Capsule Art Reviews: "Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976," "Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection," "Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome,"

"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

"Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection" This show includes approximately 300 works from the 1960s to the present. The artists in the Drutt collection approach jewelry as an art object, with ideas taking precedence over the intrinsic value of the materials used. Jewelry started getting avant-garde in the 1960s, when even the likes of Alexander Calder, Lucio Fontana and Salvador Dalí, far better known for their sculptures and paintings, made forays into the realm of jewelry. German artist Gerd Rothmann's work has a slightly surreal bent, in particular his gold casts of Helen Drutt's nose (1994) and index finger (2000). Other works have a more minimalist bent. Dutch artist Gijs Bakker's blue Möbius loop bracelet (1967-69) in anodized aluminum is simple and elegant. Some of the work has an edgy, body-oriented focus, with things that are cool sculptural objects but not especially geared for wearablity. British artist Caroline Broadhead's 1983 woven nylon monofilament necklace is otherworldly, extending up to veil the wearer's face. Contemporary jewelry isn't exactly a field many people know a lot about, and Helen Williams Drutt has been a pioneering educator as well as a collector. Cindi Strauss, MFAH curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design and the curator of the exhibition, threw herself into the subject matter, and the exhibition, four years in the making, is impressive. Through January 27. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" Among the portraits on view in this exhibition is one of a British tourist named Robert Clements. To commemorate his trip to Rome, the 21-year-old Clements posed casually, leaning against a pedestal that displayed a bust of the blind poet Homer. He clasped a book in his hand as if he were about to hold forth on the Iliad. While today's tourists might bring back a snapshot of themselves on the Spanish Steps, in 1753 wealthy young British men like Clements headed to Pompeo Batoni's studio to have their portrait painted. To show where they had been, Batoni obligingly painted them surrounded by icons of Italy — Roman artifacts and scenes from the Italian countryside. Batoni practiced history painting, the supreme genre of the period, but portraits of the British elite (and their dogs) on what was then known as "the Grand Tour" became his bread and butter. We see in Batoni's subjects an eagerness to show where they have been and to pose in exotic garb the same way contemporary tourists don loud shirts on Caribbean cruises. Beyond creating a cultural record from the period, Batoni was a renowned and highly skilled painter. His ability to render likenesses of sitters, record the details of their dress and convey the gestures of their hands was widely remarked upon, then and now. Batoni's careful compositions, appropriately symbolic objects, detailed renderings of his subject's fashionable dress and tactful likenesses remind us of the time when craft dominated painting. Through January 27. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s" In a 1966 photograph titled Failing to Levitate in the Studio, artist Bruce Nauman stretches between two folding chairs and falls on his ass. In a 1968 hour-long film titled Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1, the artist falls backwards into a corner and then bounces back — over and over and over again. Bruce Nauman is a revered and mythic figure in the art world. He's shown generations of artists that ideas are more important than how you choose to execute them. But as his work in this show at The Menil Collection illustrates, he was once a lanky kid in jeans hanging around in his studio with a whole lot of time on his hands. If you like Nauman and know his work, you will be fascinated by the history and the iconic works presented by the show. But if you aren't a conceptual art fan, it's a tough sell. Organized by Constance Lewallen, senior curator of exhibitions at the University of California's Berkeley Art Museum, the exhibition consists of very early work by Nauman from the time when he lived in the Bay area. Some of it is even from his graduate school years at University of California-Davis. There are drawings, sculptures, videos and installations. Not all of it is great, but it's all interesting in the context of how Naumanthinks — and where his particular brand of conceptual artcomes from. Through January 13. 1515 Sul Ross,713-525-9400. — KK

"Traci Matlock and Ashley Maclean: The Much-To-Consider Season" In the first exhibit at Gallery 1724 since 2006, Traci Matlock and Ashley Maclean are showing their photography, adding a sense of drama to the domestic space. The two artists met by chance online and have gone on to forge an emotional artistic collaboration. In the past year, they have combined their love of modeling, fashion and documentary photography into a body of work that acknowledges the strengths of commercial photography. The artists use small Polaroid prints for their photos of themselves and of popular local models, coaxing narratives out of tightly cropped images. They also have branched out into large-format digital prints that act as counterpoints to the manipulated or damaged stylization of the Polaroids, allowing them to focus on clean images and better identify their intentions. Matlock and Maclean record intimate moments in anonymous domestic settings in soft-edged focus, mostly documenting regions of the female body in photos that mix sexuality and violence and suggest emotional or physical pain. But the artists worry more about their images being too pretty than about their disturbing themes. Their haunting works show both a talent for composition and lighting and a firm grasp of the compelling narrative. Through January 14. 1724 Bissonnet, 713-523-2547. — SC

"Will Boone: A Man's House Is His Coffin" The use of "House," not "Home," is on purpose – there's a difference between a physical address and the feeling of belonging that comes with a true home. A wandering soul, Will Boone takes his sense of belonging with him as he embarks on a tour of American counterculture in the 21st century. Boone's artwork exists where indie rock, emo and noise meet art, drugs and hip-hop; it brings to mind late-night house parties and disillusion. His text paintings reveal a decidedly pessimistic worldview: In one work, gothic Old English lettering spells out THIS PLACE SUCKS. In another, called Ferocious Guest, hand-drawn letters tell a hilarious, crushing tale. In other works, Boone uses found imagery in awkward, simplified ink drawings that conjure the album covers and flyers of Raymond Pettibon. Will Boone's ink drawings and paintings are a reminder that home is where you find yourself — the mosh-pit mayhem of My War and the macho posturing of Live Long Nothing are icons of American life, as readable as the signs in a restaurant window. Through January 18. Domy Books, 1709 Westheimer, 713-523-3669. — SC

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