Capsule Art Reviews: "Colony Collapse," "The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning," "Halls without walls, room to feel in. The door awaits you, your return within," "Maurice," "Pastmodern," "Salt House," "Shambhala"
"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
"The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning" In Tehran, more than a million people viewed it; at the Smithsonian Institution, there was timed ticketing. While worlds apart, all these people came to see a clay object no larger than a football. Despite its unassuming size and material, the Cyrus Cylinder is no ordinary object. It is one of the most iconic items in the British Museum's collection — an artifact from 6th century BC Babylon inscribed with the earliest form of writing that is often referred to as the first declaration of human rights. A five-city tour of the United States currently brings the famed object to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in what's a must-see attraction for anyone interested in ancient history, ancient Persian cultural artifacts, archeology and even religious tolerance. The Cylinder is an incredible object thanks to the text inscribed on it in Babylonian cuneiform. After capturing Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 539 BC, Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed deported people to return to their homeland. The people in question were likely to be Jews expelled by the previous ruler of Babylon, and indeed the Hebrew Bible praises Cyrus for this incredible act of freedom of worship. Since being discovered during a British Museum excavation in 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder has become a symbol of tolerance the world over. It even has its own replica at the United Nations. In addition to the Cylinder, the modest exhibition also features a little more than a dozen objects that demonstrate innovation and cultural advancement in the Persian Empire. These include a new writing system (Old Persian cuneiform), carved seals, currency, and luxury goods like gold armlets and gold and silver bowls. Ironically, for all that gold, one of the most important pieces in the exhibition is one of the least valuable as far as materials go. The Cyrus Cylinder is just made of clay, but it has the greatest weight. Through June 14. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. —MD
"Halls without walls, room to feel in. The door awaits you, your return within." Abhidnya Ghuge works with the most common and disposable of materials — paper plates. Their abundance comes in handy, though. In her site-specific installations, the artist employs them by the thousands to create unusual forms that snake organically across the room. Her latest installation, poetically yet incomprehensibly titled "Halls without walls, room to feel in. The door awaits you, your return within." takes over the Grace R. Cavnar Gallery at Lawndale Art Center. The somewhat awkwardly shaped room responds well to a work that compels its way through the space, changing how you walk through and forcing you to interact with it. This isn't a flat, unresponsive surface but a dynamic, fleshed-out work with depth; you can see it from all sides and have it completely surround you. With the paper plates folded up into cones and held in place by a wire frame, the flowing form looks like a coral reef out of water. An original wood-block carving is printed on these thousands of paper plates in bright orange, yellow, blue and white colors, further adding to this scaly, reef effect. Upon closer inspection, the wood block design is less coral-inspired and more henna — a nod to the Tyler, Texas-based artist's Indian origins. It's a highly unusual piece, one that's completely unexpected and oddly pretty. It's best viewed as a whole; up close, it's simply paper plates with prints on them, which isn't so magical. But step back and take it all in, and it becomes something else entirely. Through June 15. 4912 Main, 713-528-5858. — MD
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"Maurice" Keith J. Varadi's oil paintings have something you can't quite put your finger on. They seem unexpectedly muted and soft. Even the boldest colors have a quiet quality to them. That's because these oil paintings are copies of oil paintings, the original discarded in favor of this second life. It's a whole process that the Brooklyn artist developed to make the centuries-old act of painting fresh and surprising to him. He starts off by making a painting on a stretched canvas. He then stretches a raw canvas over that painting while the paint is still wet and pushes the paint through the raw canvas without using a paint brush. Sometimes he leaves the end result alone; other times he may add paint to the stain, again without using a brush. Painting without a paintbrush? That's almost a cliché, but it makes for some beautiful results. Fifteen canvases made through this experimental, limited method are on display at David Shelton Gallery in the exhibition "Maurice." Most are a little larger than a notebook, at 12 by 9 inches. They're small, highly contained works. Some even have a thin border of paint around the edges that seems to keep it all in. Overall, they are mostly multicolored paintings full of deliberate marks, busy with abstract splotches and indiscernible forms. Is that a man in Crux Tug? A key? Who can say for sure. These works have depth to them, a sense of history. Others are slightly reminiscent of patterns, such as the camo-like effect of Berms. In several works, the artist doesn't fill the whole canvas, despite its already small size. Toner and Hawking, hung in tandem, are deliberately left bare in places on the canvas, as if half-finished, or half-started. At the same time, the canvas is as much a part of the painting and the materiality as the paint itself. Varadi even likes to say that these paintings aren't oil on canvas — they're oil and canvas. It's an important distinction. Through June 15. 3909 Main, 832-538-0924. —MD
