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Capsule Art Reviews: "Anodyne," "Bridge 11: Lia Cook," "The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni," "Love Man," "Perspectives 177: McArthur Binion," "Push Play"

"Anodyne" It's difficult to label Joe Mancuso's work by any traditional means. Is it sculpture? Painting? Installation? All of the above seem appropriate in the Houston artist's latest show at Barbara Davis Gallery. These art vocabulary-defying conundrums begin with the piece Bouquet. It's a careful arrangement of polywood, with flower pieces layered on top of each other in a methodical process — Mancuso's even left his pencil marks noting which piece goes where on the work. This bouquet is all about the texture — there's no color here, just white on white, as the piece is attached to the gallery wall for a pleasing effect. The petal motif continues throughout the exhibition. Precious Field is comprised of row upon row of hand-cast porcelain in the same flower shape as Bouquet, but cleaner and on a much, much smaller scale. Hundreds of these flowers (it's too dizzying to count precisely) were identically made by machine and then laid by hand on the linen canvas, making for an unexpected domestic quality and clever contrast between these mechanical and human touches. Two related works — Culture (waterlillies) and Waterlillies — are comprised of circles of white latex of varying sizes dropped across the surface of the canvas. In Culture, the latex is dropped onto newspaper, making for one of the most colorful pieces in the show, even if it's still dominated by white. "Anodyne" is a modest show — there are only nine works — but it's plenty. Each piece needs room to breathe, there's so much detail to take in and appreciate (in Precious Field, for instance, each flower cleverly has screws in the middle where the pollen would be). The relevant spring-like feel and overwhelming use of white add a likable lightness to the show, too. "Anodyne" does mean inoffensive, after all. Through May 5. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose #600, 713-520-9200. — MD

"Bridge 11: Lia Cook" There is a great illusion at work in Lia Cook's show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Her massive, black-and-white photographs of human faces — children gazing calmly at the camera, or extreme close-ups of lips and noses — are not photographs at all. Rather, they're comprised of intricately woven cotton that, when viewed from afar, takes on a recognizable image. The oft-treaded pointillist technique is reinvigorated in Cook's striking, large-scale, intricate, fiber art works, based on photographs that she's taken or pulled from her childhood. To create them, she uses a digital Jacquard loom. Viewing from a distance, the mostly black-and-white images become clear. But up close, when you're nose-to-nose with the subjects, it's pixelated gibberish. The museum gives viewers plenty of space to view the large-scale works, and they're best seen as far away as possible. In fact, as you wander throughout the space and glance back at works you've already seen, they become more defined and have added depth. Cook has certainly created a memorable experience for museum-goers; if only the images themselves held up as well. Sure, she has made some interesting choices — a pair of blurry photos of two kids is quite alluring, as your mind works in vain to pull them into focus, and her cropped images, showing just parts of the face, are dramatic. But many of the images aren't all that remarkable, and a science-inspired series that plays with colored thread is also a bit baffling. Through May 13. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD

"The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni" Hans Erni is one of Switzerland's best-known artists, and a contemporary of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Over the decades, he's worked in lithography, digital technology and everything in between. At 103 years old, he still works in his studio every day, rivaling artists a quarter of his age. So I had high hopes for Erni's first major retrospective here in the United States, held at the Museum of Printing History. But I was let down. The retrospective consists of 40 posters, mainly painted illustrations, arranged for the most part in chronological order, from 1948 to 2009. In his decades-long career, Erni has done more than posters, and the museum's exhibition brochure even boasts that his work includes paintings, print and book illustrations, stage design, tapestry and postage stamps. Sure, the exhibition needs some focus given his wide span, but with row upon row of 128-by-91-centimeter posters, other types of graphic art would have been appreciated simply for some variety, as well as to accurately portray and pay tribute to the range of Erni's work. Another missing component is context. Given his Swiss pedigree, the posters are largely in French and German, and, removed from their time frame of reference, they're difficult to decipher. But you can still judge Erni's graphic artwork on its own. The work itself varies wonderfully in style and theme, from dramatic images of a skull topped with an atomic bomb plume to a decapitated tree (literally). Many are united by Erni's repeated use of geometric elements, especially circles, and sometimes even consistent fonts. In some works, the artist adopts styles similar to those of the masters, such as in a striking silkscreen from 1961 of a naked woman that's reminiscent of Picasso, and a Degas-esque print of a woman holding up a giant nut. These intriguing finds make for some standouts in this small show, which despite its flaws is necessary viewing for fans of Erni stateside. Through June 9. 1324 W. Clay St., 713-522-4652. — MD

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