"Apparition of a Deer" In this show, Melanie Loew's paintings come across as highly symbolic and associative. She paints women in the nude, bringing to mind vulnerability, femininity and truth. They're often depicted with deer or just their antlers, which could connote goddess mythology and power. And they're painted in strong color schemes — green or purple or blue — that then take on their own meaning through the work. Uniting all of these works, in addition to the deer imagery, are her patterned backgrounds. The works are highly personal — Loew has even used her friends as subjects — but when added all together, they just didn't pull me in. The message is muddled among all those elements, and I couldn't connect with them. There are also some inclusions in the show that don't quite mesh with the rest. King of Swords and Queen of Fire, which depict the faces and hands of two circus freaks, so to speak, are out of place among the clear cohesion of the rest of Loew's body of work here. Similarly, Ginormous, a self-portrait of the artist painted on a wooden door, shares some elements with the other works, including a richly patterned background and nudity, but is ultimately out of place in terms of shape and subject matter. Regardless, I was glad for its inclusion, since it's one of the stronger pieces in the show. The painting hits you head on, with the door hung low so that you're eye-level with the subject. And it's painted with greater realism than the more surreal works, from the tattoos on her naked body to the contours of her stomach and thighs. Nothing's shrouded in symbolism here; it's just honest. Through July 14. Darke Gallery, 320 Detering St., 713-542-3802. — MD
"Interstitial Spaces: Julia Barello & Beverly Penn" The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft's inspired current show, "Interstitial Spaces," brings together Julia Barello and Beverly Penn in their first collaborative installation. This is such a natural pairing that it makes for a cohesive, rich, full show, even with only nine pieces on view. The two artists make skillful, sculptural wall works. Barello's materials of choice are X-ray and MRI films, which she cuts and dyes to look like delicate flora — they seem to sprout from the wall, they're so textured and alive. Penn, meanwhile, takes real plants, then freezes and casts them in bronze to capture every curl or twist. The resulting pieces have such a lightness to them, it's surprising and impressive to find out that they're bronze. Each of the artists' works have a sense of wild about them that's still nonetheless contained — Barello's flowers and trees are neat and trim, while Penn's threads are sprawling like unruly weeds yet still contained, whether in perfect circles or straight, exact lines. Their sensibilities combine wonderfully in a new collaborative wall installation made just for the center that stretches the length of the main wall. It's massive — you can't take it all in at once, but have to walk along, taking it in as you move through the space. It's called Submerged, and the film and bronze do seem to move together fluidly, like water or, similarly, a wind current. What really comes through here and in the other exhibition works is the ways the pieces interact with the spaces they don't occupy. Around each twist of a bronze or film flower, there's emptiness in the form of the white wall. As the name of the show implies, these between, or interstitial, spaces are as important as the works themselves. Through September 1. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD
"Perry House: Elegance/Violence" Perry House is all about opposites — he strives to create images that are beautiful and disturbing, elegant and violent, exploring construction and destruction, bordering realism and abstraction, and walking the line between "horror and humor," as he says. His giant retrospective at the Art Car Museum spans House's 30-plus years of painting. It includes several of his most recognizable series — the most well-known being his surrealist Southern Dinner Series, composed of amoebic, loudly patterned plates that bend around the edges like bedpans and are set against loudly patterned backdrops of fish and flowers. This series is barely ten years old, but already House has moved way past his distorted Fiestaware and returned full circle to a preoccupation of his earlier in his career — landscapes, which are all noted by a mysterious date (2.20.11, 6.3.11 and so on). These are not the overwrought, wreckage-filled landscapes of his Aftermath Series but something more abstract — two-dimensional cityscapes. In an age of 3-D everything, there's something disconcerting, and arresting, about their flatness. With a 1980s graffiti vibe (must be all that neon), they're disjointed and distorted. House has said he doesn't think too much about color when he paints, but these recent paintings have such a strong sense of pigment that you may easily refer to them as the blue one or the red one. Meanwhile, his black-and-white ink drawings, wherein he essentially forgoes a palette altogether, are especially alluring. 140 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5526. — MD
"Rita Bernstein: Out of Place" Painterly photographs never seem to lose their appeal — there's a reason there are multiple apps that specialize in turning your boring old photographs into neatly framed, beautiful works of art. Rita Bernstein achieves a similar effect in her work, but rather than pushing a button, the Philadelphia photographer spends hours in and out of the darkroom, brushing silver emulsion onto Japanese gampi, or applying beeswax and oil paint to handmade paper. The nearly two-dozen works in "Out of Place," her solo show at John Cleary Gallery, are mostly black-and-white, with unclean edges and square shapes, like some sort of self-made Instagram filter. The size of the images — the biggest are still only a foot square — also adds to their intimacy. Like any stranger's Instagram collection, these images are also highly personal, framed snapshots of the artist's life. They're unstaged, organic images of her friends and family, taken almost slyly — as in the teenage girl lying down on a bed, face turned away from the viewer, her mess of curly hair tumbling down, in Joanna, Age 16. There's also a rawness to Bernstein's photographs in their framing that is enhanced by the materials and process. The paper's edges are uneven, the image unfinished or broken where the silver emulsion wasn't brushed on all the way. The paper itself is uneven, with the image riding slight ridges. This fragility adds to the vulnerability of the subjects. The works with beeswax and oil paint, that vintage tradition of encaustic painting, take on a more haunting quality, their subjects seeming more like apparitions. They're black shadows at the end of a staircase, a silhouetted couple walking in a landscape, and a woman standing in front of a mirror, looking off somewhere we can't see. Filters may be all about making works beautiful, but they often leave you quickly moving on to the next one. These images stay with you long after you've viewed them. Through July 31. 2635 Colquitt St., 713-524-5070. — MD
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"Shifting Transforming: Ideas, Shapes & Materials" This aptly named group show at Peel is a colorful, fun and engaging way to send in the summer. It features sculptural works by some previous Peel exhibitors — Tom Lauerman, Fabio Fernandez and Gabriel Dawe among them — and some newcomers, including Jennifer Maestre. Maestre has gained international attention for her pencil sculptures (she's even been featured on The Martha Stewart Show). Here, it's easy to see why: They're compelling pieces that are so simple — literally pieces of colored pencil sewn together — but are so masterful and alluring, they steal the show. The artist has said she was initially inspired by sea urchins, and that definitely comes through in her series of small round works, aptly titled Urchins. Her larger works also give hints at their origins — one, titled Fat Boy, resembles the form of a rotund human body. Another, Tiamat, the name a reference to a draconic goddess in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, indeed looks like some sort of spiky, four-legged monster. Simply alternating between the sharp point of the pencil and its flat end, Maestre is able to create complex contours and shapes that are out of this world and yet still familiar. Through July 28. 4411 Montrose, 713-520-8122. — MD