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"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

"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 — that 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

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