"Mac Whitney: Sculptures and Paintings" Mac Whitney's current show at Gallery Sonja Roesch only just went up earlier in January, but the sculptor would be familiar to regular gallery-goers as well as those who just happen to drive by the Midtown gallery. For the past seven months, the artist's 3,000-plus-pound sculpture Carrizozo has stood prominently outside the gallery, a red beacon as well as a preview of sorts of his solo show — a variety bag of a dozen of the Texas artist's sculptures, as well as a handful of paintings, all made over the latter half of his more than 40-year career. Whitney is a skilled metalworker who can manipulate steel at any scale and make it bend or curve at his command. It's quite astonishing to go from his 20-foot-tall Carrizozo to the barely 20-inch Bosque, another red number that rests on the gallery's table and is one of the first works you see upon entering. Despite their difference in stature, they have the same sense of strength, movement and elegance. Through his minimal use of color — just solid reds, blacks, blues or grays — he lets the raw steel do the talking. The artist's paintings are quite the departure from his metalwork. Where Whitney's sculptures are strong, interlocking forms, his oil paintings are loose and erratic in their lines. Where his sculptures are solid, bold colors, his paintings are messy bursts of blues, yellows and reds all at once. It's like he's freeing his mind from the constraints of the steel and imagining what shapes he might be able to bend his next sculpture into, against all odds. Through February 23. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. —MD

"Mie Olise: Crystal Bites of Dust" The Gowanus Canal is barely two miles long and yet the lore surrounding the Brooklyn waterway is renowned. Decades of pollution from chemical plants and coal yards on its shores have made it one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation, and two years ago it was designated a Superfund site. At one point, it was even diagnosed with gonorrhea. Sadly, it's also a place where dolphins go to die. For years, the area surrounding the canal has also attracted artists looking for cheap rents and the romantic inspiration that decaying industrial sites can bring. Mie Olise is one of them. Originally from Copenhagen, the painter currently has a studio only a few blocks from the canal, and her latest series pulls directly from the canal (literally, it turns out, too). As if the canal's bleak, rugged industrialism and murky, toxic waters didn't provide enough to work with, Olise was also painting after Hurricane Sandy, and the resulting displacement of the area's structures is evident. Things are slightly off in her loose, flat paintings. Boats and canoes lean at odd angles, and factories and plants stand on stilts, stretching up to the sky at unsettling heights and tilts. These aren't landscapes, either — the boats and houses that occupy her monumental paintings and small studies exist in their own planes, with little telling you this is even a waterfront, save for the reflections of canoes in a couple of works. In a move that's both fascinating and icky, Olise uses her subject literally in her paintings, mixing water from the Gowanus with her acrylic paint. It's there in all of her works, though its presence seems to be most evident in the dirty brown of "Loading House." The titular house looms intimidatingly and threatens to collapse on its thin wooden legs at any second, or just wash away completely. Thanks to the dripping quality of Olise's Gowanus paint, it seems to be in the midst of that process. But these works aren't all dark. Olise employs unnaturally cheery pastels in her paintings, from the pinks in the canoes and solid backdrops to the dreamy strips of blues in her abandoned factories. The Gowanus in Olise's mind is not some gross, sad place, but one still worthy of some color and beauty. Through March 8. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. — MD

"Wilo Vargas: Hierophany and Pareidolia" What makes an image of a man no longer just a man, but Buddha? How do people see the visage of Jesus on bread or in a tree, and why is it such a big deal when they do? When does an elephant stop being an ordinary elephant, but a totem? These are some of the questions explored in Wilo Vargas's current show up at G Gallery, which also marks the Peruvian artist's Houston debut. The title, "Hierophany and Pareidolia," refers to two psychological states — one being the manifestation of the sacred in objects (hierophany), wherein objects are given significance or sacred meaning, the other being the act of unconsciously recognizing these objects (pareidolia) — for example, seeing Christ's face on a slice of toast. Vargas plays with these notions by using iconography in his paintings. There are images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Buddha and Christ, as well as totemic animals like elephants, eagles and lions. But the catch is that their likenesses aren't all that apparent at first. Like a gigantic "Magic Eye," you have to pull away from the painting for these hidden images to become clear. It's an unnerving, exhilarating effect; just when you think you've seen all that you can, you're able to see the paintings in a whole new light that gives it a completely new meaning and resonance. These images within images are actually better seen through a photograph of the painting, funny enough. That's when they are best defined. Though of course these paintings are meant to be seen not through an iPhone screen but close up. Only then can you get a sense of the immense work Vargas puts into each of his massive paintings. The obsessive layering of his neon doodles, like a controlled, psychedelic Pollock, become almost textured. It's a painting technique apparently inspired by hallucinations the artist had following a spider bite. There were no spiders present in the paintings as far as I could tell, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. These paintings take time and patience to fully reveal themselves. Through February 24. 301 East 11th St., 713-869-4770. —MD

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