"Pastmodern" The influences in Russell Prince's collages intriguingly range from the Cubists and Dadaists to tattered billboards, old textbooks, and his great-grandmother's deteriorating Victorian home. Indeed, the Houston artist's works have an aged quality to them, from the musty old book covers of classics like David Copperfield that he rips from their binds to the highly distressed, unique frames that keep it all together. It's as if they've been around for decades, collecting dust in a musty study somewhere, rather than all having been crafted within the past three years. "Pastmodern," the name of the self-taught artist's current show at Front Gallery, is quite apt. There are nearly 40 collages for your perusal, scattered salon-style on two walls and arranged on the shelves near the front room's fireplace. Stamps, old paintings, book covers and other indiscernible scraps come together onto postcards and canvas boards of varying sizes. The show, put together in collaboration with guest curator Jay Wehnert of Intuitive Eye, nicely plays with this variation in size, the pieces getting progressively bigger and then smaller again as you move through the exhibit. As the name "Pastmodern" suggests, this is a serious exhibit that still doesn't take itself too seriously. In Barrel of Monkeys, the collage prominently features scraps of paper curved like the plastic monkey pieces in the children's game in an unexpected, charming reference. The best works are the smaller ones on postcard like Barrel of Monkeys, which gel despite their randomness. The bigger they get, the less control there is, and the proportions don't quite work at that size. Prince is a neighbor of Front Gallery owner Sharon Engelstein, making this an extremely local show. It's also the artist's first solo effort. His collages remind me of ones by another Houston artist who recently had his debut — designer Jerry Jeanmard — but without the lovely white space of Jeanmard's. Something must be in the water. Through June 1. 1412 Bonnie Brae, 713-298-4750. —MD
"Salt House" When artists take over the seven row houses from 2505-2521 Holman Street in the Third Ward, there's usually the desire to be busy. Sculpture hangs from the ceilings, drawings are done right on the white paint or each wall is painted a different color entirely. So what's so remarkable about Sean Shim-Boyle's art project currently in one of Project Row Houses' historic shotgun houses is its simplicity. The walls are painted white, the floor a light gray. Nothing hangs from the vaulted ceiling, which is accented by dark crossbeams thanks to the natural architecture of the house. An off-center red-brick chimney, also original to the home, remains untouched except for a couple of lines of white paint, possibly markings left behind by a previous artist. The most significant change Shim-Boyle makes is adding a second red-brick chimney of sorts to the single-room house, extending from one corner across the space to the opposite wall by the door. Because it matches the original chimney as much as the artist can muster and is as solid as can be, it seems like a natural addition — except of course for the awkward angle that'll force most visitors to limbo under it. With the beams across the ceiling and the vertical chimney cutting through it, it's a striking visual. Shim-Boyle has quite the eye. The artist isn't quite done, though. He's made a second, more minor alteration to the house, adding a thin line of fluorescent lights on the floor beneath his slanted chimney. In a room that's already brilliantly well-lit, with sun shining in through the bare windows, it seems like an unnecessary touch. But parallel to the brick addition, it helps to further emphasize this breathtaking presence in the house. Through June 23. 2513 Holman, 713-526-7662. — MD
"Shambhala" Shambhala is a Sanskrit word meaning a place of peace, happiness or tranquility. In the Buddhist tradition, it is paradise. It is also a meditation technique and, tellingly, the name of Paul Fleming's latest exhibition at Barbara Davis Gallery. In "Shambhala," Fleming fills the gallery with bright, sleek color as he creates wall installations composed of identically shaped resin-filled objects arranged in straight lines and subtle patterns. The main body of work is All my friends are here, which takes over the first half of the gallery across every available surface. Repeating blocks of pigmented resin are arranged in single file across the walls like some broken code of color samples, available in every color of the crayon box. Other installations sprawl across the wall in a controlled chaos. Fractured From the Fall is a massive piece that strikes the back wall, straight strips of hydrocol and resin crossing each other like a broken rainbow. Other pieces aren't as neat and exact. In Papillae, red-tipped cones radiate from a center, while Our Nature features blue objects that climb up the wall and onto the ceiling, like ornate thumbtacks mapping population demographics or the spread of a disease. Still other pieces emphasize connectivity, with each part making up a tightly wound whole as in These Subtle Agencies II, a punishing square made up of countless blue, green and purple pieces arranged in a flowing pattern. Between these tight grids and the loose, pixelated wall installations, there can be a lot of white space, and it all makes for a somewhat sparse show. There's not too much going on here for deep contemplation, just a lot of eye candy. Through June 1. 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. —MD
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