Houston Permitting Center Some of the best artworks in Houston right now can't be found at a gallery or museum, but a government building. When the city decided to turn an old rice warehouse at the end of Washington Avenue into its new Permitting Center, it also set aside money for new artworks to adorn its walls. Mary Margaret Hansen won the commission, and recruited nearly a dozen other artists to help her fill the space. The end result makes for great art that pays homage to Houston's people, landscape, history and present, and has been winning over avid art and architecture fans alike since opening to the public this past fall. One of the most impressive works — Dick Wray's four-story exterior elevator tower — scales the entire building, though you'll have to maintain some distance to appreciate it, as the black cutout needs to be seen from a distance to make out its subjects. Stand too close, and it's unintelligible. Most of the works can be found on the first floor, most notably "Torrent" by Havel Ruck Projects. The high-energy sculpture is made of recycled materials, including street signs, indistinguishable metal scraps and even musical instruments. The piece, appropriately, sings. Also on the first floor is "Remnant Reverie," a hanging forest of hand-painted, burlap coffee-bag chimes by Kaneem Smith. The artist even encourages you to touch them. Go up a couple of flights, and you'll find graffiti paintings by GONZO247 that depict the "information highway" and a sunset. They're giant, vibrant works that make the walls come alive. And, of course, there's Hansen's work. One of her many "text walls" here, which use the white paint of hallways and waiting rooms as her canvas, is "Overheard." This one makes for great water cooler chatter; its text is comprised of real conversations the artist jotted down at the old permitting building, with such gems as "These are my choices?" and "I have lingering doubts" encased in plastic thought bubbles. Taken together, all the works are a scavenger hunt of modern Houston art, made by some of the city's best artists working today. 1002 Washington Ave., 832-394-9000. — MD
"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. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK
"Reconstruction" The Art Car Museum's group exhibition model sounds like a recipe for disaster — put out an open call for works, and take the first 125 that you get. Oh, and give them a one-word theme. But that's the case with "Reconstruction," the annual open call show running now at the Heights space. Yes, the art is a mixed bag. Many of the 100-plus pieces are forgettable, largely too arts-and-craftsy for any serious consideration (a lawn ornament-type piece of a fence sculpture with the word "love" written on each board, and an artist's framed tribute to her dad, complete with beer bottle caps, come to mind). There's plenty of quirk and pop culture references — a glass replica of Roy Lichtenstein's M-Maybe, a Che-esque Chihuahua — though not a lot of substance. There are a few standouts, to be sure, as you maneuver between the art cars. Baby Oh Baby by Sam VanBibber is a little piece of ingenuity — wood and watch parts coming together to form some demented, antique-looking contraption. Shannon Duckworth's The Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, which features neon red, blue and yellow brains sprouting from a tree-like toxic cauliflower, is intriguing. Tusk by Hazel Ganze — a horn made of wire — is beautiful in its shiny simplicity. The experimental Development by Jeremy Lovelace, a messy, splattered piece with sketches of ghostly women, makes me want to see more by the artist. Karen Pawson-Smith's Corporate Calf: Read the Fine Print, a papier-mâchéd golden calf wearing sunglasses and a bowtie, is sure to be a favorite of all the camera-toting visitors. And, of course, there's the featured artist, Sherry Sullivan, whose recognition here is well-deserved. Her lush nature paintings are transportive, containing worlds within her careful, orange-outlined water imagery. Finally, among the more topical works, there are a few "Occupy Wall Street" references, most prominently in Allen Rice III's spirited Reconstructing Liberty, that are a good fit here. The egalitarian spirit of this show is an appropriate call for the 99 percent. Through March 2. 140 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5526. — MD
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"Sherrie Levine: Selected Works" Sherrie Levine is having a bit of a resurgence lately, thanks to "Mayhem," a survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and a forthcoming catalog this spring of the same name. But you don't have to go all the way across the country to see the modern art fixture's work. Here in Houston, Hiram Butler Gallery is hosting a small, but still lovely, show of the artist's work. The serene grounds, clean, sparse, white walls, and pointed roof of the gallery give the space an almost religious feel, as if you're worshiping the artist. And worship Levine, Butler does — the gallery owner has been a fan of the artist since the early 1980s, right around when she blew up with her After Walker Evans series, in which Levine claimed photos by the Depression Era photographer by rephotographing them herself — and giving critics and theorists much to ponder about authenticity and originality in art in the process. The collection of paintings and drawings here, which span 1986 to 2000, is by no means meant to be exhaustive — there aren't any sculptures, for one — but the survey has some noteworthy series by the artist. Of note is her Barcham Green Portfolio — five etchings that borrow from cultural icons, including one of Evans's photographs (or is it Levine's?), as well as prior works by Levine — a delicate image of bark and gold leaves that nods to her work with plywood. Mondrian and Degas are also sources of inspiration, admiration and, ultimately, material. The 1995 series After Degas is particularly marvelous, featuring a suite of five lithographs that are replications of archival prints of Degas's work, his signature comically visible in some, but shrunken and erased of his subtle color. This method of brazen replication that Levine has become synonymous with is made even more relevant — though rarely questioned — in the Internet age. Levine's show almost got lost in the holiday shuffle, but thanks in part to the Whitney exhibition, the gallery is extending its run, so you have time to go worship at her altar. 4520 Blossom St., 713-863-7097. — MD