"Anodyne" It's difficult to label Joe Mancuso's work by any traditional means. Is it sculpture? Painting? Installation? All of the above seem appropriate in the Houston artist's latest show at Barbara Davis Gallery. These art vocabulary-defying conundrums begin with the piece Bouquet. It's a careful arrangement of polywood, with flower pieces layered on top of each other in a methodical process — Mancuso's even left his pencil marks noting which piece goes where on the work. This bouquet is all about the texture — there's no color here, just white on white, as the piece is attached to the gallery wall for a pleasing effect. The petal motif continues throughout the exhibition. Precious Field is comprised of row upon row of hand-cast porcelain in the same flower shape as Bouquet, but cleaner and on a much, much smaller scale. Hundreds of these flowers (it's too dizzying to count precisely) were identically made by machine and then laid by hand on the linen canvas, making for an unexpected domestic quality and clever contrast between these mechanical and human touches. Two related works — Culture (waterlillies) and Waterlillies — are comprised of circles of white latex of varying sizes dropped across the surface of the canvas. In Culture, the latex is dropped onto newspaper, making for one of the most colorful pieces in the show, even if it's still dominated by white. "Anodyne" is a modest show — there are only nine works — but it's plenty. Each piece needs room to breathe, there's so much detail to take in and appreciate (in Precious Field, for instance, each flower cleverly has screws in the middle where the pollen would be). The relevant spring-like feel and overwhelming use of white add a likable lightness to the show, too. "Anodyne" does mean inoffensive, after all. Through May 5. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose #600, 713-520-9200. — MD
"Between Heaven and Home" For a while, Christopher French was known as the guy who made conceptual pieces out of Braille paper. But there's nary an inch of it in his exhibition of new art at Devin Borden Gallery. The six works on display are all united in materials — oil and acrylic on linen — as well as their healthy population of circles. Black, white, pink or yellow dots line abstract flowers, reference pools of ivy and, when connected by lines, resemble molecules or, to go significantly bigger, constellations, such as in the seemingly aptly titled piece Between Heaven and Home. These sharp circles are comprised of oil mixed with different materials, including marble dust, making for subtle differences in texture and shine. French's use of color seems to be simplified compared to previous works, but also bolder and more purposeful, as in Touchy-Feely, a work of black-and-white dots over a teal background. Gone are the isolated grids of circles in his earlier works, replaced by circles that are nearly on top of each other, coming together to form a new, amoeba-like shape. There is a variation on his grid with The Day Before Yesterday, The Day After Tomorrow. The spirographic curves of the painting resemble a flower, their 3-D effect making for the richest, fullest piece in the show. The black dots circling the edge of this grid are so black, they look like hole punches cutting into the universe, orbiting. The blue, red and yellow of this piece are particularly jarring when compared to the cohesive pastels of the other works. There is room to experiment yet. Through May 8. 3917 Main, 713-529-2700. — MD
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"CTRL group two" Collage photography is having a bit of a moment right now in Houston, thanks to a major exhibition up at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called "Utopia/Dystopia." For a much smaller show that still manages to cover a lot of ground, there's also "CTRL group two" at Bryan Miller Gallery, which displays an impressive variety among its seven artists. Among them, Javier Piñon's works stands out the most. It's no coincidence that one of his three collages (The Pact) is the first you see upon entering the gallery. It is a dense nature scene that contains its own mythology. A pale, naked woman is stretched out over rocks, a dagger in her hand, while a dead rabbit lies beside her. A fox stumbles across the scene, as a skull floats in a nearby river. It's oddly compelling, and will leave you puzzling over what it all means. Heimir Björgúlfsson also works with nature themes, juxtaposing unlikely elements in conventional scenery shots. In This ain't the first rodeo, a snowy, tree-lined slope is overlaid with out-of-proportion planks of weathered wood and a patch of rocks. His nature shots don't seem so natural after all. All the works display a degree of intimacy, though none more so than Matthew Stone's — in a more literal sense of the word. His Polymorphic Love Diagram Unfolds features sculptural photo-collages of intertwined bodies on wood, which bends and contorts like the bodies do. The prints look like classical paintings, with the naked men and women warmly yet sharply lit against black backgrounds. They are quite beautiful. Through May 19. 3907 Main, 713-523-2875. — MD
