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Capsule Art Reviews: "Anodyne," "Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst," "Perspectives 177: McArthur Binion," "Pictures and Words," "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

"Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst" Willem van Aelst made a career out of painting still-lifes of fine goods — furs, precious metals, feathers. In other words, items that would have appealed to his wealthy clientele. To think of it another way, it's like a modern-day artist who paints Louis Vuitton purses. But if painted by van Aelst, they would be the most stunning Louis Vuitton purses you have ever seen. Van Aelst was a virtuoso painter during the 17th-century Dutch still-life era, though, in a crowded scene, he hasn't always gotten his due (artists like Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, the latter of whom he taught, are his better-known contemporaries). In fact, Van Aelst has never had an exhibition devoted solely to his work until now, with this show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibit features 27 oil paintings pulled from the artist's known canon of about 150 works. It is a fitting tribute to the skilled painter, who rose to the challenge of matching the sumptuousness and brilliance of the luxury objects he painted. Granted, it wasn't all glamor; about half of the works on display here feature game — trophies of rabbits, roosters and rams that are almost too realistically depicted as they stare back at you, dead in the eyes — along with the luxury. The other half of the show is devoted to his paintings of flowers and fruit. Both display his use of radiant color, nuanced lighting and fine attention to detail, down to the blood on a chicken's beak in Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge, a missing button on a hunting jacket in Still Life with Birds and Hunting Equipment or a fly on a dead rooster in Still Life with Birds. There are many little discoveries like these to be made throughout the show, which traces van Aelst's development as an artist. Through May 28. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — MD

"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

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