"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
"The Cowboy Spirit: Faces of the American West" Robb Kendrick's show at William Reaves Fine Art Gallery features photographs dedicated to the American West. Each of the multitude of images tells a story; most are profiles of cowboys, with various scenic shots of ranch life sprinkled in. The portraits are nothing less than stunning. You may find yourself staring into the eyes of a young boy in a beat-up ten-gallon hat for more time than feels comfortable, but it is too difficult to turn away from him. A wiry old cowboy with a thick mustache conjures feelings of a lost generation, desperate to remain relevant. The wrinkles under his eyes are deep and cracked from years of living an SPF-free lifestyle. What is so remarkable about these photos, aside from the captured images themselves, is the manner in which Kendrick has shot and produced them. He uses an antiquated process called tintype, which dates back to the mid-1800s. The process is complicated and difficult, but its result is magnificent. The images come out somewhat underexposed, with unequal amounts of light distribution and a grainy, tan pigment. If you have ever taken one of those "old timey" photos that are so prevalent along boardwalks and amusement parks, you can conjure up an image, but Kendrick's photos are the real deal. Through April 21. 2313 Brun St., 713-521-7500. — AK
"Layers" There's an incredible amount of depth and movement to discover in the works by three artists now on display at Gallery Sonja Roesch. Swiss artist Julia Steiner steals the show with her seemingly simple works in gouache and paper. Her two pieces, Shift and Fragment (animal space), are both abstract landscapes in black and white. There's an immediate flatness in the work — it's just paint on paper — that makes you wonder why they belong in a show called "Layers," but there's a richness in these charcoal-like designs. The works are full of movement and activity that are intensely compelling and draw you in. New York artist Gabriele Evertz's works — Blue and the Spectrum and Red and the Spectrum — are just row upon row of blinding color. There's a precise method at play — thick blue; then thin red; then thin, light blue; then thick blue — that's the result of taping, painting, re-taping, painting and so on to get these perfectly straight, architectural lines. It runs the risk of becoming too methodical and impersonal, but when you step back, the works pulsate. There's a dizzying 3-D effect that overwhelms and resonates with you. Russian artist Lev Khesin works mostly in silicone, alternating between Plexiglas, wood, MDF and mirror-glass as a base. Though he works primarily with one main material, the eight works on display here are highly varied, thanks to the different thickness, viscosity, glossiness and transparency of the silicone, as well as the use of color and stroke. They all look like little terrains on some distant planet — some have a smooth, iridescent quality, others are more textured and rough, all are eerily beautiful. Khesin may have the most satisfying example of layers at work — especially in the works that have a thick layer of silicone over the color, creating this effect as if you're looking to the bottom of a pond. But joined by Evertz and Steiner, your conceptions of what that can mean are pleasantly challenged. Through April 28. 2309 Caroline St., 713-659-5424. — MD
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"Neurotic" Over a film career spanning 40 years, John Waters has managed to simultaneously offend and entertain his audience. His art, it turns out, is no different. This show at McClain Gallery includes conceptual works by the Pink Flamingos director made between 1993 and 2009 that comment on film, writing, sex, humor, and, yes, neuroses — it's a glimpse inside Waters's twisted, transgressive bald head. The bulk of the show is comprised of these visual storyboards — movie stills Waters took with a camera and grouped by a highly specific, highly dark theme. There are images of plane crashes, people puking, drug use — he tries to make you cringe, then laugh, then question both reactions. In other, less shocking montages, Waters had some fun with Photoshop. In Product Placement, he adds some unfamiliar items to famous movie moments (in one humorous scene, Charlton Heston's Moses clutches The Ten Commandments in one hand, a bottle of Tilex in the other). Though all made within the past 15 years, these series have this throwback 1980s New York art school vibe that Waters seems to embody. On the non-photography side, Waters fills the gallery with quirky surprises that are also highly personal works. There's his larger-than-life replica of a La Mer jar — a long-time favorite of the artist's — minus the actual lotion (if he did fill it with the pricey stuff, the jar would have a price tag upwards of $200,000). For some inside art world humor, there's Visit Marfa, a satirical advertisement for the minimalist art capital of Texas. The poster highlights such attractions as "Eat food all the same color," "Pretend to see the 'Marfa Lights,'" "It's a l-o-o-o-o-n-g drive!" You get the idea. It's one of the few insidery pieces in an otherwise highly accessible show. Through April 28. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — MD
