"John Hartley and Ernesto Marenco" John Hartley takes tiny figurines -- of soldiers, sailors, nurses, bakers, Batman, Aunt Jemima, the Boy Wonder -- and paints large oil portraits of them. His models are made from plastic, tin or ceramic and are in various states of decay. A soldier's paint-chipped face stares into the distance, its roughly cast features rendered with loving detail, and cast-off toys and bric-a-brac become individuals. Hartley's paintings have a softly blended, photorealistic feeling to them. In the back area of Rudolf Projects/ArtScan Gallery, Ernesto Marenco's tiny, surreal constructions are on view. In one sculpture, a paintbrush hangs on the wall, but instead of bristles, it features a cascade of long, dark hair. In pointed religious works, Marenco turns a rosary into a slingshot and attaches a suitcase handle to a Bible. Marenco's Insecure is a small, simple piece that speaks poignantly about frustration and inadequacy; it's a big safety pin Marenco rendered useless by cutting the pin part down to a tiny nub. Through November 26. 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836.
"Restless: Interaction of Core Program Artists and Houston Artists in Early 1990s" For anyone involved with the Houston art scene during the early '90s, "Restless" will be a nostalgia rush. For everyone else, it's an interesting look at the edgy work of Houston artists from a decade ago. Mark Flood has lately been doing lush lace-patterned paintings in vivid colors, but ten years ago he was making smartass silk-screened paintings that boldly questioned art and commerce. Among them was his silk screen of an MFAH membership letter from Peter Marzio eagerly touting the joys and benefits of museum membership. For another work, Flood sold ad space and silk-screened the ads onto the canvas. Advertisers included a GWM personal ad, the Art Guys, Smoke 'n Toke, the Menil Collection and the Houston Press. Then there are Jenny Silitch's hysterical and pop-culturally incisive videos, in which she spoofed the then-nascent world of home shopping by selling a lifelike baby, touting its many features and its superiority to actual babies. Also on view is video of her stunt from the early days of talk shows, in which she donned a wig and bluffed her way onto a show with a made-up tale of a love triangle. Two other artists posed as her male and female lovers; the producers and audience were completely duped. Through November 27 at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7500.
"Robin Utterback" Robin Utterback is having his first Houston solo exhibition since 1996. The artist just completed a residency in Strasbourg, France, and is back with a whole new crop of work. In his current paintings, Utterback has used dark twill fabrics on stretcher frames instead of canvas. They create a novel ground for nonchalant abstract forms that feel like riffs on ornamental shapes. His paper works are some of the most interesting in the show. An eight-foot work pieces together sections of paper and swatches of canvas in a loose quilt of images. On another wall of the gallery, Utterback arranged a collection of pieces that use found scraps of paper, cardboard and newspaper. The paper works are simple and unfussy, many with masklike cut-outs and chalky accretions of paint. Utterback has a loose but skillful hand with his imagery and materials. The show marks a pleasant return for the artist. Through November 26 at Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200.
"Thornton Dial in the 21st Century" Thornton Dial's art is dynamic, intense and cut with social and political references. He builds up the surfaces of his paintings not with paint but with detritus. Meat (2003) has an undulating surface painted in raw, visceral pinks and reds; it's constructed from wads of clothing attached to a panel and coated in thick gloopy paint that shines like marbled flesh. It's a brutal work; the surface feels violent, like flesh and bone have been ripped apart. In the upper-right part of the painting is a tiny rectangle of red-and-white-striped fabric with a dark brushed outline that looks like an American flag. It's attached to the carnage of the painting like a product label: Made in the U.S.A. In addition to the artist's constructions on panels, this show includes drawings and freestanding sculptural works. All in all, there are 78 works, all done since 2000. The number and strength of works Dial has created in five years is impressive. Although his approach to materials remains consistent, his ideas and subject matter are continuously evolving. Overall, the work resists becoming formulaic and repetitive, a danger with high-productivity artists. But there are less successful works in the show -- ones that feel overworked and could have been edited out for a tighter presentation. What Dial really needs is a retrospective. It would be wonderful to see the evolution of his work. The man is pushing 80. Through January 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.
"Wesley Heiss: Suburban" Wesley Heiss has used just about every square inch of the Glassell School of Art's upstairs project space for his installation Suburban. Stuffed in the red-painted room is a big gray inflatable figure, partially inflated. To experience the installation, you squeeze past it and stand on an "X" along one wall. Suddenly the flaccid figure begins to inflate, crowding you into the space. Move off the "X" and it stops. Step back on and it starts again. The figure is of a dog, lying on its side, its head in the corner next to you. While the act of stepping on and off the "X" is comic, there's also something pathetic about the rising and falling dog with its face hidden in the corner. In Suburban, Heiss has made used-car-lot decor poignant. Through November 22. 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7500.
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