"Allison Rathan: The Cutting Bridle" The Exchange, 60"x48", is a self-portrait of the artist Allison Rathan striding behind a very large wolf on a metal leash. It captures the confidence of this artist, who has blond movie-star looks and the poise and litheness of a fashion model. The leash holder has a slit skirt that exposes a graceful leg, and her left hand is lightly cupping her left breast, a reminder that we are living in a world where sensuality rules. I've Come Home Now echoes the dark power of Wuthering Heights as a man inside a castle embraces a woman through an open window. That Night is a more complex picture; a woman wearing cut-off jeans stands in front of a chain-link fence, with the shadow of the chains reflected on her clothing and even her skin. Her face is not shown, but her back reveals intensity, power, danger — and perhaps fear of being encaged. Or, more likely, she is. Elsewhere in the gallery is a rusty white birdcage, empty, with the door open, so escape is possible. Reinless has another provocative beauty on a horse, her skirt flying. Rathan has a series of small portraits of heads; one, titled Foundling, has the look of a very young dark-haired beauty-to-come whose haunting expression indicates resignation, anticipation and hidden power. I liked best a departure for Rathan, The Red Balloon, a depiction of a charming village street that extends well into the distance. I suggest viewing this both up close and from afar; both will delight. Through September 4. Archway Gallery, 2305 Dunlavy, 713-522-2409, archwaygallery.com. — JJT
"Check Mate" Gil Bruvel's brilliant steel and ceramic chess sets — three of them, each different — dominate the center of the Laura Rathe Fine Art Gallery. They are witty, urbane and beautiful, with an airy, three-dimensional quality, each piece separate and movable. Bruvel's other works are even more powerful — sculptured heads made of stainless steel. Dichotomy presents the head and upper torso of a woman, formed of ribbons of steel, with open spaces between, creating a wind-blown, flowing effect, and making the steel seem fluid and alive. Each side of the face is different, suggesting both a cosmetic disadvantage and a capacity for duplicity. In Rain, the reflection of a man's head begins at the jawline, seemingly a mirror image, but I wondered if the expression in the hooded eyes below was really the same. This could be a Spartan defending a mountain pass. This is a group show, and includes Andreas Nottebohm, considered a master in metal painting. His work here, titled KN-2075, lets us see why. It's an elongated oval, oil painted on aluminum, primarily blue but with shifting elements of green as one moves past it. It suggests water, and has an otherworldly quality, as though it might be a futuristic control panel for a spaceship. It is wonderful. Gian Garofalo creates a series of vertical stripes of varying colors, but with so many stripes and so many colors that the work bursts with energy. Roi James also employs vertical stripes, and his art is colorful, with a soothing, serene quality, almost regal in its quiet authority. This is an exhibition replete with artistic pleasures. Through August 29. 2707 Colquitt, 713-527-7700, laurarathe.com. — JJT
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"Coalescence: A solo exhibition by Jessica Kreutter" The first impression is of a very complicated...what? There are no ready-made words to describe the architecture of Jessica Kreutter's sculpture at post-studio projects, which is composed of interlocking metal frames covered with whitish clay, so the overall effect is sepulchral, ghostly, as of a graveyard at midnight. The metal pieces may be a child's crib or a bedstead, as long, thin square poles hold them together, bridges and perhaps also weapons, lances. A curved round pole looks like a shepherd's crook; curved round poles create circles toward the middle; and an arching curved round pole spans the room to land on a white clay mirror on the rear wall, dislodging just enough clay to reveal a reflective surface. A latticework fragment has been curved into what could be protective armor for a giant armadillo. The floor has an incomplete checkerboard pattern made up of whitish tiles, with the black floor providing the alternating dark squares, like an alien's three-dimensional chessboard. Two more long, round poles at the far right cross each other, creating what could be entrances — if one dared penetrate this forbidding landscape. The creation of this assemblage is unique, as Kreutter began August 1, the beginning of the exhibition, and added to it bit by bit until the viewing of the finished sculpture at a reception on August 22. Kreutter has gone for the dynamism of the strange, so there is no beauty here, but there is a power, and a mystery. The artist suggested that the work spoke of memories and decay, and it does that, and does it very well. Through August 30. 2315 Commerce, 832-207-8110, post-studio.org. — JJT
