The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden There is a hidden treasure tucked away next to a parking lot, a remarkable collection of majestic sculptures by internationally famed artists, on display behind attractive stone walls in an open-air park; it is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. It was designed and created by Isamu Noguchi, himself a world-famous sculptor, landscape architect and pioneer of modern interior design. The Cullen Sculpture Garden first opened to the public in 1986 — Noguchi had submitted his initial design in 1979, and refined it over the next five years. The garden covers more than one acre, and is carved into a series of outdoor pavilions, separated sometimes by walls, that permit semi-enclosures around some of the sculptures. The exhibition includes more than 25 works from the MFAH collection, as well as selected loans. The sculptures are deliberately eclectic, demonstrating a range of artistic approaches, so there is no theme, except diversity itself. I liked Alexander Calder's giant red metal The Crab, so filled with dynamic energy that, viewed from the right position, it seems it might be moving threateningly. It is just outside MFAH's main building, guarding the entrance. Raymond Duchamp-Villon's The Large Horse is semi-abstract, with some cubistic elements, and roars with its own energy. Frank Stella's Decanter is extremely complex, powerful yet playful, a combination of circles and planes, some jutting out to catch and demand attention. I was mystified by the title Bird (Oiseau) for Joan Miró's massive bronze, since I saw it as an adolescent rhinoceros about to go on a date, hormones aflame. It is witty and great fun. There is more, much more. Ongoing exhibition. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. — JJT
Masks, Monsters and Monoliths It is a gift to gaze upon a discarded object and see the potential to transform it into something worthwhile; Archway Gallery is featuring two such visionaries in "Masks, Monsters and Monoliths." Steel sculptor Jim Adams uses acetylene torches to transform junk — gnarly, pitted and twisted — into monsters large and small, each with its own personality and demanding to be the center of attention. Painter Sherry Tseng Hill draws upon her architectural background to repurpose shipping boxes into ornate masks through intentional layering and adornment of paint, coiled paper, and shapes of triangles, flaps and rectangles. The result is an explosion of flamboyantly colorful masks, interwoven and interconnected through chains of paper, similar to the plumbing and electrical lines of a construction blueprint. The juxtaposition of the monochromatic steel sculptures with the colorful tribal masks makes for a pleasing and whimsical show. Don't miss Jim Adams's Monster Family, and be sure to bring the children. Dad leads the charge, Mom brings up the rear, with four monster children in between. Ranging in height from 28.5 to 42.5, the five pieces of steel sculpture can be arranged and rearranged; the characters are full of motion and life — some reticent, some dancing ahead, all hungry and talking — with broken, snaggled teeth, bulging eyeballs and long legs atop chicken feet. Tseng Hill's The Wall is a stunning, thought-provoking piece, with angled gray column splitting the territory in half and protected by a coil of barbed wire. It is intricately decorated, with black rolled-up paper, meticulous lines of gold, red and blue at the top, and red, spiky triangles emanating from the un-crossable border. Through February 5. 2305 Dunlavy, 713-522-2409, archwaygallery.com. — ST
"Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River" As museum-goers, it seems, we can never get enough French Impressionist painting, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is giving us another opportunity to test that proposition with the exhibition "Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River." The premise of the show is straightforward: Claude Monet (1840-1926), the artist who is perhaps the pre-eminent Impressionist, was born in Paris, through which flows the Seine; he grew up in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, at the mouth of the river; and for most of his life he lived and painted in one place or another along the river — including Giverny, made famous by his presence — taking the river and its banks as the subject of countless paintings, or at least the framework for them. This is the first exhibition to focus squarely at this aspect of his inspiration and output. It floats up and down the Seine through 50-plus beautiful paintings made over almost 40 years. Though in a literal sense Monet painted the river, he wasn't really interested in it as a river. Primarily he was striving to capture the effects of light and color as transformed by nature through days and seasons. There are masterpieces in the show — Argenteuil of 1875, with its two red boats front and center, and The Seine at Lavacourt of 1880, among them. And it reunites the largest number of paintings from the late great "Mornings on the Seine" series to have been brought together anywhere since first exhibited in 1898. Through February 1. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org — RT
"Postcards from the Trenches: Germans and Americans Visualize the Great War" This exhibition honoring the centennial of the onset of what we now call World War I owes much to the dedication, diligence and talents of the co-curators, Dr. Irene Guenther and Dr. Marion Deshmukh, who marshaled an army of resources to make it possible. The exhibit covers much more ground than simply the postcards. The German artists who served in the war were deeply affected by it, and many went on to portray its horrors in their work. One artist, Otto Dix, recorded his views in satiric and horrifying portraits in War Cripples, 1920, and Wounded Soldier — Autumn 1916. They are powerful indeed. One gifted German artist, Otto Schubert, created art on postcards on a regular basis, sending these home; many of the cards survived, and are included here. Schubert's Evening Mood at the Front captures the loneliness, desolation and deadliness of war in a compelling portrayal. Schubert sometimes wrote messages on the edges of his artistic drawings; one such is Argonne, Captured French, 1916. There are many more by Schubert — look for the jaunty Off to War and the depressing Building a Trench. On the American side, Jules Andre Smith matches Schubert in artistic talent. His Landscape with Soldiers and Trenches, near Thiaucourt, 1918, is frightening, as the trenches horrify with the primitive protection they offer. The title of his Tortured Earth, 1918, describes perfectly the horror of gouging the earth to create military redoubts. Smith captures a softer side in his Rest Area near Neufchateau, as Allied soldiers bathe in a river. The museum offers for $5 an illustrated catalogue prepared by the curators that is very useful. Through February 14. The Printing Museum, 1324 West Clay, 713-522-4652, printingmuseum.org. — JJT
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"Raw Material (works by Mari Omori, Kia Neill, and Cassie Normandy White)" Mari Omori first captured my eye — and my imagination — as part of a brilliant two-person show at Total Plaza in July. She is Japan-born, now a Houston resident and educator, and she creates delicate, graceful, surprising art through the use of teabags. I quickly forgot the sheer novelty, as the results stand on their own as art. Here she shows a half-ruff, white, so elegant that it might be worn as a necklace to the opening of a world-famous opera. There is what might be an Australian aborigine's flattened kayak, brown, that looks like wood, but of course it's not. And a gossamer sail hung high that might easily carry Peter Pan to Neverland. Kia Neill shows a graceful, delicate watercolor of a tree, with a strong trunk to anchor it, titled Spore Study #14. She has two interesting still-life sculptures: One, Various Fragments of Fossilized Vessels, consists of delicate, broken shells of eggs, perhaps dinosaurs? The other, Opalized Coral, groups what might be small candlestick holders for tapers. Her small wall-hung Partial Skeleton I liked the least of her work, since it lacked grace and came close to repellent. Cassie Normandy White has a large collage, 88 inches by 60 inches, that is festive and exuberant, with colorful petals and flowers, and the bottom left square totally empty, an act of courage that pays off. She also is showing Populations, composed of 25 small individual works arrayed five across and five down. Each image is a double one, so it yields ten across, but I couldn't summon up enthusiasm for it. Through January 10. Hunter Gather Projects, 5320 Gulfton, Suite 15, 713-664-3302, huntergatherproject.com — JJT