"Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lightning" Cruz Ortiz is known to work in wheat paste murals, video, street sculptures and guerrilla AM radio broadcasts. His latest solo exhibition is just gouache on paper and panel, but that doesn't make it any less quiet. "I Speak Lightning" at David Shelton Gallery is a loud, blaring show. It is full of bold colors, bright text and, yes, more than a few streaks of lightning. The Houston-born, San Antonio-based artist made a splash here three years ago with his solo exhibition at CAMH. That show introduced many to Ortiz's (to borrow the term) lo-fi aesthetic. There's a simplicity and crudeness to his paintings, a freestyle, rasquache technique that allows Ortiz to work really fast — he created the nearly two dozen pieces in the show just this year. I can see that crude flatness being a barrier to appreciating Ortiz's art — he doesn't seem to try all that hard — but I found it to be part of his charm. In fact, one of my favorites in the show was "Darlin." The piece features just the word "Darlin" done in a thin pink font of Ortiz's design — letters alternate between uppercase and lowercase at whim — against a teal background. Purple stars line the top and bottom of the panel in a free-hand style that, again, can come off as slapdash. But there's something about the combination of the bold colors, simple proclamation and unrefined drawing style that is just winning. The show alternates between these text-based pieces that speak of sunshine and "amor" and Ortiz's lovesick poets — cowboy hat-sporting, bandanna-wearing cowboys who are likely the originators of these texts and have literal stars in their eyes. This part can get a bit confusing, but Ortiz's black-lipped alter ego Spaztek (that's part-Aztec, part-spaz) also shows up a few times in portraits such as the sunburst Menudo Power. As the legend goes, Spaztek is on a cosmic search for love — complete with a ray gun. He's a prop, it seems, through which Ortiz can freely speak of personal yet universal topics like love and desire. Though it professes to be about love, "I Speak Lightning" isn't a romantic show; in place of hearts, Ortiz uses stars. But it is an eccentric, giddy celebration of the kind of love that causes fireworks and drives men crazy. When you're immersed in those graphic paintings, the enthusiasm is contagious. Through March 30. 3909 Main. 832-538-0924. —MD
"Farewell Ruins: Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin" There are quite a few similarities in Inman Gallery's new two-person exhibition, "Farewell Ruins." Both artists work in ceramics to create otherworldly sculptures that take on unfamiliar forms that don't strive for perfection. They are also both named Julia. But that's where the similarities end. Through entirely different processes, Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin arrive at pieces that are uniquely strange and captivating. This is the Julias' second group exhibition at Inman, and it's clear why they make such an appropriate pair. Drawn together by their similarities, they each help accentuate what makes the other's work so original and fresh. Kunin's nearly dozen sculptures are lined up in a nice row. Though labeled as vases, they aren't all that practical. For starters, each of them has a very small hole through which to add water or a bouquet; doing so is almost an afterthought. And you wouldn't want to distract from these striking standalone pieces with a few roses or tulips. The Zsolnay porcelain factory in Hungary glazed the Brooklyn-based artist's pieces using a secret technique it invented 150 years ago. Kunin used stones she found in a 15th-century Hungarian monastery. The resulting works have an iridescent luster that looks like gasoline or some other toxic substance. Their craggy, misshapen forms also add to this unnatural feel. It seems as if once perfectly functional vases have corroded and decayed into these current objects, which are nevertheless more interesting to look at in their mutant states. Where Kunin's works are small and contained, Haft-Candell's commandeer the gallery space just on size alone. The Los Angeles artist's floor-bound pieces are a combination of a variety of materials — porcelain fragments, fabric, structuring wire, rebar, thread, wood, cement, ink, gouache, epoxy resin, and more — as well as mediums, as Haft-Candell employs painting, drawing and sculpture. The resulting five assemblages look like bandaged branches or limbs; they invite personification. One of the pieces is even called Elbow, another Charlie. These look like wounded, vulnerable things that Haft-Candell has given a second life, like pastel Frankenstein's monsters that take on a life of their own. Or maybe they're on their last legs, continually broken and then bandaged. The show is titled "Farewell Ruins," after all. Through March 30. 3901 Main. 713-526-7800. — 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