"Pictures and Words" Geoff Winningham doesn't so much tell stories with photographs as he spots other people's stories and photographs them. They're fleeting images — thought-provoking relics of people who have long left the scene of the crime, or are unknowingly part of it. These often anonymous, mysterious stories comprise this retrospective of sorts at Koelsch Gallery. Most photos are pulled from different series Winningham has shot over the past 40 years, chosen because they're either a picture of a picture, or a picture of words. It's a simplistic conceit that reaps big rewards. For "Photos," there's the collage of news clippings, magazines covers and photos on an abandoned barn in Leadville, Colorado. Winningham broke in to take the shots in 1994, and, after some detective work, found they dated as far back as 1943. Time gave these clippings an aged, frozen-in-time look — sepia in action, no Instagram necessary. For "Words," there's a series of handmade signs that Winningham found on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There's one advertising carne asada, another "dirt-sand," a third for gasolina, but with the word humorously broken up into "gasol" and "ina" to fit onto the wood. The jackpot, though, is a long, unexpectedly poetic tirade by one Joseph C. Dunn against the harassment he's apparently faced at the hands of the FBI. Read it in full. Winningham reprinted the majority of these works for the purpose of this show, and the materials used are as diverse as his subjects. There's an incredible piece from the Leadville series comprised of carbon pigment on brushed aluminum, as well as photogravures, archival inkjet prints, vintage gelatin silver prints and German Etching paper, to name a few. Winningham has really experimented, and the show is enjoyably engaging as a result. Through April 21. 703 Yale St., 713-626-0175. — MD
"Round 36" This group of shows at Project Row Houses brings Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's Kentifrican Museum of Culture, in which four rooms are dedicated to the ethnomusicology, hairstylings and cultural myths of "Kentrifica," followed by John Pluecker's pop-up bookstore, reading room and experimentation lab. There's Manuel Acevedo's homage to the father of optics, Ibn Al-Hazen, which experiments with optics and elements of photography, and Monie Henderson and Marc Newsome's "Cultural Portal," which explores representations of African Americans in contemporary pop culture through movie posters, photographs and audience prompts. There's Philip Pyle II's commentary on African-American consumer spending, Irvin Tepper's large-scale photographs of the sleeping homeless, and Beth Secor's blue, airplane model-flying homage to her deceased father. Secor's show is one of the most successful in "Round 36," completely transforming the space into something new. She used the walls of the house as her canvas, drawing blueprints of model airplanes and flowers on nearly every open surface. She also hung model airplanes from the ceiling and painted the floorboards blue. It's full of emotion and sentiment even before you know the prints and airplanes belonged to the artist's father (must be all that blue). There's an obsessive quality to it all, with the strange language of the model airplane blueprints surrounding you, but there's also very pretty and clever imagery. I loved the visual of half a plane attached to a wall, circles surrounding it where it makes impact as if it's going through the surface — it's telling you that your rules don't work here, that this place is different and special. Through June 24. 2521 Holman St., 713-526-7662. — MD
"Space Zombie Mayan Apocalyptic Human Sacrifice Uplift Mofo Party Plan Spring Break 2012" Kallinen Contemporary is off the beaten path in the Far East End. Despite the odd location and crazy title, this show managed to draw a big crowd — between 300 and 400 people — during its opening night last month, testament to the strength of some of the impressive names involved. Paul Horn, Solomon Kane and John Paul Hartman joined forces with Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney by day, artist and now gallery owner by night, to put on the party. And among works by more than 20 artists on display, there's also Kelley Devine with her antler-sporting nudes, light installation artist Ariane Roesch and Pop-Art devotee Dandee Warhol. There are more than 100 pieces to take in, filling every inch of the two-story warehouse space — including an aerosol painting on the outside brick by GONZO247 painted opening night. Gian Palacios-Swiatkowski stands out among the painters — his portraits of women beautiful and arresting. Camargo Valentino's paintings are also showstoppers in a sense, including a black-and-white portrait of Emiliano Zapata Salazar. The Mexican revolutionary is done in incredible detail, while his followers behind him are out of focus — it's almost photographic. William Reid's minimal works — rectangles of color, surrounded by circles of scorched canvas — are nothing new, but still seem radical and bold. Above it all sits Eduardo Portillo's giant puppet-like Gonzo the Clown, perched on the second story in all its creepy glory. Hours by appointment, through May 28. 511 Broadway, 713-320-3785. — MD