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Capsule Art Reviews: "Michael Bise: Birthday," "Monster Show 2," "Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper," "Pompeo Batoni," "Rackstraw Downes" and "Tom of Finland"

"Michael Bise: Birthday" Michael Bise's work just keeps getting better and better. With pencil, paper and a cinematic sense of narrative, Bise records moments from his life. His exhibition "Birthday" focuses on his father's death — on his 50th birthday. We see an overhead view of his father's body lying prone on a leaf-strewn concrete patio; it's from the aerial viewpoint of a soul glancing back to earth as it flees the body. Bise uses a filmmaker's approach to the scene. Another image, a self-portrait, shows Bise standing stunned in his dorm room, clutching a cordless phone and wearing a rumpled Superman T-shirt, a half-eaten Hot Pocket on the desk behind him. It's Bise's tremendous eye for detail that really pushes his drawings to another level — the karate trophies clustered on a dresser in a childhood bedroom, the epic collection of Britney Spears posters on his sister's bedroom wall, the sad little pumpkin decoration poking out of the ground next to his father's headstone. It's incredibly poignant work that could turn maudlin, but Bise's wry powers of observation cut through any superficial sentimentality. Through November 24. Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, 713-526-9911. — KK

"Monster Show 2" As if Domy Books isn't a cool enough bookstore (you almost have to force yourself to leave), it regularly gives shoppers a selection of good, affordable art. Domy's second annual "Monster Show," an autumn display of fiendish imagery, runs the gamut from childlike marker drawings to watercolors to intricate graphics. Standouts include Mark Hesterlee's colorful Brak-esque characters posing on dirt bikes, Seth Alverson's bizarre and unsettling quasi-prehistoric scene of a multi-tusked mastodon caught in the center of a caveman slaughterfest and Yar!'s continuing series of eerie alien races. David Wang contributes a mesmerizing negative space drawing, Luz de Una Estrella Muerta. And don't miss Death Head's "mujer" trio, a series of monstrous, comic pinup girls, which includes Mujer Hamburguesa, a cigarette-smoking roller-boogie vixen with the head of Mayor McCheese. On view through November 30. 1709 Westheimer, 713-523-3669. — TS

"Perspectives 158: Kelly Nipper" Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Nipper creates works that seem fixated on the recording process, or which use a recording element (audio, film and video) to explore time and spatial relationships (and probably not much else). For her stark exhibit, part of an ongoing series at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's Zilkha Gallery, the intimate confines of Nipper's images and video projections contrast nicely with the volume of gallery space between each piece. Love with the Sound Technician, a series of five nearly identical photographs, documents a hanging mobile made of wire and ice being recorded by two boom mikes in a recording studio. Could it be a statement on the entropic state of radio? Evergreen consists of four large color photographs of a green theater curtain. By the fourth photo, a sound technician has set up two microphones in front of it. According to Nipper, she had asked the sound guy to set the stage for the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson duet "Evergreen" from A Star Is Born — it's a detail that, once known, might even manage to bolster the piece's banality. The only home run here is An Arrangement for the Architect and a Darkroom Timer, an hour-long video of two total strangers, one male and one female, standing less than a foot apart and facing each other. They don't speak, and it's hypnotic to watch the two attempt to dominate each other, leaning in and out, cushioned by the space between them. But at certain points, there's the sense that they're each thinking, "What have I gotten myself into?" Luckily, we have the luxury of simply stepping away. Through December 9. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS

"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" Among the portraits on view in this exhibition is one of a British tourist named Robert Clements. To commemorate his trip to Rome, the 21-year-old Clements posed casually, leaning against a pedestal that displayed a bust of the blind poet Homer. He clasped a book in his hand as if he were about to hold forth on the Iliad. While today's tourists might bring back a snapshot of themselves on the Spanish Steps, in 1753 wealthy young British men like Clements headed to Pompeo Batoni's studio to have their portrait painted. To show where they had been, Batoni obligingly painted them surrounded by icons of Italy — Roman artifacts and scenes from the Italian countryside. Batoni practiced history painting, the supreme genre of the period, but portraits of the British elite (and their dogs) on what was then known as "the Grand Tour" became his bread and butter. We see in Batoni's subjects an eagerness to show where they have been and to pose in exotic garb the same way contemporary tourists don loud shirts on Caribbean cruises. Beyond creating a cultural record from the period, Batoni was a renowned and highly skilled painter. His ability to render likenesses of sitters, record the details of their dress and convey the gestures of their hands was widely remarked upon, then and now. Batoni's careful compositions, appropriately symbolic objects, detailed renderings of his subject's fashionable dress and tactful likenesses remind us of the time when craft dominated painting. Through January 27. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

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