Capsule Art Reviews: July 31, 2014

"Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris" Charles Marville was an early and prolific photographer of old Paris, commissioned to record the before, during and after of Emperor Napoleon III's radical transformation that remade a medieval city into the first modern one. But these aren't the rose-tinted images of the City of Light we've come to love. Working from the 1850s to the 1870s, Marville made 425 often haunting images of a city about to be, and in the process of being, ripped apart to create the honey-hued boulevards we love today. The streets he shows us are eerily devoid of people. This is partly a result of the technical limitations of early photography — long exposure times meant that people in motion became only ghostly smudges. But the people weren't the point. In fact, the lives lived in those streets were irrelevant — obstacles to be displaced or crushed as the Baron Haussmann carried out the Emperor's orders to re-create Paris as his modern stage for imperial grandeur. We know what Paris would become, but the few people who stand stark still in these photos didn't. The Paris they knew was about to be destroyed, and that tension gives the photos much of their power. Marville didn't often present his photographs as art. For him, photography was a livelihood. But he was an artist to the core, and the art crept in. Through September 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, — RT

"Check Mate" Gil Bruvel's brilliant steel and ceramic chess sets — three of them, each different — dominate the center of the Laura Rathe Fine Art Gallery. They are witty, urbane and beautiful, with an airy, three-dimensional quality, each piece separate and movable. Bruvel's other works are even more powerful — sculptured heads made of stainless steel. Dichotomy presents the head and upper torso of a woman, formed of ribbons of steel, with open spaces between, creating a wind-blown, flowing effect, and making the steel seem fluid and alive. Each side of the face is different, suggesting both a cosmetic disadvantage and a capacity for duplicity. In Rain, the reflection of a man's head begins at the jawline, seemingly a mirror image, but I wondered if the expression in the hooded eyes below was really the same. This could be a Spartan defending a mountain pass. This is a group show, and includes Andreas Nottebohm, considered a master in metal painting. His work here, titled KN-2075, lets us see why. It's an elongated oval, oil painted on aluminum, primarily blue but with shifting elements of green as one moves past it. It suggests water, and has an otherworldly quality, as though it might be a futuristic control panel for a spaceship. It is wonderful. Gian Garofalo creates a series of vertical stripes of varying colors, but with so many stripes and so many colors that the work bursts with energy. Roi James also employs vertical stripes, and his art is colorful, with a soothing, serene quality, almost regal in its quiet authority. This is an exhibition replete with artistic pleasures. Through August 29. 2707 Colquitt, 713-527-7700, — JJT

"Lisa Bick: Wax and Fire & Stephanie Mercado: Then, Here, Now" Two artists have shows, designated "solo," at Hooks-Epstein Gallery, one with a lighthearted approach, the other more serious. Stephanie Mercado's Adrift on Memory's Bliss has a man dreaming on a river while a tree sprouts from his chest, with the heads of six women in its branches, while a sailing sloop nestles high in the branches of a tree onshore. Inside Out has an air of mystery, and a highly successful contrast of blue flocked "wallpaper" with grays, as well as Mercado's trademark surrealism. The colorful The Game suggests the beginning of a high society orgy, and the black-and-white The Tea Party indicates the orgy is moving right along. If you enjoy wit and talent, Mercado is for you. Lisa Bick uses melted wax, resin and pigments, fused by a blowtorch, to provide an impression of antiquity, and has ambitious intentions, perhaps overly so. Sometimes there are schematas resembling architectural drawings as background. There is extensive use of browns, and even here some occasional humor. Fracking Pink shows the extraction not of natural gas but of the color pink from the ground. Where in the World Do I Go from Here includes detailed drawings of ancient maps, lines apparently drawn by a compass, and an enticing sense of layered depth. Acid Rose uses an architectural sketch for a garden as background, and the result is serene and highly satisfying. Varanasi is an ancient city on the Ganges river, and a painting with that title is the most colorful, with Bick's techniques softening the colors to provide grace and beauty. Through August 16. 2631 Colquitt, 713-522-0718, — JJT


