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Capsule Art Reviews: "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute," "Georges Braque: A Retrospective," "Funnel Tunnel," Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938

"The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute" These days, Impressionist exhibitions are the art museum version of the ballet The Nutcracker: frothy and beautiful, if a little overexposed, and sure to pack 'em in at almost any price. Even though we've already had at least six or eight Impressionist shows during the past ten years, who could fail to love yet another one that includes 70-plus paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas, among others? That's what the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is offering with "The Age of Impressionism." This isn't a star vehicle so much as an ensemble piece; these aren't the paintings that make the textbooks. They are, rather, a tribute to the taste of a collecting couple with very good eyes for art and lots of resources (that is to say, money) who were buying paintings to enhance their own lives at home rather than to dazzle tourists in museums. Frankly, unless you're something of an art specialist, you may have trouble remembering many of the paintings individually a day or two after you've seen the show. But if you're lucky enough to see it under the right conditions (not too many other viewers, the right kind of light that so often suffuses the galleries in the Rafael Moneo-designed Beck Building at MFAH, at a time when you're really in an art-viewing mood), you're almost certain to remember the deeply satisfying feeling that comes from standing in galleries surrounded by beautiful, harmonious paintings. Not at all a bad memory to take away from any exhibition. Through March 23. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT

"Georges Braque: A Retrospective" French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963) often gets second billing to his more famous colleagues Matisse and Picasso. He was as accomplished as either of them (or almost so), but not nearly as many go giddy at news of another Braque exhibition as do for the other two. With the exhibition "Georges Braque: A Retrospective" coming to Houston from Paris, where it was mounted on the 50th anniversary of Braque's death, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston takes him out of the shadows of Matisse and Picasso and lets him stand gloriously on his own. Included are 70-plus works from all periods of his career, starting with a spine-tingling group of his fauve ("wild beast") paintings from 1906-1907, exploding with purple trees, green skies, blue mountains and red waves. These may be the greatest, and most satisfying, surprise of all. But there are also entire galleries of his delicate, art history-changing cubist paintings, as well as plenty examples of his own unique contribution to art, papier collé (collage), so fragile and so difficult to borrow that you may never be able to see so many together again. Installed in the Upper Brown Pavilion of the MFAH Caroline Wiess Law Building, a vast space that was recently reconfigured, the show shines brilliantly. One moment you can be completely surrounded by works of a single style or period, and then with a step or two you can see through to other galleries of earlier or later works and make visual connections across Braque's long career. It's a show not to be missed. Through May 11. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT

"Funnel Tunnel" Clunky, streaked wood and wiry metal are the last things one would consider using to celebrate Art League Houston and the colorful Montrose neighborhood that surrounds it. Then again, talent is as talent does, and bare-bones as they may be, Patrick Renner's pieces are feats of size and color. Bounded Operator (2012) is a wall of windows glued together and filled with sand, rock and gravel, mingled with pieces of wood splashed in tie-dye, exchanging its windowpane aesthetic for a swirling metal one. The rainbow brightness of Wooddauber (2012) is one of many rainbow-colored chunks of wood from Renner's "Vestigial Structures" show exhibited last year at Avis Frank Gallery. The two pieces are combined to create "Funnel Tunnel," a metal-on-wood masterpiece so big that Art League publicly called on volunteers to help paint the wooden strips in the weeks before its opening. Before then, Renner could be seen blowtorching metal pieces together to create a wiry foundation for the wooden strips to attach to. It would, however, be inaccurate to describe "Funnel Tunnel" as skeletal. While other Renner pieces may come off as hollow, the wood and metal in "Funnel Tunnel" work together to create an artwork representative of the inclusive nature of the area around it. Those wooden strips? Painted in the hues of the rainbow, they very accurately represent the diverse people, businesses and culture of Montrose. The metal? Permanently melded together to hold the rainbow strips of wood, it represents the collectivity of this community. These materials create a 180-foot civic art sculpture seen whirling down the center of Montrose Boulevard. "Funnel Tunnel" will be on display in front of Art League Houston for the next nine months. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 John and Dominique de Menil were friends with many of the prominent art figures of their day, including the modern painter René Magritte. As a result of their patronage, The Menil Collection holds the most elaborate repository of Magritte's paintings outside of his native Belgium. In many ways, the images of Magritte are just as much a part of pop culture as they are art history. Even if you've never set foot inside a museum, chances are you've seen the raining men of Golconde (1953) or the word/image play of The Empty Mask (1952). In an effort to bring audiences into a more intimate knowledge of Magritte's fascinating Surrealist landscapes and critiques of tangible reality, the Menil has joined the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art to create "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938," an exploration that examines the early work of his career and identifies the Surrealist experiments that would mark the masterpieces of his later career. I don't normally associate Magritte's paintings with warmth of any kind, but the 80 items in the catalog have been arranged so that they hint at the human impulses behind the iconic, if austere, genius. The years before World War II marked Magritte's development as an artist, and it's on these walls that the Menil's patrons can see the first of his important forays into Surrealism, such as 1927's Entr'acte, in which an assortment of limbs climb out of a darkened landscape, or Discovery, in which the skin of a female nude appears to be made of wood. The exhibition's careful arrangement gives plenty of opportunity to examine less familiar works, especially those making a visit from outside the country. I was previously unaware of Attempting the Impossible, but found myself fascinated by Magritte's representation of the creation process. In the painting, Magritte configures a self-portrait of sorts, which sees his stand-in rendering a naked woman. It's a comical bit, a suggestion that art is not a reflection of reality, but perhaps the artist is the ultimate prime mover of what is real and what isn't. Much of the appeal of this exhibition is in its sheer ambition. One of the highlights has to be the gathering on one wall of The Eternally Obvious, The Depths of the Earth and Celestial Perfections. These are three paintings, but not simply three canvases. Each work is a cluster of canvases that reveal a fragmented image. One is a female nude, another is a landscape and the third is a sky full of clouds. Each canvas is a shard of a larger image, but in turn each canvas is a window into its own world. The Menil exhibition is the first time the three works have been displayed together since their creation in 1930. Together they are a powerful assessment of the modern world and a human condition that is no longer a solid whole but a splintered existence. With so many of these paintings that turn reality on its head in such close proximity to one another, the exhibition allows for an endless stream of contemplation of what in our everyday life is real and what is simply imagined. "The Mystery of the Ordinary" is a must-see exhibition for its close and caring attention to detail of Magritte's progression as an artist and its insight into a shifting world of the past. Through June 1. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — AC

 
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