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"John Cage: Prints, Drawings, and a Music Box" If there's one word John Cage is associated with, it's chance. It's crucial to the experience of his signature work, the silent composition 4'33", as well as his process in a variety of mediums. Cage relied on chance in the composition of both his music and his visual artwork, something he turned to mid-career with his first piece, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (A + B), which consists of two color lithographs, and explored up until his death in 1992. His very last piece, Extended Lullaby, a neat row of a dozen music boxes, was completed posthumously in 1994. Hiram Butler Gallery has both of these works on display in its current show, a collection of prints, drawings and that interactive music box installation. Cage was famously known to consult the classic Chinese text the I Ching during each step of his process, whether he was writing a song or making etchings on paper. And though it isn't obvious just from looking at them, this influence is behind the construction of the prints and drawings on display at Hiram Butler. Cage made The Missing Stone, for instance, by asking the I Ching questions on the type of brush he should use, the color of the paint and the thickness of the brushstrokes. The resulting etching is sparse and looks loosely like calligraphy. A similar process is also behind the making of his "edible drawings" — paper composed of various herbs and plants. Cage used the book to sort a variety of herbs into recipes, and through the papermaking process, they were randomly scattered in his drawing. Again, what may come across as deliberate choices is pure happenstance. Cage almost seems to be taking the easy way out with these drawings, freeing himself of the burden of choice and letting the I Ching make his decisions for him. But in the end, it's a much more laborious process that belies the light, easy manner of the drawings. Plus, Cage has to know what questions to ask in the first place. His seeming non-intentionality makes you think about how many choices go into a single piece of art, as well as all the happy accidents that come about because an artist did something not with intent but rather by mistake. The possibilities are almost paralyzing; consulting the I Ching seems like a pretty good solution. Chance plays a major role in his music box installation, but rather than rely on an ancient classic text, Cage needs your help to complete the work. In Eternal Lullaby, 12 music box mechanisms are contained within an acrylic tube, each designed to play random notes. With a gentle tap on a lever, you can start the music box's non-melodic tune. You can choose to get as many of these music boxes going as you like (some may need to be wound), but two or three at once gives you a chance to really listen. The resulting lullaby won't likely be one that you'd want to lull you to sleep — the discordant tones can get pretty eerie — but sometimes, amazingly, they strike a pleasant chord. By chance, of course. Through March 30. 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097. — 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
"Lisa Ludwig: Black Black Forest" Lisa Ludwig made a name for herself making cake sculptures out of sugar cubes and crafting enchanting, elaborate installations. One of her most memorable shows at Moody Gallery involved a field of silica in the center of the gallery that sprouted barren trees and had crystalline apples lying in the "snow." Over the course of a 20-plus-year career, of course, interests evolve. And in her latest show at the Colquitt space — her seventh — Ludwig's sculptures are composed of more traditional — and permanent — materials (porcelain), and they line the gallery walls on shelves and pedestals in an ordinary fashion. Still, that doesn't make them any less strange and intriguing. Despite what the show's name might imply, in "Black Black Forest," there is a striking absence of black — or any color whatsoever. All the pieces are stark white, just the color of the porcelain after it came out of the kiln. The only color comes from tulips that occupy three of Ludwig's functional vases. Though they are devoid of any color, the sculptures are so minutely detailed, they aren't lost to the white walls. The animals and objects they depict are instantly recognizable, too. Ludwig's forest is teeming with toads, birds, mice, snakes and rabbits surrounded by matches, spools of thread, even sweet gherkin pickles — she is that specific. The animals aren't dead, stoic things, either; they have a sense of purpose and even diligence as they go about their business. Snakes coil through twigs. A bird surrounded by spools of thread has a needlepoint in its mouth. Rabbits stand upright holding branches or blindfolds, some quixotically sporting these blindfolds themselves. As the crafter of these mysterious scenes, Ludwig doesn't provide any overt clues to the little dramas at play — all 13 sculptures are untitled. Still, the fact that these colorless porcelain sculptures are teeming with such life and curiosity is impressive. All the color that's needed is in the craft. Through March 23. 2815 Colquitt, 713-526-9911. — MD
"Maggie Taylor: No Ordinary Days" Maggie Taylor's brand of photomontage is a fascinating mix of old and new forms of photography that results in even more fascinating images. Since 1996, the Florida artist has been working with Photoshop, taking advantage of its imaging magic to create pictures that are truly surreal, strange and, yes, magical. She starts with 19th-century tintypes, photographs and other images she's acquired from flea markets, antique stores, eBay or other artists. She scans and then manipulates them in Photoshop, colorizing and layering the originals with her own photographs and other images she's come across. In what takes only seconds to describe, Taylor will spend weeks, often months manipulating a single piece, adding upwards of 60 layers or more. Thirty of these resulting images are on display at Catherine Couturier Gallery, timed to the publication of a new book of Taylor's works titled No Ordinary Days. Through March 16. 2635 Colquitt, 713-524-5070. — MD