Capsule Art Reviews: "Danny Rolph: Multiverse," "Dynasty and Divinity," "Kiki Smith," "Objects of Devotion," "Richard Misrach: After Katrina"

"Danny Rolph: Multiverse" Danny Rolph's painted abstraction looks like a cross between a Kurt Schwitters collage and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album cover. Rolph creates his work on triplewall polycarbonate panels — the stuff touted as a replacement for plywood hurricane panels. (You can shoot a 2x4 at it!) Sandwiching panels together, Rolph layers his painted forms with collaged imagery. (The show includes elements as diverse as spark plug diagrams, '80s band photos and a sunflower needlepoint pattern.) The odd conglomerations of references and forms blend into patterns. They're nice pieces, but without any particularly dominant images in any of the works, they tend to run together. And quantity dilutes their appeal. Seeing three of Rolph's paintings is great, but see five and they start to feel repetitive. Through November 13. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. — KK

"Dynasty and Divinity" When you walk into this exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it feels like you are walking into a crowd of people. It's filled with the faces of distinct but long dead individuals, depicted in striking works of stone, terracotta and metal from the ninth through 15th centuries. First among the standout works on view are the exhibition's cast-copper-alloy heads representing the rulers of Ife, which are essentially family portraits. The cast-metal heads are highly naturalistic; you can tell that each was modeled after a specific person. They are, however, depicted in a way that idealizes them as rulers; neither fierce nor haughty, they emanate a calm, elegant serenity. Their smooth features are composed, with their eyes looking forward, their mouths closed. The heads were cast using a lost wax process which allows a sculptor to create a one-off metal cast. Basically, a clay core would be covered with a thick layer of wax that would then be sculpted. A clay shell would be created over the wax and heated. The wax would melt out and bronze would be poured in its place. When these stunning works came to European attention in the early 20th century, the initial response of some scholars was that they simply couldn't be African; there had to be some Greek influence. Thankfully, the museum world is past that kind of blatant racism. But non-Western art is still viewed through a deeply embedded Eurocentric lens. The MFAH press release stated, "These sculptures have been compared to the finest portraits of the classical ancient world of Greece and Rome," and MFAH director Peter Marzio is quoted as saying, "Remarkably, the Ife people were creating these sculptures before the European Renaissance began." For such an important show, the installation at the MFAH is lackluster. All of the pieces are stuck in one big, sterile white room — it not only feels like a crowd, it is crowded. This is a wonderful show and a coup for the museum. I just wish it got a little more of the royal treatment. Through January 9, 2011. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

"Kiki Smith" Following up on their exhibition of Richard Serra etchings, Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery features another great print show. This time the work is by Kiki Smith. It's a series of color intaglio works based on the story "Little Red Riding Hood," a fairy tale that has a number of variants, pretty much all of them disturbing. Smith's slightly awkward, sketchy renderings of the little girl, the wolf and the grandmother are simultaneously engaging and ominous. Also on view, and serving as a backdrop to a hand-colored lithograph of a nude woman holding some Eve-like fig branches, is Smith's Weeping Willow Wallpaper. Created in a 2002 collaboration with the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, the paper is patterned with dangling branches and ethereal blue leaves set against an ecru background. It's pretty gorgeous, and it has the same moodily fanciful feeling as Smith's prints. (It's only $350 a roll, a bargain price for a Smith work, but only if you split it with 13 of your closest friends — sadly, the minimum order is 14 rolls.) Through November 4. 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097. — KK

"Objects of Devotion" The Menil Collection is the perfect place for an exhibition like this. John and Dominique de Menil's collecting was deeply influenced by Father Marie-Alain Couturier and his interest in art and spirituality. The Collection's Renzo Piano-designed building itself feels like a chapel, and nobody installs work more beautifully than the Menil — the team could hang a dishrag on the wall and make it feel like a holy relic. And when they turn their hands to presenting actual devotional objects, the results are pretty spectacular. It's a tiny but powerful show, with a richly diverse collection of objects that speak to a global range of human beliefs. An almost 1,000-year-old wooden Shinto figure shares the space with a 14th-century icon of St. John the Baptist. A Maori feather box, a Dogon figure of a mother and child, and a Mayan drinking vessel face a more than 1,000- year-old censer, its bottom worn like an old cooking pot. It's a richly intimate show for believers and nonbelievers alike. Through October 31. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — KK

"Richard Misrach: After Katrina" The five-year anniversary of Katrina briefly brought the catastrophe and its victims back onto the front page. The MFAH's exhibition of Richard Misrach photographs was timed to the anniversary, but the unpopulated images capture and convey the Katrina tragedy in the words of its survivors and will continue to speak long after media attention has again faded. Armed with a dinky four-megapixel camera, Misrach photographed the official and unofficial graffiti spray-painted over New Orleans's devastated homes in Katrina's aftermath — the search and rescue notations, personal messages, expletives, quips and exclamations of its residents and evacuees. What emerges is a portrait of people overwhelmed by tragedy and sometimes managing to fight back with dark humor. The poster image for the series is a shot of a red brick ranch-style house with the words "Destroy this memory" scrawled across it. Rescuers' orange spray-paint code for checked houses and notations of dead bodies and dead animals are ubiquitous. Despair is written bluntly across roofs, "HELP." Others declare, "I AM ALIVE" and add a cell phone number. Humor, the ultimate coping mechanism, is in full view. "YEP, BROWNIE, YOU DID A HECK OF A JOB" is caustically printed on the side of a garage. The worst are the questions. "MICHAEL, WHERE ARE YOU?" is written on a house above a contact number. Misrach's series is especially compelling because he gives Katrina's victims a voice, one that is as complex as they are, and one that will continue to resonate. Through October 31. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — KK

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer