Capsule Art Reviews: "Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All," "Colony Collapse," "Eric Fischl: Cast & Drawn," "Janice Jakielski: Constructing Solitude," "Jonathan Leach: Time Does Not Exist Here" "Territorial Pissings"
"Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All" Fresh Arts' latest exhibition wants to let you know right off the bat that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Titled "Cats, Bunnies, and The Surface Value of It All," the two-person show is just what it sounds like — a lighthearted look at art that prominently features cats and bunnies and doesn't get much deeper than that. But just because it is what it is doesn't mean it isn't any good. Au contraire. Lynn Lane's photographs and Melanie Loew's paintings are well-crafted pieces that are enjoyable to behold and examine. Both artists present a portfolio edited down to their respective animals. Lane is on the feline side. He presents 21 black-and-white photography portraits — giclée prints on 100 percent cotton rag archival paper — set against a fantastic bold pink wall. The portraits are of Lane's friends — a motley crew of choreographers, dancers, musicians, tattoo artists, body piercers, DJs, lawyers, cops and more that includes a few prominent people in the Houston arts scene — all holding his cat, Orange Cat. Orange Cat proves to be quite the versatile model; he never holds the same pose twice, and comically squirms and cuddles from one photo to the next. Lane's human models are unique in their own right, too. Once he lets them cut loose with a cat, he captures each person's presence in natural, flattering photos. Most of the subjects are smiling, if not laughing, and seem to be having a genuinely good time. Loew's work is also composed of portraits of people holding animals. But rather than photography, Loew works in paint on paper. She also trades cats for bunnies. Each bunny throughout her seven works is different, too. If you were an expert in this type of thing, you would be able to distinguish breeds; that's how exact her painting is. Compared to Lane's works, Loew's side of the gallery has more of an edge and is weirder. Each person is set against a unique wallpaper pattern, and both animal and human seem to disappear into this flat background. They are all head and limbs but no body; Loew edits out whole torsos. This subtraction, combined with the pallor of the subjects, gives the paintings an eerie, ghostly sense, but it works. The focus is on the pleasant faces and rabbits before you. In such a simple conceit, both artists' works almost dare you not to like them (the bunny in Loew's aptly titled painting Precious is especially adorable). But you'll easily and gladly succumb to their charms — and craft. Through April 26. 2101 Winter St., Studio B11, 713-868-1839. — MD
"Colony Collapse" Nicola Parente has a way of getting your attention. Four years ago, it was with giant mushrooms made of peat moss that sprouted from Art League Houston's patio. The piece, a collaboration with Divya Murphy, was in response to a New York Times article that named Houston the worst recycler among 30 cities in the nation (mushrooms, you see, are natural recyclers). The Houston artist returns with another environmentally themed installation that is, to shamelessly use the pun, creating some buzz. In "Colony Collapse" at micro scope 1824, a boxed-in gallery space at Spring Street Studios, Parente lines the room with more than 2,700 (!) brown paper bags from ceiling to floor — a charming DIY beehive. Fittingly, there are no live bees in this makeshift hive, though the first thing you notice about "Colony Collapse" is the buzzing. It's incessant, and about the last thing you'd expect to hear inside the studio building. Parente has hooked you in. In addition to the sound of buzzing, a video projected onto one wall of the honeycomb captures a handful of bees at work — a memory of what once was. It's a potent message, the rest of the space notably, loudly empty. To further raise awareness to the issue of colony collapse, a pair of boards on the outside wall provide information on the crisis. Your interaction with the hive is disappointingly limited — as is the nature of the gallery, you can look into the space only through a window and a door. But you are invited to leave a comment on a yellow Post-it note and stick it to the gallery's door, in effect adding a new layer to the hive. Through May 31. 1824 Spring, 713-862-0082. — MD
"Eric Fischl: Cast & Drawn" There is great range in both subject matter and material in Eric Fischl's "Cast & Drawn" show at McClain Gallery. All figurative works, they convey bodies that are muscular, fat, ordinary and sensual done in bronze, glass, watercolor and pigment inks cast in resin. The impressive skill on display almost comes as no surprise, given that the art icon is famous for his seductive portrayals of the human body. But the 18 pieces in the show also present a rare opportunity to experience both Fischl's 2-D and his 3-D figurative work and witness how he creates elegant, active forms across multiple mediums. The sculptures are particularly elegant, portraying athletes and bodies in motion. The Dancer looks ready to pounce, all tense concentration on her tippy toes, while Swimmer at Rest looks as pensive as a Rodin. Tumbling Woman, Fischl's somewhat controversial homage to 9/11 victims, is referenced in several sculptures, including a piece in glass and another in bronze. The awkward, unnatural pose — the woman is on her back, her legs lifted and held together to her left side — is meant to evoke the bodies that leapt from the World Trade Center towers. It's a powerful, striking, vulnerable visual, particularly in bronze, even if you don't know the reference. Fischl's colorful resin paintings are a clear departure — if you didn't know any better, you'd think this was a group show. The beach bods depicted are a burnt orange tan, their posture relaxed as they strut around half-clothed or naked. They are completely unself-conscious. His watercolors are more sensual and evocative. Set against a white or splotched background, they are looser, freer depictions of the body and its contours, the subjects stretched out into impossible poses or joined together, indistinguishable from one to the next. A yellowish orange painting of a woman bent over backwards, her arm stretched out in line with her body and her hair flowing beneath her, is particularly breathtaking. Through May 11. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — MD
