"Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona" Antonio Berni (1905-1981) was Argentina's greatest 20th-century artist, a greatness recognized far beyond Argentina during his lifetime. Since his death his fame has faded, especially in North America. The exhibition "Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona," on view at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is an effort to show us what we've been missing. Berni's work is visceral, slap-you-in-the-face art, tongue-in-cheek at times, but always with the knowledge that the tongue could be bitten off. The pieces in this exhibition, created from the 1950s through the 1970s, tell the stories of two characters set in a world Berni dreamed up based on the real Buenos Aires he knew: Juanito Laguna is a poor country-boy-moved-to-the-city, struggling with his family to survive and thrive in the shantytowns of massive (and massively changing) Buenos Aires; Ramona Montiel is a working-class girl who finds that prostitution pays better than dressmaking, a few occupational drawbacks notwithstanding. Berni employs the assemblage technique — creating works out of materials found in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires — to put his message tangibly, even jaggedly, before us. Entering Berni's imaginary world takes some effort, but once you make that effort, he takes you to places and introduces you to people (and monsters) you won't forget. Through January 26. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT
"Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada" The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Posada's death with an exhibition titled "Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada." The exhibit decorates the white walls between the lower-level staircase of MFAH's Caroline Wiess Law building. It is separated into three sections, looking to the viewer like an unfolded pamphlet. In the center are Posada's pieces, which include La Calavera Catrina, his "most iconic calaveras" and others, such as La Calavera Amorosa (The Skeleton of Love). Drawn in 1907, it was printed in a Mexican newspaper in 1911 as the principal image for a cartoon depicting the execution of two Guatemalan criminals who assassinated General Manuel Barillas. Posada's El doctor improvisado (The Improvised Doctor), hanging in the very center of the exhibit, tells a different story, albeit with the same outcome: a traveling doctor who comes across death. As a gesture of friendliness, the doctor offers the bony burier his coat; in return, Death gives the doctor the ability to know whether his patients will live or die. In the end, however, it's the doctor who dies. The expiration of both the murderers, who took life, and the doctor, expected to sustain life, makes clear that death is not a respecter of persons. It falls on the just and the unjust. The left and right sections of this wall "pamphlet" display the artists influenced by Posada's works. To Mexican-American artist Luis Jimenez, death is a dance. His Baile con la Talaca (Dance with Death) (1984) lithograph shows him in a lusty tango with La Catrina, while Self-Portrait (1996) shows the artist decomposing. That Self-Portrait was created after Baile is probably a coincidence, but it does help to illustrate the inevitable conclusion to being in death's clutches. Baile shows Jimenez and Lady Death as half-human and half-skeleton. They embrace each other, with Jimenez's hand grazing her ribs while her bony fingers clasp his head. Jimenez is also half-skeleton in the latter lithograph. He is not a completed calavera, but the process is under way, as his sagging, pockmarked flesh reveals bone underneath. Jimenez's eyes and lips are uncovered, revealing hollow eye sockets and an eerie grin. The image takes up the frame, forcing viewers to come close — and become entangled in death's permanent embrace. Posada's influence reached Texas, too. Jerry Bywaters, an American artist and native Texan, created a lithograph painting of a graveyard in Terlingua. This place, Mexican Graveyard-Terlingua, transforms every year during Dia de los Muertos, when residents of the city come to pay tribute to the dead. Through December 15. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — AO
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"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
"Nice. Luc Tuymans" With "Nice. Luc Tuymans," the painter of the same name uses his enduring style — realism — in portraiture. Tuymans has been painting portraits of himself, family members and public figures since the start of his career in the 1970s, but these are no ordinary faces. With the famous figures particularly, Tuymans uses his oils to re-examine feelings about these people. He muddies greens into colors of puce and washes out blacks into gray-scale hues, the combination of which leaves an ambivalent or even negative feeling about the person being portrayed. The Heritage VI (1996) takes a photograph of late white supremacist Joseph Milteer, whose name was tossed around in connection the JFK assassination, and turns it into a black-and-gray portrait adding Tuymans's signature ghoulish green tint to the oil-on-canvas remake of the original black-and-white photograph. He does the same with a picture of Condoleezza Rice (The Secretary of