"Allison Rathan: The Cutting Bridle" The Exchange, 60"x48", is a self-portrait of the artist Allison Rathan striding behind a very large wolf on a metal leash. It captures the confidence of this artist, who has blond movie-star looks and the poise and litheness of a fashion model. The leash holder has a slit skirt that exposes a graceful leg, and her left hand is lightly cupping her left breast, a reminder that we are living in a world where sensuality rules. I've Come Home Now echoes the dark power of Wuthering Heights as a man inside a castle embraces a woman through an open window. That Night is a more complex picture; a woman wearing cut-off jeans stands in front of a chain-link fence, with the shadow of the chains reflected on her clothing and even her skin. Her face is not shown, but her back reveals intensity, power, danger — and perhaps fear of being encaged. Or, more likely, she is. Elsewhere in the gallery is a rusty white birdcage, empty, with the door open, so escape is possible. Reinless has another provocative beauty on a horse, her skirt flying. Rathan has a series of small portraits of heads; one, titled Foundling, has the look of a very young dark-haired beauty-to-come whose haunting expression indicates resignation, anticipation and hidden power. I liked best a departure for Rathan, The Red Balloon, a depiction of a charming village street that extends well into the distance. I suggest viewing this both up close and from afar; both will delight. Through September 4. Archway Gallery, 2305 Dunlavy, 713-522-2409, archwaygallery.com. — JJT
"Aloe Vera: group show" Gray Contemporary is a new gallery in the Houston Design Center, large, high-ceilinged and beautifully air-conditioned. Several paintings are quite bright and colorful, with Shape Study 8 (Three Sides), by Christopher Derek Bruno, the most intriguing. It has four three-dimensional vertical square pillars, with the front panel of each white, but each side panel colored and different; it's a work meant to be viewed from several angles, suggesting a cheerful artist at play. Nathan Westerman shows three colorful circles, consisting of multicolored, horizontal stripes. All seem similar, but one pops out, Slat Painting 014.005, which has a yellow stripe in the top half that makes all the difference in the world. Dmitri Obergfell has an apparently simple mosaic, Crystal plane (penrose), which turns out to be complex and fascinating. It has a trompe l'oeil effect, as it is composed of scores of individual metal tiles, each anchored to the wall, but the spaces between, which are open, seem to be the metal framework one would see in a stained-glass window. The individual tiles form boxes, creating a series of optical illusions; it is the work of a wizard, magical. Deborah Zlotsky's The Artist is complex, with central grays and peripheral blues and orange, and structurally an interlocking of an irregularly shaped cube, rectangles and curves added to soften the impact. It has intelligence and rich composition. Douglas Witmer has a number of works, with The Hour Grows Late most accessible, made up of two deep-blue broad horizontal stripes against a grayish-white background, seemingly worn on the edges — as though time had passed and a lot had happened. Through September 5. 7026 Old Katy Rd., Suite 253, 713-862-4425, graycontemporary.com. — JJT
"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, mfah.org. — RT
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"From the Pinnacle to the Prize" Two artists with dramatically different approaches are showing at the Mariago Collective. Ariane Roesch shifts shapes normally rigid into softer contours, and adds an inner luminosity. Scott Proctor states: "...what we are all thinking about...butts, balls, boobs, blobs and sweat stains...right? Or is it just me?" The contrast is between celestial and earthy, between romantic and pragmatic. The first floor is given over to Roesch, with the major piece being Rung by Rung, a soft vinyl ladder of nine rungs, displayed on the floor and covered in old-fashioned vinyl. LED lights enhance the rungs, making it welcoming, as though the artist had decreed: "No more hardness; the world will be soft." Yet there is another dimension, as this ladder is certainly treacherous. Kiss is another ladder, this one erect, free-standing and A-shaped, with five rungs and an endearing floral vinyl. On the second level, many of Proctor's glazed ceramics consist of two globes, side by side, inviting speculation on whether a work represents voluptuous boobs or a butt. The ceramics usually have a topping, much like chocolate syrup on an ice cream scoop. Peppermint Bottom is attractive because of its rich color, though I liked the warm strength of Peaches even better. Some pieces are wall-hung, others on pedestals, but these seemed more pedestrian, ponderous, as opposed to the lighthearted jubilation of those on the walls. It's clear that Proctor believes in William Blake's proverb: "The lust of the goat is the bounty of God." Through September 6. 1707 Waugh, 832-997-6102, themariagocollective.com. — JJT
"Funnel Tunnel" Clunky, streaked wood and wiry metal are the last things one would consider using to celebrate Art League Houston and the colorful Montrose neighborhood that surrounds it. Then again, talent is as talent does, and bare-bones as they may be, Patrick Renner's pieces are feats of size and color. Bounded Operator (2012) is a wall of windows glued together and filled with sand, rock and gravel, mingled with pieces of wood splashed in tie-dye, exchanging its windowpane aesthetic for a swirling metal one. The rainbow brightness of Wooddauber (2012) is one of many rainbow-colored chunks of wood from Renner's "Vestigial Structures" show exhibited last year at Avis Frank Gallery. The two pieces are combined to create "Funnel Tunnel," a metal-on-wood masterpiece so big that Art League publicly called on volunteers to help paint the wooden strips in the weeks before its opening. Before then, Renner could be seen blowtorching metal pieces together to create a wiry foundation for the wooden strips to attach to. It would, however, be inaccurate to describe "Funnel Tunnel" as skeletal. While other Renner pieces may come off as hollow, the wood and metal in "Funnel Tunnel" work together to create an artwork representative of the inclusive nature of the area around it. Those wooden strips? Painted in the hues of the rainbow, they very accurately represent the diverse people, businesses and culture of Montrose. The metal? Permanently melded together to hold the rainbow strips of wood, it represents the collectivity of this community. These materials create a 180-foot civic art sculpture seen whirling down the center of Montrose Boulevard. "Funnel Tunnel" will be on display in front of Art League Houston for the next nine months. 1953 Montrose, 713-523-9530. — AO
"SHOW UP (group exhibition)" The Zoya Tommy Contemporary Gallery has a knack for showing works of wit and substance, proving that significant art can be great fun. The current show has works that range from jocular (painted art on imitation toast in real "found" toasters by Katie Pell) to powerful abstract art that is exciting, such as The Messenger by Guus Kemp, where the paint is slathered on with a generosity of spirit, enriching the texture. It has a lavish, multicolored energy, inviting one in. Charles Krafft works with porcelain, blue painted on white, and has a number of amusing portraits of famous persons, some masquerading as teapots: Kim Jong II, Yukio Mishima, Vladimir Putin and a remarkable likeness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Peter Zelle has an imposing tall glass sculpture, Ocean Sonata, that suggests a headless female in contour but is composed of a number of colored glass elements that depict waves and seagulls. It has considerable beauty, a subtle power, and is wonderful. Lester Marks prints photographic imagery on Fuji crystal, and I was captivated by one I mentally titled Tilted Stage (I am a theater buff). Antonia Richardson shows large abstract works of mixed media. I was unimpressed by Rojo Rhythm, as a dominant red element seemed streaked, unfinished. Curiously, I loved the thumbprint of the same painting — the camera had darkened the red, so the streaking was invisible, and the picture had been rotated to place the large red element at bottom right, serving as an anchor to an expanding vista. The exhibition goal here was "an overload of color and artwork," and this gallery has more than succeeded. Through September 6. 4411 Montrose, 713-523-7424, zoyatommy.com. — 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 7. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org. — JJT