"From the Pinnacle to the Prize" Two artists with dramatically different approaches are showing at the Mariago Collective. Ariane Roesch shifts shapes normally rigid into softer contours, and adds an inner luminosity. Scott Proctor states: "...what we are all thinking about...butts, balls, boobs, blobs and sweat stains...right? Or is it just me?" The contrast is between celestial and earthy, between romantic and pragmatic. The first floor is given over to Roesch, with the major piece being Rung by Rung, a soft vinyl ladder of nine rungs, displayed on the floor and covered in old-fashioned vinyl. LED lights enhance the rungs, making it welcoming, as though the artist had decreed: "No more hardness; the world will be soft." Yet there is another dimension, as this ladder is certainly treacherous. Kiss is another ladder, this one erect, free-standing and A-shaped, with five rungs and an endearing floral vinyl. On the second level, many of Proctor's glazed ceramics consist of two globes, side by side, inviting speculation on whether a work represents voluptuous boobs or a butt. The ceramics usually have a topping, much like chocolate syrup on an ice cream scoop. Peppermint Bottom is attractive because of its rich color, though I liked the warm strength of Peaches even better. Some pieces are wall-hung, others on pedestals, but these seemed more pedestrian, ponderous, as opposed to the lighthearted jubilation of those on the walls. It's clear that Proctor believes in William Blake's proverb: "The lust of the goat is the bounty of God." There will be an artist talk with Roesch on Friday, August 29, from 8 to 9 p.m. Through September 6. 1707 Waugh, 832-997-6102, thematriagocollective.com. — JJT
"Martin Durazo: Territory & Owen Drysdale: Plinth" Martin Durazo paints large — Empire is 60"x48" — and uses pink, blue, white and yellow to create variety. There are black lines that add emphasis, and blue and white circles, seemingly stenciled, that add another element. The result is colorful but cold. Territory is even larger, with some of the same colors, but with purple oblongs to shape its composition. Castle has a dominant yellow-green object bottom center, balanced by a much smaller red bar at center top. The bottom figure is ambiguous — it echoes the shape of a Niki de Saint Phalle Nana. I liked Trance III, with a vertical large blue oblong at upper right, two red-magenta horizontal stripes to add energy, and two yellow-green additions. The blue launches us into the painting, the red leads us on and the yellow-green seduces. Geyser omitted vivid colors and settled for black and gray and white, and blue for the water; it has energy and mystery. Owen Drysdale is a subtle artist, offering up visual haikus that suggest rather than illustrate. I liked 1br/1bath, oil on panel, bluish-black, pale orange and a few other pastels to boot. Leaden Prospects, paradoxically, has an airy, fluid aura. Embankment 2 suggests that the color splashes may be a window into something — perhaps the soul. His smaller paintings, 12"x9", are more successful because of their limited size, since the colors here control their environment. On this scale, the ideas seem more fully developed. Through August 30. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200, barbaradavisgallery.com. — JJT
"A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James" Seeing how the wealthy live is possible, as The Menil Collection exhibits some of the gowns and furniture designed for John and Dominique de Menil by Charles James (1906-1978), "America's First Couturier." James used curves in furniture, softening the look and added an inviting welcome. A sand-colored sectional sofa can seat seven — or ten, if they are good friends. A smaller, two-part sofa is covered in wool, and the way the back penetrates the seat is witty, if not erotic. There is a 1929 photograph of James taken by his friend Cecil Beaton: eyes heavy-lidded, expressing languid, pervasive sensuality, definitely an artist. Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, credits James with the invention of the spiral cut, the taxi dress, the figure-eight skirt, the puffer jacket and the waistband that expands. James is famed for his ball gowns, which use lush fabrics, a scintillating choice of colors, often contrasting, and a precision in detailing. He adds verve to such mundane items as a raincoat or a business suit. One ball gown has a black velvet top, with a red fabric panel in the front, flanked by ivory panels, and a "widow's peak" downward slash that adds sensuality. A stunning concert gown has the gold top descending further in the rear toward a beige bottom, emphasizing the female figure and adding wit. A severe dinner suit is enlivened by a silk bow. A purple business suit is worn over a beige blouse, with the contrast striking. James was a designer with a generous soul. His extensive use of pleats and inserts is additional documentation of this generosity of spirit. Through September 7. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org. — JJT