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Capsule Art Reviews: Houston Permitting Center, "New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection," "Perspectives 177: McArthur Binion," "Peter Massing: Time After Time," "Reconstruction," "Sherrie Levine:

Houston Permitting Center Some of the best artworks in Houston right now can't be found at a gallery or museum, but a government building. When the city decided to turn an old rice warehouse at the end of Washington Avenue into its new Permitting Center, it also set aside money for new artworks to adorn its walls. Mary Margaret Hansen won the commission, and recruited nearly a dozen other artists to help her fill the space. The end result makes for great art that pays homage to Houston's people, landscape, history and present, and has been winning over avid art and architecture fans alike since opening to the public this past fall. One of the most impressive works — Dick Wray's four-story exterior elevator tower — scales the entire building, though you'll have to maintain some distance to appreciate it, as the black cutout needs to be seen from a distance to make out its subjects. Stand too close, and it's unintelligible. Most of the works can be found on the first floor, most notably "Torrent" by Havel Ruck Projects. The high-energy sculpture is made of recycled materials, including street signs, indistinguishable metal scraps and even musical instruments. The piece, appropriately, sings. Also on the first floor is "Remnant Reverie," a hanging forest of hand-painted, burlap coffee-bag chimes by Kaneem Smith. The artist even encourages you to touch them. Go up a couple of flights, and you'll find graffiti paintings by GONZO247 that depict the "information highway" and a sunset. They're giant, vibrant works that make the walls come alive. And, of course, there's Hansen's work. One of her many "text walls" here, which use the white paint of hallways and waiting rooms as her canvas, is "Overheard." This one makes for great water cooler chatter; its text is comprised of real conversations the artist jotted down at the old permitting building, with such gems as "These are my choices?" and "I have lingering doubts" encased in plastic thought bubbles. Taken together, all the works are a scavenger hunt of modern Houston art, made by some of the city's best artists working today. 1002 Washington Ave., 832-394-9000. — MD

"New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection" Avant-garde Czech erotica, anyone? "New Formations," an assemblage of early 20th-century Czech work collected by Mary and Roy Cullen, presents some pretty wonderful things: everything from glassware to periodicals to the aforementioned erotica. And like most shows of private collections, you should visit it for the objects and glimpses of the period it contains rather than to receive a comprehensive overview. Jindrich Štyrský's 1933 text and photomontage, Emile Comes to Me in a Dream, was only distributed through the mail. One of his collages, on view in the show, illustrates why. A photo of a half-naked woman clutching a feathered fan is paired with a photo of a skeleton with its boot still on. Štyrský stuck an image of an erect penis over its pelvis. It captures the decadence bookended by the carnage of WWI and WWII. Tamer but equally impressive offerings in the show include amazing art glass from the '20s and '30s, in which Bohemian glassblowers turned their considerable skills to dramatic modern forms. Through February 5. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Perspectives 177: McArthur Binion" McArthur Binion's show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston features a repetition of geometric shapes — triangles, squares and circles — varying only by color. To make them, he presses wax crayon onto wood and aluminum panels in a very laborious process that results in what the Chicago artist likes to call "Rural Modernism," both a nod to the pieces' heavy texture and his Mississippi upbringing. The result of all this repetition, however, is that once you see one piece, you've seen them all. Whether it's a red triangle, green triangle or purple triangle, there's not much to propel you forward. To be fair, each piece is subtly different, though that's largely indiscernible to the naked eye. That's because barely visible under each layer of crayon are autobiographical elements — pictures of Binion, his birth house, and parents, as well as lynched men and even racist and stereotypical imagery taken from fruit wrappings. The artist cleverly calls this the "under-consciousness" of the work, though like anything that's under the surface, you have to be told it's there, or otherwise miss it completely. One piece that did stand out in the artist's museum debut was Stellucca I: (Rural Geometry) – a parallelogram, the only one of its kind in the show, whose title is a combination of Binion's children's names, Stella and Lucca. With just a few simple lines, Binion manages to create a great tension that really grabs you. Through April 1. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — MD

"Peter Massing: Time After Time" The big talkers at Peter Massing's new Nau-haus Art show are his involved carvings — wood blocks with images of tricksters and wizards carved into them — and their resulting red, blue and green ink prints. The poppy prints are fun to look at and compare the block to its flipped paper counterpart. But in the printmaker's second solo show at the Heights gallery in four years, his collages and prints are really the works to behold. One piece in particular is a big collage that's primarily two blocks of blue scattered with engravings and random images — mainly a couple of old doilies and cartoonish representations of two little boys playing. There's a sense of nostalgia, like artifacts from a half-remembered childhood. I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness, but also sweetness. Another strong piece is the screen print "Marriage/Some Kind of Institution." The main image is an orange sapling, with eyes glowering at you from its leaves. Along the bottom are the words "marriage/some kind of institution...you can't even marry a tree." If you think this might be some comment on the controversial piece The Art Guys Marry a Plant, it'll help to know that Massing is the brother of Jack Massing, who is one half of The Art Guys. Still, what that comment means, exactly, is a bit unclear to me. The image of the tree is flanked by floating heads of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy and bordered by alternating blocks of crude stencils of people, portraits of women reminiscent of works by classical and impressionist painters, and photo-like flowers — it's as if the piece is putting the Art Guys' performance in art history, though I'm not sure if the institution of marriage, or art, is what fails. Ambiguity aside, I was enthralled. Through January 28. 223 E. 11th St., 281-615-4148. — MD

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