, McKean seems hell-bent on trying to make things convoluted, over-thinking and complicating his work. Through February 24. 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.

"The Target Collection of American Photography: A Century in Pictures" This exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston surveys a hundred years of work by American photographers. Three powerful works by three renowned photographers stand out. One of the earliest photos in the show is Kate and Rachel, taken in 1907 by James Van Der Zee of his wife and young daughter. The image is a lovely, sentimental, turn-of-the-century scene, but Van Der Zee's photos are important for another reason, too -- he created some of his era's few photographs of black people by a black photographer. Russell Lee photographed farmers, sharecroppers and migrant workers, illustrating their plight. At first glance, his FSA Clients at Home, Hidalgo County, Texas (1939) looks like a Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post. But as you get a little closer, you see some "what's wrong with this picture?" details. The man's sock has a gaping hole; the wife's hair net is torn; her worn, dirty shoes look like they were taken off a dead hobo. The seemingly straightforward photograph speaks volumes about the sweeping devastation of the Great Depression. Margaret Bourke-White's striking photograph A Blast Furnace Under Construction in Ural Mountains as Part of the First Five-Year Plan, Magneto-Gorsk, USSR (1931) depicts a massive construction project in Magnetogorsk, a city newly made in the remote Ural Mountains for the purpose of mining iron ore and processing steel. We share in the photographer's awe at this massive industrial complex arising from nothing, but with the benefit of hindsight into the atrocities that came with industrialization under Stalin, we see a ghostly afterimage. Through February 25. MFAH's Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

 
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