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Capsule Art Reviews: "Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada," Hill Country Love Affair: Interpretations of a Texas Heartland, "Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage," "Wols: Retrospective"

"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

Hill Country Love Affair: Interpretations of a Texas Heartland The beauty of the Texas landscape is the center of the William Reaves Fine Art Gallery's current exhibition, Hill Country Love Affair: Interpretations of a Texas Heartland. The collection spans 85 years of interpretation of the Texas Hill Country by more than 30 different Texas artists. The collection moves from recognizable Texas artists to newer names. A William Lester oil painting, Farm, catches your attention as soon as you enter the gallery. Many of the pieces, however, come from the school of impressionism. One example of that is Harold Roney's Shimmering Sunlight, a stunning blend of pastel colors that combine to make up an array of shrubbery, tall trees and flowing sprawl. For a collector of Texas art, this piece is a dream. As usual, William Reaves has gathered an impressive display of works all capturing the Texas landscape from different lenses. While each artist has found reason to call attention to the Texas "state of mind," the collection as a whole may cause you to find your own religion in the Texas countryside. On display through November 16. Visit reavesart.com for information. — AK

"Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" The man's face looks aged and weathered. Accordionist is the last vocation you would pick for him, since his wrinkled hands relay the same signs of aging; still, he holds the instrument expertly, fingers lingering over keys the way a lover's graze soft flesh. However nimble and confident his fingers may be, it is his face that catches the eye. He wears an expression of fear, and it's not hard to see why: Behind him, a tiger's body is caught in mid-pounce. His left paw is raised, his claws, unsheathed. The success of Orpheus, a painting by Kermit Oliver, is its realism, created by the expert application of acrylic oil to canvas. The acrylic oil is applied in short downward strokes, creating vertical lines that imply movement. Acrylic oil is also put on in layers, one on top of the other, making the picture look wet. Because liquids are known for their fluidity, this technique also gives the painting kinetic movement. This is what makes the man look so tight, the tiger so taut, as if he (or she) may in fact bypass Orpheus altogether and jump out of the painting toward you. "Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage" is an exhibition of 17 paintings — including Orpheus — taking up Art League Houston's front and hallway galleries. The works on display span 30 of his 40 years as a painter. Dido and Aeneas (1997) is split vertically into halves, with the left side portraying a black and bleak funeral procession. Not one to divert from the African-American lineage present in most of his paintings, Oliver paints the originally Carthaginian Dido as a black woman with long dreadlocks accessorized with golden beads. Her face has a ghostly pallor. Oliver's talent with oils is evident here also; whereas in Orpheus he made the oils wet, here he takes a wet substance and makes it look dry, like powder. Oliver is a native Texan and Texas Southern University graduate who, until a month ago, quietly sorted mail in a Waco post office. However, his Texas roots were not enough to inspire the famously reclusive painter to come to his own opening Friday evening. (Ironically, this elusiveness doesn't stop Oliver from designing a scarf every year for one of the world's most coveted couture brands, Hermès. Fancy, huh?) Despite this, Art League Houston not only exhibits Oliver, but honors him with its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award — hermit factor notwithstanding. Through November 15. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO

"Wols: Retrospective" Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze's art is like his personality was: nonconformist and uncompromising. Wols was a principal adopter of "Tachisme," an outgrowth of the "Art Informel" (art without form) movement. Wols's "formless art" is different from abstraction in that, even in the ruin, there is still the faint outline of an image. Wols's art was also ever-changing. Thanks to this restlessness, the German artist's catalog is a bevy of photographs, watercolors, oils and the occasional ink doodle. What a fortunate coincidence that Wols was one of Dominique de Menil's favorite artists; her expansive museum makes room for "Wols: Retrospective," an exhibition that takes up nearly the entire first floor. Starting with two big spaces, the exhibition disappears into smaller and smaller rooms. Turn right, and you come face to face with Wols's Tachisme paintings. Each of these oil-on-canvas works starts out as stains of one or two colors, with more and more color added toward the center, until in the middle, a smudged, abstract mess drips down the canvas. Careful observation reveals subtle images in the center of this pile of goo. Oiseau (Bird) is a picture of poultry; without the image of the bird, there would only be a green-stained background filled with a bevy of colors that looks like chicken (get it?) scratch. Turn left, and you enter a room filled with small- to medium-size watercolor, ink and gouache pieces. These are less polished than the oils, looking like something Wols scribbled down quickly while in art class. While the other pieces are a centripetal pull into a center of schizophrenic colors, these little works draw you in with ink markings. In a smaller adjacent room, the walls transition from white to blue. Washing the walls in baby blue encourages emotion as the viewer encounters the most personal pieces in the exhibition. The photographs in this room are of random odds and ends and of Wols himself. Self-Portrait (Wols grimacing) is a series of six photos that show Wols to be a funny, balding man with a heavy mustache and large, expressive eyes. Next to it, Untitled (Grety's Mouth) is a half-parted pair of lips, wet with either lipstick or spit. It's hard to tell which, since the photo is in black and white, and, with only a single name in the title and a monochromatic color scheme, it's difficult to discern if the subject is a man or a woman. The only tell is a crop of facial hairs sprouting from the upper lips, and even they are sparse enough to warrant confusion. These photos, however eyebrow-raising, are where the spirit of Wols truly resides. If the main rooms are where the viewer learns about Wols the artist, it is here, in this dark cove, that he or she learns about Wols the man. Through January 12. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — AO


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