State 2005), his blurry oils turning her signature scowl into a mush-mouthed, mismatched miasma of drab colors. Brown oil pools into the corners of her squinted eyes, and her notable red lips are painted in a burnished burgundy shade. Milteer's portrait provides a wide politician's smile in comparison to Rice's, whose lips are slightly parted, barely letting through her other notable feature, her gap. Iphone (2008) is a self-portrait of Tuymans, drawn to turn him into a smudge, made so by the flash of the camera. Thus, he is nothing more than an outline of a man in a hat. As with a person you pass on the street, his facial features are not visible. With his ease at making the features of the other characters so visible and his not, is he removing critique of himself from the viewer? Through January 5. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-524-9400. — AO
"São Paulo 2013" The art world is currently experiencing an outpouring of multi-venue, multi-person exhibitions of 50 pieces or more. By comparison, John Palmer's 11-piece "São Paulo 2013" series seems tame. But the amount of work that went into creating the exhibition outweighs all the others. Every year, Palmer chooses a destination to visit, and, having returned, produces a body of work based on that visit that he exhibits in his gallery, the self-named John Palmer Fine Art Gallery & Studio. This year, Palmer traveled to São Paulo, Brazil. He decided on his destination based on an essay contest in which entrants were "to select from one of ten types of emotions and describe how that emotion you selected would be the best one to influence John's next international series," according to Ryan Lindsay, co-owner of the gallery. The winner was Julio Montano, whose essay conceptualized the emotion of surprise. Palmer chose to integrate the element of surprise into the entire exhibit, and instead of announcing his trip to São Paulo, told friends, family and collectors that he was headed to Shanghai, China. He didn't land in Shanghai, of course. With the help of Flavia Liz Di Paolo, an aptly named tour guide, Palmer and Lindsay embarked on four days in São Paulo, immersing themselves in the city's culture, geography and museums — even in an instance of political unrest, which they witnessed during a walking tour through the city's back streets. A mural of a bird stood out to him; ironically, Palmer's nickname is "Birdy." Thus, a black-and-white bird — representing freedom — became the second theme of the series. There are three other elements that tie each of Palmer's series to the others: intense color, photography and abstraction. Remarkably, no matter how many times they are repeated, these controlled variables never become stale in Palmer's pieces. São Paulo 2013 No. 4 (still for sale) makes use of all five themes — surprise, freedom, color, photography and abstraction. Most notable among them is the surprise that pops out in this piece: a picture of Palmer, Di Paolo and an unnamed gentleman next to another photograph of a city hall building and a bridge. All three pictures are touched up with colorful squiggles, giving the piece a light, free feeling. All 11 pieces are enclosed in a brick-red compartment titled Closed Box. This container is itself a work of art, as is Open Box, in which the red doors are flung open to reveal what's inside. What you get, ultimately, is not one piece of art but three. Surprise. 1218 Heights, 713-861-6726. — AO
"SPRAWL" Showing at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, SPRAWL explores the tenuous relationship with Houston geography, at once loved and loathed by citizens and non-citizens alike for its far reach and uneven plain. Co-curated by Susie J. Silbert and Anna Walker, the exhibit stretches throughout HCCC's gallery, mimicking the something-here, something-there pockets of nothing design of the Bayou City. Additionally, the 16 artists who lent their creative hands to the exhibition provide works drastically different from one another. Like Houston's diverse cultures, cuisines and ZIP codes mashed into one "sprawling" space, this clash of craftsmen works. The exhibition is divided into three sections: "Infrastructure of Expansion," "Survey, Plan, Build" and "Aftereffects." Heading up the first section are the beautiful black-and-white stalactite structures by Norwood Viviano. His Cities: Departure and Deviation (2011) illustrates the population growth of 24 cities from 1850 to 2010. The illustration was done using blown-glass cylinders of different heights, lengths and circumferences that hang from black rods attached to HCCC's ceiling. Each circumference is different, based on the population of the respective city, as is the distribution of black and/or white coloring. Most of the cylinders start out black at the bottom, then become white to represent a city's population growth over time. On the wall, a graphical representation of each city's growth is outlined in a grayish vinyl, an excellent explanation of percentage growth for the mathematically challenged. In the very center of Cities, an all-white cylinder represents the city of Houston. In 1850, the city had only 2,396 residents. By 2010, that number had skyrocketed to more than two million — 2,099,451, to be exact. Through January 19. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — AO