"The Progress of Love" One of the most important names in The Menil Collection's exhibition of contemporary African art is a French guy who's been dead for more than 200 years. Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the first European artists to portray love not as an allegory or myth but, as curator Kristina Van Dyke tells us, "a contemporary phenomenon." His Progress of Love cycle of paintings is one such example, depicting a narrative of modern love for the time, from initial pursuit, including the exchange of love letters, to its fulfillment, all in that playful rococo style. The Menil's show, which explores modern representations of love, recognizes its debt to Fragonard by borrowing the title of his painting cycle. One of the very first works you see is also a not-so-subtle reference to Fragonard's most famous painting, The Swing. In The Swing (After Fragonard), British artist Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, creates a life-size replica of Fragonard's flirty woman on the swing, foliage and all, with her slipper even playfully kicked off and suspended in the air. But instead of wearing mid-18th-century French dress, she's sporting a dress made out of Dutch Wax-painted textile. And, even more noticeably, she's headless, as if allowing viewers to substitute anyone they want in that role. From there, the ambitious show presents a number of different representations of love — friendship, patriotism, narcissism, pornography and more — from more than 20 contemporary artists. The artists live all over the world but mostly hail from Africa. There are all types of media on display, too, but the installations are really something. South Africa-born Kendell Geers's Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest) consists of one item repeated 164 times — glass casts of police batons — which he's arranged into the shape of a giant glass heart. All at once it brings to mind the dichotomy of love and hate and asks what place love has in violence, and vice versa. Nadine Robinson's clever installation Like Three manages to be massive and minuscule all at once. A white board with a line across the middle is flanked by vintage speakers. The refrain of The Persuaders song, "It's a thin line between love and hate," is on repeat, like some earworm. That appears to be all there is to take in, until you get up close and realize that black line is actually handwriting, spelling out random words like "happy people," "shampoos," "perfume" and "strawberry ice cream" — a literal thin line between love and hate. Love takes the form of physical affection in the video installation Eaten by the Heart, a piece the Menil commissioned from Nigeria-born filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa that attempts to answer the question "How do Africans kiss?" It features 11 couples smooching for about five minutes each. A unique background color and soundtrack are used for each one (one couple kisses to crashing waves, another to a cheering sports crowd). It's a sweet concept, but I don't think most people can stand to watch an hour of other people making out. There's much, much more to see anyway. It's a big show befitting the subject matter, and each work is more surprising, unique and unexpected than the next, which is no small feat. Through March 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. —MD

"Unpremeditated Natures: Russ Havard and David McClain" Going to Gallery 1724, a salon-slash-gallery in the Museum District, you can never be too sure what's the newest artwork for display and what's just business as usual. So in the space's current show, curated by artist and proprietor Emily Sloan, if you find yourself wandering into the bathroom, don't worry, you're in the right place. As you enter the unconventional gallery, to your right, Houston artist David McClain has filled the walls with art traditionally framed and displayed in a grid. He calls it his "Lawyers" series, and in it, the artist (a lawyer himself, though he's currently not practicing) uses as source material meta magazine ads that advertise specialized law services geared toward other lawyers. He paints over the people and text in thick lines and patches, obscuring and revealing to create works that subvert the ads' original meaning. Phrases like "experience counts," "integrity" and "innovative solutions," meant to differentiate the lawyers and their services, are now exposed for how conventional they all are. Alongside the "Lawyers" series is "Works of Paper," an installation that layers the bathroom inside and out with paintings. McClain refers to his process here as "painting as meditation." Working in an undisciplined, unconscious process, the artist has created works that range from the abstract — splotches and rivers of moody color — to more representational — mostly faces and bodies composed in a naive style. There's also the rare photograph, which is the artist's primary medium. In such a confined space, it's a thrilling explosion of creativity. In the next room, Russ Havard's small graphite drawings line the walls. Like McClain, the Lufkin artist has an almost meditative process. He starts with a shape — a circle, an oval, a line — which morphs into a strong, recognizable form, from a fish to a tree to a pendulum in motion. They're mostly white and gray drawings, as if his little scenes are constantly overcast, though there are brief, welcome moments of spontaneous color. The show is titled "Unpremeditated Natures," which speaks well to the intuitive, carnal process of the artists. At the same time, they couldn't be more different — where McClain's paintings are wild and spontaneous, Havard's are controlled and ordered. It's a compelling pairing. Through January 26. 1724 Bissonnet, 713-582-1198. — MD

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