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"Maurice" Keith J. Varadi's oil paintings have something you can't quite put your finger on. They seem unexpectedly muted and soft. Even the boldest colors have a quiet quality to them. That's because these oil paintings are copies of oil paintings, the original discarded in favor of this second life. It's a whole process that the Brooklyn artist developed to make the centuries-old act of painting fresh and surprising to him. He starts off by making a painting on a stretched canvas. He then stretches a raw canvas over that painting while the paint is still wet and pushes the paint through the raw canvas without using a paint brush. Sometimes he leaves the end result alone; other times he may add paint to the stain, again without using a brush. Painting without a paintbrush? That's almost a cliché, but it makes for some beautiful results. Fifteen canvases made through this experimental, limited method are on display at David Shelton Gallery in the exhibition "Maurice." Most are a little larger than a notebook, at 12 by 9 inches. They're small, highly contained works. Some even have a thin border of paint around the edges that seems to keep it all in. Overall, they are mostly multicolored paintings full of deliberate marks, busy with abstract splotches and indiscernible forms. Is that a man in Crux Tug? A key? Who can say for sure. These works have depth to them, a sense of history. Others are slightly reminiscent of patterns, such as the camo-like effect of Berms. In several works, the artist doesn't fill the whole canvas, despite its already small size. Toner and Hawking, hung in tandem, are deliberately left bare in places on the canvas, as if half-finished, or half-started. At the same time, the canvas is as much a part of the painting and the materiality as the paint itself. Varadi even likes to say that these paintings aren't oil on canvas — they're oil and canvas. It's an important distinction. Through June 15. 3909 Main, 832-538-0924. —MD

"Pastmodern" The influences in Russell Prince's collages intriguingly range from the Cubists and Dadaists to tattered billboards, old textbooks, and his great-grandmother's deteriorating Victorian home. Indeed, the Houston artist's works have an aged quality to them, from the musty old book covers of classics like David Copperfield that he rips from their binds to the highly distressed, unique frames that keep it all together. It's as if they've been around for decades, collecting dust in a musty study somewhere, rather than all having been crafted within the past three years. "Pastmodern," the name of the self-taught artist's current show at Front Gallery, is quite apt. There are nearly 40 collages for your perusal, scattered salon-style on two walls and arranged on the shelves near the front room's fireplace. Stamps, old paintings, book covers and other indiscernible scraps come together onto postcards and canvas boards of varying sizes. The show, put together in collaboration with guest curator Jay Wehnert of Intuitive Eye, nicely plays with this variation in size, the pieces getting progressively bigger and then smaller again as you move through the exhibit. As the name "Pastmodern" suggests, this is a serious exhibit that still doesn't take itself too seriously. In Barrel of Monkeys, the collage prominently features scraps of paper curved like the plastic monkey pieces in the children's game in an unexpected, charming reference. The best works are the smaller ones on postcard like Barrel of Monkeys, which gel despite their randomness. The bigger they get, the less control there is, and the proportions don't quite work at that size. Prince is a neighbor of Front Gallery owner Sharon Engelstein, making this an extremely local show. It's also the artist's first solo effort. His collages remind me of ones by another Houston artist who recently had his debut — designer Jerry Jeanmard — but without the lovely white space of Jeanmard's. Something must be in the water. Through June 1. 1412 Bonnie Brae, 713-298-4750. —MD

"Salt House" When artists take over the seven row houses from 2505-2521 Holman Street in the Third Ward, there's usually the desire to be busy. Sculpture hangs from the ceilings, drawings are done right on the white paint or each wall is painted a different color entirely. So what's so remarkable about Sean Shim-Boyle's art project currently in one of Project Row Houses' historic shotgun houses is its simplicity. The walls are painted white, the floor a light gray. Nothing hangs from the vaulted ceiling, which is accented by dark crossbeams thanks to the natural architecture of the house. An off-center red-brick chimney, also original to the home, remains untouched except for a couple of lines of white paint, possibly markings left behind by a previous artist. The most significant change Shim-Boyle makes is adding a second red-brick chimney of sorts to the single-room house, extending from one corner across the space to the opposite wall by the door. Because it matches the original chimney as much as the artist can muster and is as solid as can be, it seems like a natural addition — except of course for the awkward angle that'll force most visitors to limbo under it. With the beams across the ceiling and the vertical chimney cutting through it, it's a striking visual. Shim-Boyle has quite the eye. The artist isn't quite done, though. He's made a second, more minor alteration to the house, adding a thin line of fluorescent lights on the floor beneath his slanted chimney. In a room that's already brilliantly well-lit, with sun shining in through the bare windows, it seems like an unnecessary touch. But parallel to the brick addition, it helps to further emphasize this breathtaking presence in the house. Through June 23. 2513 Holman, 713-526-7662. — MD

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