"Ballast/Break" I'm not so jazzed about the 2D works in Alexis Granwell and Carrie Scanga's "Ballast/Break" in Lawndale Art Center's project space, but there is some pretty nice 3D stuff going on. There's nothing wrong with Granwell's large drypoint and monotype prints, images that look like architectural sketches for yurts. They just aren't that interesting. Granwell's sculpture, however, has much more potential. Her best work in this small show is Palimpsest and Things to Come (2011), a tall, narrow structure that takes an angular network of wire wrapped with creamy white handmade paper and props it up with a scaffolding of randomly sized one-by-twos. It's light, elegant and clunky all at the same time. Meanwhile, Scanga's little works on paper present images of house-like forms. Completely competent, just kinda dull. But when she starts using that paper to build architectural forms, the work becomes much more powerful. She creates bricks from paper and builds a short, chimney-like structure. It rests on strands of wire stretched across the gallery, seeming to float in the air. The artist printed etchings on tracing paper and then wrapped the paper around bricks. She creased the edges, removed the brick and taped the paper back together into a brick-like form. The structure is incredibly light and fragile, slowly sagging into itself under its own weight. It's a nice piece and was apparently going to be much taller, but airflow from the gallery's vent was problematic. The black-and-white image on the exhibition brochure shows an amazing floor-to-ceiling structure. I'd love to see that one as well. Through January 7. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — KK
"A Brave New World" Of the three artists showing at Peel Gallery, Magid Salmi is certainly the main draw of this compact, thoughtful show, curated by artist Jennifer Ash. He followed up a well-received show at Spacetaker, featuring his "Frankenfood" photographs, to the Art League of Houston's juried exhibition, "Gambol," earlier this month. Here, Salmi treads similar territory as the works that won him a cool grand at Art League, building on his "GMO Quarantine" series, but there's a feast. He's created a rainbow of his neat, small fruits (cherries, raspberries, grapes), which have been prodded with computer circuits and then, if that didn't already make them inedible, cast into resin. The fruits are arranged in three-by-three petri-dish grids, and with the repetition of those grids, varying by color and fruit, you could easily dismiss it as more of the same, but each piece is still so transfixing — you can't take your eyes off this stuff. It's certainly creepy, with nods to the rampant practice of genetically modified engineering, but thanks to the small scale, the works still somehow also come off as rather adorable and digestible. Magid is one mad, crafty scientist. Artist Richard Lund is also mad in a sense — he uses mathematically inspired patterns to create complex yet neat arrangements of screws and plastic caps. Even if you don't know about the math part, you can sense some sort of exact, obsessive attention to detail going on in his rows of varying primary reds, blues and yellows, like a pixelated Mondrian painting. They lend themselves to some interesting 3-D effects, but other than that, the works don't elicit much emotion to really hold me. Timothy Ripley makes exquisite oil paintings of weird, cellular-like organisms. First he crafts them from polymer clay, then photographs them and finally paints them to create multimedia pieces, all in one. The results are as intricate and detailed as Lund's sculptural works, but as strange and captivating as anything Salmi can dream up. Through January 7. 4411 Montrose, 713-520-8122. — MD
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"International Discoveries III" Fotofest's "International Discoveries" series always brings in interesting work, and this year is no exception. The standout is Romanian photographer Dana Popa, whose home country is embroiled in the sex-trafficking industry. Popa's series not Natasha captures girls and women who have escaped, as well as the families that have been left behind. According to Popa, "Natasha" is the nickname given to Eastern European prostitutes, denying them any individuality and reducing them to interchangeable objects. Popa's images manage to sensitively and empathetically capture the practice's human toll. There are women trafficked as 12-year-olds, mothers taken from their children, teenage daughters taken from their mothers. In one image, a teenage girl holds up her missing mother's favorite dress. One shows only a girl's forearm, marked with lines of self-inflicted cuts. Another is dominated by blurred wallpaper flowers and a floral bedspread, with only the top of a woman's head visible in the lower-right corner. She's cradling her head in her hands. A quote next to the image says, "My husband-to-be sold me for $2,200." Popa offers a heart-wrenching insight into a world born of poverty, cruelty and greed. Through December 22. FotoFest Headquarters, 1113 Vine St., 713-223-5522. — KK
