"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
"Bridge 11: Lia Cook" There is a great illusion at work in Lia Cook's show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Her massive, black-and-white photographs of human faces — children gazing calmly at the camera, or extreme close-ups of lips and noses — are not photographs at all. Rather, they're comprised of intricately woven cotton that, when viewed from afar, takes on a recognizable image. The oft-treaded pointillist technique is reinvigorated in Cook's striking, large-scale, intricate, fiber art works, based on photographs that she's taken or pulled from her childhood. To create them, she uses a digital Jacquard loom. Viewing from a distance, the mostly black-and-white images become clear. But up close, when you're nose-to-nose with the subjects, it's pixelated gibberish. The museum gives viewers plenty of space to view the large-scale works, and they're best seen as far away as possible. In fact, as you wander throughout the space and glance back at works you've already seen, they become more defined and have added depth. Cook has certainly created a memorable experience for museum-goers; if only the images themselves held up as well. Sure, she has made some interesting choices — a pair of blurry photos of two kids is quite alluring, as your mind works in vain to pull them into focus, and her cropped images, showing just parts of the face, are dramatic. But many of the images aren't all that remarkable, and a science-inspired series that plays with colored thread is also a bit baffling. Through May 13. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD
"The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni" Hans Erni is one of Switzerland's best-known artists, and a contemporary of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Over the decades, he's worked in lithography, digital technology and everything in between. At 103 years old, he still works in his studio every day, rivaling artists a quarter of his age. So I had high hopes for Erni's first major retrospective here in the United States, held at the Museum of Printing History. But I was let down. The retrospective consists of 40 posters, mainly painted illustrations, arranged for the most part in chronological order, from 1948 to 2009. In his decades-long career, Erni has done more than posters, and the museum's exhibition brochure even boasts that his work includes paintings, print and book illustrations, stage design, tapestry and postage stamps. Sure, the exhibition needs some focus given his wide span, but with row upon row of 128-by-91-centimeter posters, other types of graphic art would have been appreciated simply for some variety, as well as to accurately portray and pay tribute to the range of Erni's work. Another missing component is context. Given his Swiss pedigree, the posters are largely in French and German, and, removed from their time frame of reference, they're difficult to decipher. But you can still judge Erni's graphic artwork on its own. The work itself varies wonderfully in style and theme, from dramatic images of a skull topped with an atomic bomb plume to a decapitated tree (literally). Many are united by Erni's repeated use of geometric elements, especially circles, and sometimes even consistent fonts. In some works, the artist adopts styles similar to those of the masters, such as in a striking silkscreen from 1961 of a naked woman that's reminiscent of Picasso, and a Degas-esque print of a woman holding up a giant nut. These intriguing finds make for some standouts in this small show, which despite its flaws is necessary viewing for fans of Erni stateside. Through June 9. 1324 W. Clay St., 713-522-4652. — MD
"Love Man" Justin Brown Durand's new drawings at Front Gallery are inspired by Valentine's Day, but don't expect any hearts, flowers or anything remotely resembling your typical saccharine romance. But there is tons of pink. For "Love Man," gallery owner Sharon Engelstein reached out to Durand to specifically make a show to run during the Hallmark holiday. The artist says he then put himself in a "love trance," looking to romance, lust and passion for inspiration. The result of that trance shows the three at play in raw works that are alternately creepy, strange and oddly alluring, done in crayons, pastels, markers, pencil and pen. The subjects of Durand's paintings are exposed, both literally and emotionally — naked, with outlines of bones and arteries dressing up their limbs. The hearts here are outside the body, bleeding and still beating. The drawings are like R. Crumb meets Picasso — black and white ink sketches of bodies with their proportions, well, out of proportion. The subjects themselves display a wide range of romantic states — one couple is in rapture, embracing tenderly. Another is lying straight as boards, dead-looking, displaying no sense of intimacy despite their mutual nakedness. "Moccasins" is one of the most memorable, if also alarming, pieces — it shows an anonymous couple, their faces masked by long, flowing hair, in a heated moment. Both are naked save for their moccasins, and one is being dismembered, the torso cut in half and guts being pulled out. That gruesome scene is immediately followed by the touching "Virgins" — the image of a couple embracing, gazing into each others' eyes, with the words "I never thought tonight would ever be this close to me" coming from the man's mouth. Through March 17. 1412 Bonnie Brae St., 713-298-4750. — MD
"Perspectives 177: McArthur Binion" McArthur Binion's show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston features a repetition of geometric shapes — triangles, squares and circles — varying only by color. To make them, he presses wax crayon onto wood and aluminum panels in a very laborious process that results in what the Chicago artist likes to call "Rural Modernism," both a nod to the pieces' heavy texture and his Mississippi upbringing. The result of all this repetition, however, is that once you see one piece, you've seen them all. Whether it's a red triangle, green triangle or purple triangle, there's not much to propel you forward. To be fair, each piece is subtly different, though that's largely indiscernible to the naked eye. That's because barely visible under each layer of crayon are autobiographical elements — pictures of Binion, his birth house, and parents, as well as lynched men and even racist and stereotypical imagery taken from fruit wrappings. The artist cleverly calls this the "under-consciousness" of the work, though like anything that's under the surface, you have to be told it's there, or otherwise miss it completely. One piece that did stand out in the artist's museum debut was Stellucca I: (Rural Geometry) — a parallelogram, the only one of its kind in the show, whose title is a combination of Binion's children's names, Stella and Lucca. With just a few simple lines, Binion manages to create a great tension that really grabs you. Through April 1. 5216 Montrose Blvd., 713-284-8250. — MD
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"Push Play" In his first solo show in eight years, for those keeping track, Kyle Young picks up right where he left off. His bold paintings continue the play with geometric shape and order that he's become known for in his new show at Art Palace. And the colors are as bright as ever. Young has been operating a fairly successful art storage and refurbishing company, Ty-Art, handling the care and treatment of other people's art. That detail gives a whole new way of looking at his work here. Most of his paintings have been chopped up, first painted on a whole canvas, which is then sliced into even pieces that are rearranged very carefully to make the canvas whole again. It sounds like a nightmare to potentially destroy your art, but the works are very clean and smooth, handled with utmost care and each piece placed just so. That's not to say they aren't without tension. In such pieces as Fathers and Dialogue — Red & Orange, your mind tries in vain to piece the work back together to its original, more familiar form, the visible strokes of paint no longer connecting from piece to piece. Similar to this reordering and rearranging to create something new, some of Young's works also deal in inverses. The most impressive of these, Chalice Reversed, shies away from the artist's bright pastels and works with just black and white — with the black largely engulfing what little white there is. It is a giant — 116 by 77 feet — and takes up one of the gallery's walls. The work references Chalice, a much smaller painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's collection that consists of the same image and proportions, but with the black white and the white black. A simple detail like that, even without the referenced work displayed, reminded me that this is a piece of art that has a history, a lineage, and no one work is ever really "done." Through April 7. 3913 Main, 281-501-2964. — MD