"Elixir" Upon first look, John Adelman's ink drawings up at DARKE Gallery don't look like much to make — messy squiggles, cascading white scratches, quick and efficient dashes on canvas. You could just stop there and move on, but that would be missing everything. Adelman's works are all about the process. Those messy squiggles are words pulled one by one from the dictionary, written out over and over again until they turn the canvas blue. Those cascading white scratches are nails, thousands of them, translated to paper. And those efficient dashes are pieces of straw, meticulously, maddeningly traced into a black-and-white reproduction. When you hear it like that, it sounds like you might have wandered onto the set of A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, Adelman has spent hours upon hours with his nail piles and bales of straw, creating his drawings the hard way. With this obsessive method and use of unconventional materials, his works could be easily dismissed or, to go the other way, hyped and overly simplified (he paints nails and straw!), if it weren't for the understated beauty in the resulting pieces. The DARKE exhibition, titled "Elixir," is the first solo show of the Houston artist. It's long overdue. Adelman sets himself apart thanks to his unconventional materials and seemingly insane process. In other hands, the works could have been written off as too gimmicky, but in his, they are mysterious and enthralling. Through May 5. 320 Detering St., 713-542-3802. — MD
"Pressing News" Brad Tucker has made a name for himself as a maker of playful, idiosyncratic art. That's pretty much what you get, too, in a new show of the Austin artist's work at Inman Gallery. "Pressing News," Tucker's fifth show at the venue, features a combination of site-specific work, video and music installation, and prints. The eye-catching installation Bagdad Bass Club is the main meat of the show. It features a full range of media — multiple record players, DVD players, speakers and a TV playing VHS videos of Tucker's friends and children playing musical instruments. Surrounding the machines are handmade items of felt, rubber, foam and painted wood that resemble the looped bands of VHS tapes and, in one case, just tape. There's a strong DIY element to these crudely constructed items, the casualness of the material and its construction another marker of the artist. The bright, youthful colors of the piece contrast with the nostalgic vibe it gives off. Along the walls of this playroom hang rarely exhibited prints by the artist. The series of abstract works are made with hand-cut rubber stamps and ink pressed into stretched canvas. Lines are the subject here — crisscrossed, squiggly, latticed, diagonal, straight lines of all colors. All these stamped lines are a bit off-kilter, as if none of the pieces were premeditated or planned out. The works are definitely the hand of Tucker, embodying his playful, laid-back style, but they just didn't do it for me. It all seemed a little too half-assed — the lack of craftsmanship in the installation, where pieces of foam were laid about not seeming to serve any purpose or representation; the unevenness of the prints; the incongruity of it all. But I did enjoy the way Tucker plays with space and perception. The low, sprawling feel of Bagdad Bass Club, with the TV, speakers and record players just lying on the floor, seems to be asking you to come down to its level. Through May 19. Inman Gallery, 3901 Main, 713-526-7800. — MD
"Prints" Every five years, Hiram Butler Gallery breaks out its all-star prints from hiding. The current iteration of that concept, simply called "Prints," reads like a Who's Who of mid-century print artists: there's Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly, to name some of the 11 artists on display. With such big names, you'd expect some powerhouse pieces, and the show certainly delivers. The selections range from old to new, mostly black-and-white works, with the rare splash of color thrown into the mix. The latter definitely helps Rauschenberg's vivid Kill Devil Hill stand out. Another standout is an untitled print by Rauschenberg contemporary Twombly. Notably, Twombly made the lithograph and then added scrawls of graphite by hand, for a moody, messy and highly emotional piece. Prints by renowned sculptor Fred Sandback also make the cut, his minimalist yellow and black lines still attempting the same sharp angles and geometric planes as his famous yarn sculptures. Agnes Martin is another artist who works in minimal lines, though hers are more orderly and borrow from a grid, going up or across, following the rules of its specific logic. Amid all those lines, the organic curves of Terry Winters's Section and Kelly's Melon Leaf, fittingly paired next to each other, are welcome. There's plenty of Serra to see in Houston right now, thanks to a current retrospective up at the Menil, though Hiram Butler adds one more piece to the mix. Weight IV is a rich, black etching that's dramatically placed right next to the glaring sunlight of the gallery's windows. Unfortunately, when framed and covered by Plexiglas, the black drawing becomes a mirror, the texture and richness of the black difficult to see past your own reflection. Through May 19. Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom St., 713-863-7097. — MD