"Agustina Nuñez: Little Polymorphous" A quick once-around of this mural by Argentine artist Agustina Nuñez won't unlock its mysteries. A brief glimpse only reveals the apparent: scenes of playing children scattered among misshapen human appendages and animals. Sometimes the body parts and creatures coalesce, as in a twisted, hairy hand sprouting a dog's head off the forearm. There's a large child's head sporting a kind of grotesque mustache, an old baby carriage with a tree growing out of it, and a freakish, floating man/boy wearing oversize boxing gloves. Using acrylic on white walls, Nuñez creates figures that look like uncolored pictures in a coloring book, while some look as if they were made with a stencil. From a certain distance, the acrylic almost resembles colored vinyl, an effect that Nuñez purposely attempted. Eventually, a theme of childhood innocence lost begins to emerge. The animals, mostly dogs, take on a predatory nature. A cartoon elephant hovers over a seesaw ridden by six children, and with this touch, the "elephant in the room" materializes; danger looms large over fleeting youth. Through February 23. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-223-4608. — TS
"Claire Ankenman: Slices" At first, "Slices" seems like a study, an exploration of a technique. Ankenman has carefully sliced, like a pie, circular sections of paper that have been colored with gesso, coffee and red tea. This minimalist approach at first feels mechanical and soon turns spooky and a little unsettling. The thin tendrils of paper, slightly curling toward an inward cavity, begin to represent wounds in skin, and sometimes the coffee and red tea eerily look like dried blood or an infected redness. A triptych, Slices #23, #24 and #25, could be frames of time-lapse photography taken of the traumatic damage done by the cutting, from initial injury to festering and into monstrous swelling. It becomes clear that Ankenman is exploring something deeper than just cutting; she's delving into the effects of penetration and the scars left behind. Also on display are a series of cast-bronze versions of the theme, and interestingly, the bronze mimics the lookof paper, its texture and volume. They're like old, fossilized remnants of pain. If visual art can be called "Cronenbergian,"this is it. Through February 16. Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt,713-526-9911. — TS
"Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976" It's difficult to look at a Robert Ryman painting without an initial feeling of being cheated. The artist has limited himself almost entirely to the color white as a way of boiling down the essence of painting to a reduced process, the very act of laying paint on a surface and subsequently installing the work in a viewing space. Ryman once said, "There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint." To many viewers, Ryman comes off as a snake-oil salesman — selling pennies for a dollar. It's somewhat infuriating, and that's exactly the feeling you should have, but you should also keep looking. Once you've broken through that exterior facade, Ryman's work begins to release rewards. These three 1976 specimens, part of the Menil Collection's "Contemporary Conversations" series, are very stark examples of Ryman's oeuvre; all-white panels of pastel and oil paint on Plexiglas and blue Acrylivin are fixed to the wall with steel fasteners and bolts. It's the most distilled version of performance art ever, and the "I don't get it" exhibit of the year. And in a weird way, it's kind of thrilling. On view through February 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — TS
"Howard Sherman: In my mind, you're inflatable" Like abstract scenes from a red-light district, Howard Sherman's paintings reflect an undercover world of commodity. In bright color and dynamic, angular and broadly layered coverage, Sherman depicts a delightfully garish and confrontational urban conflict. It's impossible to know the narrative, but sometimes Sherman supplies a character that we can glom onto while his intangible tornado blows through town. Judging from some of the titles, like Paralytic Hooker, Titanium Dildo and Donkey Punching Bastards, the "inflatable" Sherman imagines must be of the female variety found at adult bookstores. Sometimes it's possible to make out a commanding image, like the phallic one in Colossal Jerk. But here's where the paintings' titles influence what we perceive, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's interesting to imagine them untitled. Sherman has peppered these works with little repeated motifs, like syringes, that nail down the environment. It feels mythic, too, like that place doesn't really exist anymore. It bleeds Lower East Side, Manhattan, circa 1981. Through February 16. McMurtry Gallery, 3508 Lake, 713-523-8238. — TS
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"TexasMade" and "Option-H" Our coastal locale tends to inspire rough, emotional riffs on contemporary life, and the best and brightest have been gathered for a small exhibit of superstars at McClain Gallery. Robert Rauschenberg's wax fire works series consists of industrial images silkscreened on mirrors in garish colors, while Julian Schnabel's San Pedro throws a hand-painted tornado across a map of an island. Mel Chin's Rough Rider, a sculpted barbed-wire saddle, is a prickly reminder of Texan stereotypes, commenting on both the discomfort of living up to expectations and how Yankees perceive us. James Surls's Untitled is a rounded, hanging metal cage pierced by a rough-hewn wooden knife; it displays his signature homemade feel, along with a sense of constrained malice and a knot of references as twisted as the roots of an East Texas cypress swamp. John Alexander's Nevermore shows crows picking at the smashed contents of a field of watermelons; the painting's expressionist surface is a riot of red and green, conjuring spilled blood and signaling the artist's political discontent. Besides the big names, the gallery is also showing work by younger Houston artists in "Option-H." Mark Flood's Cliff Dwelling bridges the gap between the beautiful and the gritty; his work is the clear offspring of the best of Texan postmodernism. And California surfer dude Aaron Parazette's Flyaway, a kooky computer-modeled text painting, forsakes legibility for a sharp-edged composition. Through February 16. 2242 Richmond, 713-520-9988. — SC