"The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute" These days, Impressionist exhibitions are the art museum version of the ballet The Nutcracker: frothy and beautiful, if a little overexposed, and sure to pack 'em in at almost any price. Even though we've already had at least six or eight Impressionist shows during the past ten years, who could fail to love yet another one that includes 70-plus paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas, among others? That's what the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is offering with "The Age of Impressionism." This isn't a star vehicle so much as an ensemble piece; these aren't the paintings that make the textbooks. They are, rather, a tribute to the taste of a collecting couple with very good eyes for art and lots of resources (that is to say, money) who were buying paintings to enhance their own lives at home rather than to dazzle tourists in museums. Frankly, unless you're something of an art specialist, you may have trouble remembering many of the paintings individually a day or two after you've seen the show. But if you're lucky enough to see it under the right conditions (not too many other viewers, the right kind of light that so often suffuses the galleries in the Rafael Moneo-designed Beck Building at MFAH, at a time when you're really in an art-viewing mood), you're almost certain to remember the deeply satisfying feeling that comes from standing in galleries surrounded by beautiful, harmonious paintings. Not at all a bad memory to take away from any exhibition. Extended through May 4. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT
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"Jay Shinn: Cathedrals in the Sky" The Barbara Davis Gallery opened on April 25 its exhibition of "Cathedrals in the Sky," a solo exhibition by Dallas- and New York-based artist Jay Shinn of new and exciting works, almost all having a common shape — octagonal — but varied by differing choices in media. Silent Encore (84 x 204") dominates a wall with grace and subtle energy, a trio of three interlocking octagonals, side by side, each of a different coloration — and the colors change, through three projectors focusing colors on painted images, creating seamless beauty. Within each octagon is another smaller octagon, and within that, another smaller one, and within that, still another, so that the space between the octagons becomes stripes filled with projected colors. And what colors they are! Shinn has a talent for pairing them, and uses peach stripes contrasted with gray stripes to advantage. The colors evolve as projected from a three-minute loop, moving from one octagon to another. There are many delightful color combinations — come and find your own favorite. This strong primary piece overshadows the others, yet the smaller Enclosure 2, composed of a rich yellow color projected on a painted octagon, delivered beauty and style, and created an interesting three-dimensional effect. Some other works are three-dimensional: Outside Voice and Inside Voice have neon octagonal shapes mounted on platforms 8" deep, with the neon emitting a blue-tinged light. Shinn has added a large, square painting, Open Enclosure, perhaps an abstract version of an expanding universe. It features orderly splashes of color, mostly blues and grays, emerging from a concentrated center. It suggests movement, and is graceful and subtle, designed to seduce rather than to demand attention. Through May 24. 4411 Montrose, Suite D, 713-520-9200 or www.barbaradavisgallery.com. — JJT
"Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher: Trailer" The installation at McClain Gallery is by two collaborative Texan artists, Jeff Shore (Houston) and Jon Fisher (Dripping Springs). They have worked together since 2002, and this is their second solo show in Houston. This offering is kinetic, with much of the movement on film. A visitor pushes a small red button and a film appears, close to sepia in tone, suggesting days past, a simpler life; nostalgia seeps in. A series of images flickers onto a large screen on one wall. Large wooden semaphores unfold on film, as though a flower. An exercise bike turns, resembling an ancient spinning wheel, or the wheel to a prairie wagon. Human beings are absent — this is a tour of a museum of the mind, with no interpreter except you. A trailer, nestled in the woods, appears — old-style, small, silvery, devoid of luxury. Inside, four stools with no backs, as in an ice cream parlor, now empty, but one senses they once were filled with teenagers chattering away, eager to gossip and flirt, ordering vanilla Cokes. Drumsticks on automatic players beat tattoos on drums, retreat, re-emerge later. A paper lantern expands and contracts repeatedly, like an accordion, another repetitive image. The camera moves, but we, observing, are motionless. Echoes of circuses invade the mind. There is a big finish, as suddenly other walls come alive with pulsing images, and we are inundated, a tide of impressions sweeping us along with them. The images fade, the music dies, the flower closes and it is over. It lasts just 12 minutes, but it could be a lifetime. See it for yourself, and create your own narrative. Through May 31. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — JJT
"Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938" John and Dominique de Menil were friends with many of the prominent art figures of their day, including the modern painter René Magritte. As a result of their patronage, The Menil Collection holds the most elaborate repository of Magritte's paintings outside of his native Belgium. In many ways, the images of Magritte are just as much a part of pop culture as they are art history. Even if you've never set foot inside a museum, chances are you've seen the raining men of Golconde (1953) or the word/image play of The Empty Mask (1952). In an effort to bring audiences into a more intimate knowledge of Magritte's fascinating Surrealist landscapes and critiques of tangible reality, the Menil has joined the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art to create "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938," an exploration that examines the early work of his career and identifies the Surrealist experiments that would mark the masterpieces of his later career. I don't normally associate Magritte's paintings with warmth of any kind, but the 80 items in the catalog have been arranged so that they hint at the human impulses behind the iconic, if austere, genius. The years before World War II marked Magritte's development as an artist, and it's on these walls that the Menil's patrons can see the first of his important forays into Surrealism, such as 1927's Entr'acte, in which an assortment of limbs climb out of a darkened landscape, or Discovery, in which the skin of a female nude appears to be made of wood. The exhibition's careful arrangement gives plenty of opportunity to examine less familiar works, especially those making a visit from outside the country. I was previously unaware of Attempting the Impossible, but found myself fascinated by Magritte's representation of the creation process. In the painting, Magritte configures a self-portrait of sorts, which sees his stand-in rendering a naked woman. It's a comical bit, a suggestion that art is not a reflection of reality, but perhaps the artist is the ultimate prime mover of what is real and what isn't. Much of the appeal of this exhibition is in its sheer ambition. One of the highlights has to be the gathering on one wall of The Eternally Obvious, The Depths of the Earth and Celestial Perfections. These are three paintings, but not simply three canvases. Each work is a cluster of canvases that reveal a fragmented image. One is a female nude, another is a landscape and the third is a sky full of clouds. Each canvas is a shard of a larger image, but in turn each canvas is a window into its own world. The Menil exhibition is the first time the three works have been displayed together since their creation in 1930. Together they are a powerful assessment of the modern world and a human condition that is no longer a solid whole but a splintered existence. With so many of these paintings that turn reality on its head in such close proximity to one another, the exhibition allows for an endless stream of contemplation of what in our everyday life is real and what is simply imagined. "The Mystery of the Ordinary" is a must-see exhibition for its close and caring attention to detail of Magritte's progression as an artist and its insight into a shifting world of the past. Through June 1. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — AC
"Ricardo Osmondo Francis: Turn of the Century." The works of Houston-born but NYC-based artist Ricardo Osmondo Francis are presented by East End Studio Gallery in a solo exhibition that opened April 25. Using mixed media and some collages and incorporating text, Francis combines artistic talent with an educational approach. The result can be heavy-handed, though Francis eludes this problem in many of his more successful works. Duty Free Government combines lush fruits with small text inserts: ".com," ".edu" and ".org," plus a small glitter dollar sign. The contrast between the earth-anchored fruit and the abstractions of the Internet is a powerful one. The Cocoa Tree presents two African Americans, facing each other, with three words inserted: "free — at — last." The man on the left is a slave, on the right, a free man. Francis is deft in capturing human expressions, very effective here in both men. Most charming is a self-portrait, with Francis smiling broadly, dapper, red carnation in lapel, obviously successful and on top of the world. The Man as Lifetime seemed placid, lacking the usual volatile energy of this artist, with a well-dressed African American man, an ape crouched by his side and tropical fruit below the ape. Various dates are scattered throughout the painting: "1865," "1963," et al., each evoking a memorable moment in the civil rights movement, but the painting seems overly cerebral. The exhibition in the spacious, attractive gallery is large, with extensive examples of Francis's talent. Some small portraits by Francis, such as Truth and Soy, stand out, as they radiate power, without the garnishing of glitter or the enhancement of text. Francis has a remarkable ability to capture the inner life of an individual, and where this strength is incorporated into his work, viewing is enriched. Through May 8. 708-C Telephone, viewing by appointment, 832-488-9594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. — JJT