"Scott Rosenberg: Snail Trail" Scott Rosenberg's exhibition is lighthearted, buoyant and whimsical. I especially liked a severely damaged ceramic birdbath with a black bird bending down to be kissed by a bluebird a fraction of its size. The sculpture suggests neglect, decay and abandonment, and yet romance survives. What looks like "found" material is Rosenberg's way of having fun with us, as he carefully constructs many objects to look found, though they're created by him. I was certain an old-fashioned two-vane ceiling fan was "found" art, but it is ceramic made to look like metal. The most perplexing "art" is what looks like a mended blue tarp. It's not fabric, but Rosenberg's painstaking sketching made it look like fabric. One work centered in the gallery has a Pomeranian dog on grass, and Rosenberg has sewn material to look like grass. There are glazed stones as well, many of them, and the overall effect has a miniature, pastoral quality, as though this scene might occur on the balcony of a high-rise. There are a number of bowls, deliberately cracked or chipped, that are colorful and have interesting added elements. There's an elaborate ceramic basket that captures the magic of fairy tales, bursting with finely detailed objects. Another work is a multi-tiered sculpture with a human head on the bottom, looking unhappy, compelled to support all the weight. There are glazed ceramic pears with horseshoe nails as stems, easily affordable. Rosenberg's art is untitled, since his freewheeling style is too libertarian to tell us what to think. He eschews conventional beauty, but seeks to illuminate the ordinary. This is his first solo show with Zoya Tommy Contemporary, and a most enjoyable one it is. Through August 9. Tommy Zoya Contemporary, Suite F, 4411 Montrose, 713-523-7424, — JJT

"A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James" Seeing how the wealthy live is possible, as The Menil Collection exhibits some of the gowns and furniture designed for John and Dominique de Menil by Charles James (1906-1978), "America's First Couturier." James used curves in furniture, softening the look and added an inviting welcome. A sand-colored sectional sofa can seat seven — or ten, if they are good friends. A smaller, two-part sofa is covered in wool, and the way the back penetrates the seat is witty, if not erotic. There is a 1929 photograph of James taken by his friend Cecil Beaton: eyes heavy-lidded, expressing languid, pervasive sensuality, definitely an artist. Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, credits James with the invention of the spiral cut, the taxi dress, the figure-eight skirt, the puffer jacket and the waistband that expands. James is famed for his ball gowns, which use lush fabrics, a scintillating choice of colors, often contrasting, and a precision in detailing. He adds verve to such mundane items as a raincoat or a business suit. One ball gown has a black velvet top, with a red fabric panel in the front, flanked by ivory panels, and a "widow's peak" downward slash that adds sensuality. A stunning concert gown has the gold top descending further in the rear toward a beige bottom, emphasizing the female figure and adding wit. A severe dinner suit is enlivened by a silk bow. A purple business suit is worn over a beige blouse, with the contrast striking. James was a designer with a generous soul. His extensive use of pleats and inserts is additional documentation of this generosity of spirit. Through September 14. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, — JJT

"Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing" Trenton Doyle Hancock is being given a full-scale retrospective at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Written large on one wall is the informing theme: "He had a hunger that was telling him to draw it." And so he has, with verve and original style, a gift for storytelling and a keen narrative sense. There is an amusing portrait of a character relieving himself titled Torpedo Boy Peez. The stream emanating is red, green-yellow and purple — seldom have accent colors been used more dramatically. There is a striking narrative in ten panels of Torpedo Boy conning alien creatures into lending him their tofu chips, which he then uses to solicit, successfully, a prostitute. The tone is delightfully amoral — this is not a world where judgments about others are made. There is a large, richly detailed mural titled Vegans Have Fun that has orgiastic elements, and a tone that seems to invite the viewer to join the party. Hancock has even created wallpaper with detailed writing and an occasional illustration that repeats itself as wallpaper does. Film is a new medium for Hancock — he has created an ever-morphing head that's engrossing and seems able to eat itself. There is wit here as well as talent. This is a carnival that one enters to be entertained, and is. But there is a power, even a majesty, in the certainty of Hancock's vision that is authoritative and lets us know in no uncertain terms that he has seen the future — and here it is. Through August 3. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250, — JJT

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