Capsule Art reviews: "Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst," "Endearing the Line," "Five Houses," "The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni," "Round 36"

 "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

"Endearing the Line" Berlin-based artist Dirk Rathke has quickly built himself a reputation here in Houston. After several shows at Gallery Sonja Roesch, he's known for his curved canvases — monochrome shapes that bend, twist and seemingly ripple ever so slightly; you have to check the edge of the work just to make sure of their depth — and stripped-down drawings that go off the canvas entirely. In his third exhibition at the gallery, Rathke returns to familiar territory. As the name suggests, the show plays with line, space and dimension, resulting in playful, attention-holding pieces. The most prominent is the remarkable site-specific installation Room-drawing for Houston #2. In his first solo show at Sonja Roesch, back in 2007, Rathke memorably took over the back end of the gallery with neon orange tape. He does so again, this time placing orange tape in the shape of two squares that take over the ceiling, wall and floor. It's part sculpture, part painting, thanks to the brush stroke-like lines of the tape, and it completely throws you off. You're not sure how to react to it — do you look at it straight on, or dare to get inside the lines and challenge the 3-D quality of the work? The canvas-twisted works also play with this line between sculpture and painting. Rot Zweiteilig is the most striking of these, comprised of two solid-red canvases that are forced together, a line between them adding to the tension. In the future, it'd be nice to see the artist move in another direction instead of doing more of the same. But what he has now is still powerful, memorable work — those neon orange squares will be etched in my mind for quite some time. Through June 30. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. — MD

"Five Houses" Going in, Ai Weiwei's Five Houses seemed like an important exhibition. It marks the U.S. premiere of the Chinese artist's project, which debuted at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria, this past summer. It's one of several events around the city connected with Weiwei, coinciding with the opening of the new Asia Society Texas Center and the installation of his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in Hermann Park. And, it's the first new architectural project since Weiwei, an outspoken political figure, was arrested and detained in his native China last year for "alleged economic crimes." But as I left Five Houses, up now at the Architecture Center Houston, I was more frustrated than anything. The gist of the show is this — these five scale models are just part of a larger project by Weiwei, a contemporary interpretation of a residential building which the artist is creating in collaboration with other architects and furniture designers, called the "Ai Weiwei House." That right there seems to be part of the problem. These scale models are like the sketches of a painting or sculpture — they're not the final product and have trouble standing on their own without a sense of the larger context (or without labels, for that matter). What would help is if the viewer had greater guidance in order to understand their place in the bigger picture. Right now, though, the exhibition either assumes a close familiarity on the viewer's part with Weiwei's work and architectural philosophy, or assumes its limited materials suffice to explain and connect the work. As a result, for those drawn in by the high profile of the artist, the experience likely will be more frustrating than illuminating. Through May 25. 315 Capitol, Suite 120, 713-520-0155. — MD

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