"New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection" Avant-garde Czech erotica, anyone? "New Formations," an assemblage of early 20th-century Czech work collected by Mary and Roy Cullen, presents some pretty wonderful things: everything from glassware to periodicals to the aforementioned erotica. And like most shows of private collections, you should visit it for the objects and glimpses of the period it contains rather than to receive a comprehensive overview. Jindrich Štyrský's 1933 text and photomontage, Emile Comes to Me in a Dream, was only distributed through the mail. One of his collages, on view in the show, illustrates why. A photo of a half-naked woman clutching a feathered fan is paired with a photo of a skeleton with its boot still on. Štyrský stuck an image of an erect penis over its pelvis. It captures the decadence bookended by the carnage of WWI and WWII. Tamer but equally impressive offerings in the show include amazing art glass from the '20s and '30s, in which Bohemian glassblowers turned their considerable skills to dramatic modern forms. Through February 5, 2012. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK
"Soundforge" If participatory art is made that you don't participate in, is it still successful art? That was the question I pondered recently when hesitating to pick up a mallet at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft's exhibition "Soundforge," a steel-music collaboration between metalsmith Gabriel Craig and composer Michael Remson. The cold, standing, human-size vibraphones are accompanied by rows of hand-carved wooden mallets warmly lit on a wall, as if calling out "Pick me up." Still, like any musical instrument to a newbie, even one as unintimidating as percussion, there's room for uncertainty — how do you play? What should you play? How loudly can you hit the forged steel? The only clue Craig and Remson leave is an echo-y, almost eerie percussion score on loop that acts as your guide and accompanies a jumpy, barely watchable video of the forging in action. Answering those questions and testing the mallet to the steel are all part of the experience, sure, but when some brave soul does muster the courage to pick up one, maybe even two, of the surprisingly light mallets, the sound is akin to the cacophony created by an untrained child banging on the keys of a poor piano. Given the amount of steel and mallets with which to strike it that are available, you have, in essence, multiple children at pianos. And though the materials say each steel piece is tuned to Remson's composition, that doesn't mean you can't hit a wrong note. In the end, I went along and timidly struck a few chords, though didn't stick with it. Given the relational aesthetics model of "Soundforge," it requires viewers to complete the work by striking the metal with the mallets. So if they deign not to — out of shyness, disinterest or politeness — it's not much of a success. And if they do, well, I'm pretty sure I don't want to hear it. Through January 7. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD
"Toni LaSelle: Climate of the Heart: Paintings from the 1950's" I'm a sucker for Toni LaSelle's 60-year-old abstract paintings. Characterized as a pioneer of Texas Modernism, LaSelle studied with the legendary Hans Hoffman. She was a woman artist during the swaggering machismo of the abstract expressionist era and apparently one of the first Texas artists to fully immerse herself in abstraction. The wonky, angular shapes of her small paintings Climate of the Heart #4 and Climate of the Heart #5 are wonderfully engaging, as are their goofy '50s colors — blacks and grays, whites and the greens of plastic plants. They're done in Magma, this funky precursor to modern water-based acrylic paint that you had to thin with turpentine. That's a paint geek thing, but it's the kind of paint that the likes of color field artist Morris Louis used. They're good paintings, but there's also something really beautiful about the way the Magma has aged and the colors have mellowed. There are a couple slightly clunky paintings in the mix, but it's a lovely little show. LaSelle has some great pattern-heavy watercolors on view as well. Through January 8. Inman Gallery, 3901 Main, 713-526-7800. — KK