Capsule Art Reviews: "Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs," "Common Objects," "Ewan Gibbs: Arlington National Cemetery," "Maggie Taylor: No Ordinary Days,"

"Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs" The name Claes Oldenburg may bring to mind sculptures of giant lipsticks, ice cream cones and shuttlecocks. Today, the esteemed 83-year-old artist is known for his playful, larger-than-life public art installations of ordinary objects. This conversation between art and the everyday is one Oldenburg's been having since the start of his career more than 50 years ago, as a rare exhibition currently on view at The Menil Collection demonstrates. "Strange Eggs" consists of 18 collages Oldenburg made within two years after moving to New York in 1956. Notably, curator Michelle White has brought the complete works together for the first time with this show; until now, surprisingly, the series has never been shown in its entirety. The show is found in the surrealistic section of the Menil. It's an appropriate space; these experimental works are composed of photographic reproductions of advertisements and images in newspapers and magazines, melded together in unnatural ways. The black and white collages feature self-contained forms (the "strange eggs"), two to five to a page. Disturbingly, the imagery used is mostly indiscernible; the photographs are manipulated beyond recognition from the source material to the point where they're just texture. They even seem to drip down the page in "Strange Eggs V." None of the works are named after anything in particular. In fact, they're simply numbered in Roman numerals from "I" to "XVIII." However anonymous, these strange eggs do sometimes contain recognizable imagery. Long manes of hair, likely from shampoo ads, pieces of pie and even the limbs of horses can be found within the world of each collage. It's this familiarity amid all the strangeness that keeps you coming back for more. Through February 3. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — MD

"Common Objects" Organizing an art show around everyday objects seems like a liability. By focusing on the mundane, you run the risk of the artwork itself being mundane, too. Luckily, David Shelton's latest show, "Common Objects," narrowly avoids this fate thanks to the strength of its three artists. Curator Shane Tolbert brings Ted Gahl, Nathan Hayden and Lane Hagood together for the exhibition. They each have very different styles and sensibilities, but for the purposes of this show, they are united by their exploration of the "idiosyncrasies of daily experience." Connecticut artist Gahl's work is about painting itself. His small-scale paintings line the front room of the gallery, stretching above the gallery desk in a varied conversation about paint and process that feels like the painting equivalent of multiple personality disorder. How else do you explain a piece like the ambiguously named Content, composed of beautiful, sparse strokes of paint, in the same "sentence" as Caught Painting, a visual play on words consisting of a paint brush trapped mid-stroke by a mouse trap, which is immediately followed by an uncharacteristically long stretch of raw canvas titled Pause (Comma Painting) — a literal interruption in the flow of paintings. They're playful works that refreshingly don't take themselves too seriously, but I do wish they weren't blocked by the gallery's front desk, preventing any serious study of most of them. We leave behind the bright color of the front gallery for southern California artist Hayden's unkindofremarkable, an installation three years in the making consisting of black-and-white ink drawings on paper that stretch across one wall. The paper is comically small for the impressive amount of detail and text that comprise both the front and the back. It looks as if Hayden's journal has burst neatly apart, his stream-of-consciousness text and scribbles exposed and available for the plucking. Childlike images of feet and hands — the bane of artists everywhere — dominate the rest of the show. They're done by Hunting Prize-winning Houston artist Hagood in his trademark primitive style. It's a style that makes it seem as if the artist isn't trying all that hard. But the more time you spend with the images, the more you notice the details — the blue veins in the hands and feet, the thorny hair on the legs — and the thoughtful composition of his paintings. He even plays a bit with his style, accurately depicting one of the most famous — and expensive — paintings in the world — Edvard Munch's The Scream. He replicates the painting on a coffee cup in what I can only guess is a silly homage to the artist, a master at depicting emotion. Whether you're repulsed, intrigued or amused, these unconventional works make you feel something, too. Through February 16. 3909 Main, 832-538-0924. — MD

"Ewan Gibbs: Arlington National Cemetery" Ewan Gibbs has turned his distinguishable pixelated drawing style on topics as diverse as the Statue of Liberty, the Chicago Ferris Wheel and hotel facades. Seemingly part-photography, part-drawing, his technique is inspired by grid-like knitting patterns the artist started incorporating into his work two decades ago to turn photographs, both found and his own, into drawings. One of his latest subjects is particularly inspired for his particular line of visual play: the Arlington National Cemetery. On a visit to the famous site, Gibbs was taken by the military cemetery's impressive landscape, from its rolling hills to centuries-old trees. In 16 drawings inspired by this visit on view in the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Law Building, he alternates between depicting landscapes and, in slightly smaller works, headstones. The landscapes are the more impressive pieces as Gibbs captures the ebb of the neat white rows of headstones on the cemetery's hills, as well as the more scattered arrangement of the markers. These are not giant drawings that try to overwhelm or impress you with scale. Rather, they are small, intimate, quiet and meditative. The headstones are less effective; the names, dates and epitaphs on the stone are difficult to make out. No amount of stepping back to let the image come into focus makes it any easier to bring the drawing together. That's partly the point, to turn these images into near abstractions, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Alongside Gibbs's drawings, the MFAH also has on view photographs by artists who have inspired Gibbs. The inclusion is a bit distracting and superfluous, though; there's no context as to why these particular photographs are included, and anyway, Gibbs's drawings are enough on their own to spend time with. Through February 10. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — MD

"Maggie Taylor: No Ordinary Days" Maggie Taylor's brand of photomontage is a fascinating mix of old and new forms of photography that results in even more fascinating images. Since 1996, the Florida artist has been working with Photoshop, taking advantage of its imaging magic to create pictures that are truly surreal, strange and, yes, magical. She starts with 19th-century tintypes, photographs and other images she's acquired from flea markets, antique stores, eBay or other artists. She scans and then manipulates them in Photoshop, colorizing and layering the originals with her own photographs and other images she's come across. In what takes only seconds to describe, Taylor will spend weeks, often months, manipulating a single piece, adding upwards of 60 layers or more. Thirty of these resulting images are on display at Catherine Couturier Gallery, timed to the publication of a new book of Taylor's works titled No Ordinary Days. Indeed, these pieces are anything but ordinary. Taylor's work is often described using the word "dreamscapes," but it's difficult to tell whether it's born of dreams or nightmares. In her alternate, unsettling realities, bees can magically coordinate to form a dress; a swimmer walks a cloud; a child tears her head in two as if it's a piece of paper; pigs fly; animals, flowers and leaves explode out of the back of a man's head; and landscapes are paradoxically lit like in Magritte's Empire of Light, the sky light as day while the land is in the shadows of darkness. They're by turns delightful and bizarre, but they're oddly compelling in their strangeness. They seem like illustrations to fairy tales or children's stories, full of whimsy, beauty and originality. And like any good tale, they leave you questioning your own sense of what's possible. Through February 9. 2635 Colquitt, 713-524-5070. — MD

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Meredith Deliso
Contact: Meredith Deliso