"Janice Jakielski: Constructing Solitude" Janice Jakielski's work somehow manages to feel both futuristic and Victorian at the same time. Her colorful headdresses on display at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft are quite photogenic, embroidered prettily with birds and adorned with paper flowers. They also feature some curious fashion choices: coffee mug halves that surround the eyes, wide ribbons that obscure the ears and even a bonnet made for two, each separate headdress connected by a striped portal in a way that forces each wearer's back to the other. These dozen or so hats are purposefully exaggerated, their impracticality meant to enforce a sense of isolation on the wearer. The exhibition is even titled "Constructing Solitude," and sets out to explore how a minor change or two from the norm can radically alter our view of the world. Or something like that. It all can be a bit of a leap. You have to go from merely admiring the skill and craftsmanship in these headdresses to imagining wearing them and how that might feel. It doesn't help that the headdresses are placed at varying heights on the walls, and the taller they are, the harder it is to really examine them. Some key references are also unclear and don't seem to readily serve the piece. The flowers are meant to signify floriography, a Victorian-era practice in which flowers were used to send messages, while the birds are a reference to auspicium — a form of divination that looks to the flight patterns of birds for signs. That's nice, but to what end? Jakielski does give museum-goers the chance to experience, rather than imagine, her work by setting up an interactive installation in the middle of the gallery space. In "Across the Divide," three pairs of handmade binoculars look upon these miniature porcelain nature scenes, which include a pile of leaves and what looks like a cornfield and some weeds. The idea is that when you look through the binoculars, someone else has the opportunity to look through the other pair and you can experience this act of viewing together. Of course, that only works if there's another person there to look through the binoculars with you and you both somehow know what to do. Otherwise there's little to guide you through the intended experience of this piece, which can lead you to look on in confusion or ignore it all together. Through May 5. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — MD
"Jonathan Leach: Time Does Not Exist Here" The year 2012 was a pretty good one for Jonathan Leach. The artist's work was in nearly a dozen shows from Portland to San Antonio. But mostly he was all over Houston, including a fine art fair, a major survey of the contemporary Houston painting scene and a show displaying the collection of major Houston donors. Now, 2013 is looking pretty good, too, as Leach kicks it off with his second solo exhibit at Gallery Sonja Roesch. By one indicator, the show was so popular, the gallery ran out of wine. Why is Leach, as evidenced his omnipresence and fans' imbibing, so popular? For one thing, there's his urban aesthetic inspired by Houston, among other cities. His geometric paintings evoke streetscapes and office buildings while still being abstract. He also employs bold neon colors that are light-years away from Mondrian's primary hues. There is a balance to his lines and colors, too. No matter how vivid or potentially dizzying they get, they still ground you. One of the most striking things about Leach's paintings is the fact that they are, indeed, paintings. They are so clean and straight that they seem manufactured. They are perfect — the outcome of meticulous taping, painting and many a night spent puzzling over their composition and color. Leach's paintings take up the bulk of your attention, but they are also joined by some works on paper. These look like blueprints for his canvases, the faint ink drawings depicting 3-D forms that transform the pages. The Houston artist also has a few of his signature Plexiglas sculptures on hand. These bring his 3-D effect to a whole new level as his bold lines overlap, intersect and bend across the clear planes of the Plexiglas. Most intriguing of all these is C.I.T.E. Object, a rectangular piece that features bright blue, pink and clear zigzagging lines against black spray paint that nearly engulfs the Plexiglas, but Leach leaves enough negative space to make it interesting. Fittingly, the sculpture is placed near the painting Dark Device, another work that's primarily black. Given the strong city connotation in his work, it feels as if nighttime has descended over this part of the gallery, and a whole new dimension of Leach's universe is brought masterfully to life. Through April 27. 2309 Caroline, 713-659. — MD
"Territorial Pissings" Geoff Hippenstiel has a most risky process: When he has a perfectly good painting, he intentionally messes it up to create a problem he then has to solve. It's a method that could potentially ruin a work, but lucky for us, it results in paintings that are richly detailed and engaging. Engaging hardly seems a strong enough word to describe what it's like to process a Hippenstiel. The longer you look at any of the five untitled works currently on display in "Territorial Pissings" at Devin Borden Gallery, the more you see. You're left with a completely different painting than when you first approached. That's because the abstract works are layered with unexpected colors and markings that are waiting to be discovered, even after you've lived with them. They are thick with impasto, like the end result of some volcanic eruption that's spilled lime green, purple, red, gold and blue across the canvases in spurts. The canvases are massive, too; in a gallery equipped with 14-foot-high ceilings, the eight-foot-tall paintings don't seem all that big, but they are towering works. As you move clockwise from the left in the gallery, the paintings intentionally become more abstract. The first one you encounter — a smattering of markings in the shape of a skull — is a rare work for Hippenstiel, who's known for his impressive, large-scale abstract works and doesn't get this representational. He's making a statement, showing us he has some surprises up his sleeve and making his mark in something other than abstraction (hence the show's title, "Territorial Pissings," which is pulled from a Nirvana song title). While the skull is a clear subject, Hippenstiel conceals his inspiration in his other paintings, burying it under layers of oil and even spray paint. A Goya-shaped award statue is the starting point for at least one painting, the faint outline of a gold-hued face just there under the surface. Other seemingly monochromatic paintings bury colors that slowly reveal themselves to you. A giant gold piece seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but the longer you stay with it, the more tints of green and orange appear and it suddenly becomes a whole new painting. Magic? Nope, just a hell of a good painter. Through April 27. 3917 Main, 713-529-2700. — MD
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