Capsule Art reviews: "Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst," "Endearing the Line," "Five Houses," "The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni," "Round 36"

"Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst" Willem van Aelst made a career out of painting still-lifes of fine goods — furs, precious metals, feathers. In other words, items that would have appealed to his wealthy clientele. To think of it another way, it's like a modern-day artist who paints Louis Vuitton purses. But if painted by van Aelst, they would be the most stunning Louis Vuitton purses you have ever seen. Van Aelst was a virtuoso painter during the 17th-century Dutch still-life era, though, in a crowded scene, he hasn't always gotten his due (artists like Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, the latter of whom he taught, are his better-known contemporaries). In fact, van Aelst has never had an exhibition devoted solely to his work until now, with this show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibit features 27 oil paintings pulled from the artist's known canon of about 150 works. It is a fitting tribute to the skilled painter, who rose to the challenge of matching the sumptuousness and brilliance of the luxury objects he painted. Granted, it wasn't all glamor; about half of the works on display here feature game — trophies of rabbits, roosters and rams that are almost too realistically depicted as they stare back at you, dead in the eyes — along with the luxury. The other half of the show is devoted to his paintings of flowers and fruit. Both display his use of radiant color, nuanced lighting and fine attention to detail, down to the blood on a chicken's beak in Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge, a missing button on a hunting jacket in Still Life with Birds and Hunting Equipment or a fly on a dead rooster in Still Life with Birds. There are many little discoveries like these to be made throughout the show, which traces van Aelst's development as an artist. Through May 28. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — MD

"Endearing the Line" Berlin-based artist Dirk Rathke has quickly built himself a reputation here in Houston. After several shows at Gallery Sonja Roesch, he's known for his curved canvases — monochrome shapes that bend, twist and seemingly ripple ever so slightly; you have to check the edge of the work just to make sure of their depth — and stripped-down drawings that go off the canvas entirely. In his third exhibition at the gallery, Rathke returns to familiar territory. As the name suggests, the show plays with line, space and dimension, resulting in playful, attention-holding pieces. The most prominent is the remarkable site-specific installation Room-drawing for Houston #2. In his first solo show at Sonja Roesch, back in 2007, Rathke memorably took over the back end of the gallery with neon orange tape. He does so again, this time placing orange tape in the shape of two squares that take over the ceiling, wall and floor. It's part sculpture, part painting, thanks to the brush stroke-like lines of the tape, and it completely throws you off. You're not sure how to react to it — do you look at it straight on, or dare to get inside the lines and challenge the 3-D quality of the work? The canvas-twisted works also play with this line between sculpture and painting. Rot Zweiteilig is the most striking of these, comprised of two solid-red canvases that are forced together, a line between them adding to the tension. In the future, it'd be nice to see the artist move in another direction instead of doing more of the same. But what he has now is still powerful, memorable work — those neon orange squares will be etched in my mind for quite some time. Through June 30. 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424. — MD

"Five Houses" Going in, Ai Weiwei's Five Houses seemed like an important exhibition. It marks the U.S. premiere of the Chinese artist's project, which debuted at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria, this past summer. It's one of several events around the city connected with Weiwei, coinciding with the opening of the new Asia Society Texas Center and the installation of his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in Hermann Park. And, it's the first new architectural project since Weiwei, an outspoken political figure, was arrested and detained in his native China last year for "alleged economic crimes." But as I left Five Houses, up now at the Architecture Center Houston, I was more frustrated than anything. The gist of the show is this — these five scale models are just part of a larger project by Weiwei, a contemporary interpretation of a residential building which the artist is creating in collaboration with other architects and furniture designers, called the "Ai Weiwei House." That right there seems to be part of the problem. These scale models are like the sketches of a painting or sculpture — they're not the final product and have trouble standing on their own without a sense of the larger context (or without labels, for that matter). What would help is if the viewer had greater guidance in order to understand their place in the bigger picture. Right now, though, the exhibition either assumes a close familiarity on the viewer's part with Weiwei's work and architectural philosophy, or assumes its limited materials suffice to explain and connect the work. As a result, for those drawn in by the high profile of the artist, the experience likely will be more frustrating than illuminating. Through May 25. 315 Capitol, Suite 120, 713-520-0155. — MD

"The Graphic Arts of Hans Erni" Hans Erni is one of Switzerland's best-known artists, and a contemporary of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Over the decades, he's worked in lithography, digital technology and everything in between. At 103 years old, he still works in his studio every day, rivaling artists a quarter of his age. So I had high hopes for Erni's first major retrospective here in the United States, held at the Museum of Printing History. But I was let down. The retrospective consists of 40 posters, mainly painted illustrations, arranged for the most part in chronological order, from 1948 to 2009. In his decades-long career, Erni has done more than posters, and the museum's exhibition brochure even boasts that his work includes paintings, print and book illustrations, stage design, tapestry and postage stamps. Sure, the exhibition needs some focus given his wide span, but with row upon row of 128-by-91-centimeter posters, other types of graphic art would have been appreciated simply for some variety, as well as to accurately portray and pay tribute to the range of Erni's work. Another missing component is context. Given his Swiss pedigree, the posters are largely in French and German, and, removed from their time frame of reference, they're difficult to decipher. But you can still judge Erni's graphic artwork on its own. The work itself varies wonderfully in style and theme, from dramatic images of a skull topped with an atomic bomb plume to a decapitated tree (literally). Many are united by Erni's repeated use of geometric elements, especially circles, and sometimes even consistent fonts. In some works, the artist adopts styles similar to those of the masters, such as in a striking silkscreen from 1961 of a naked woman that's reminiscent of Picasso, and a Degas-esque print of a woman holding up a giant nut. These intriguing finds make for some standouts in this small show, which despite its flaws is necessary viewing for fans of Erni stateside. Through June 9. 1324 W. Clay St., 713-522-4652. — MD

"Round 36" This group of shows at Project Row Houses brings Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's Kentifrican Museum of Culture, in which four rooms are dedicated to the ethnomusicology, hairstylings and cultural myths of "Kentrifica," followed by John Pluecker's pop-up bookstore, reading room and experimentation lab. There's Manuel Acevedo's homage to the father of optics, Ibn Al-Hazen, which experiments with optics and elements of photography, and Monie Henderson and Marc Newsome's "Cultural Portal," which explores representations of African Americans in contemporary pop culture through movie posters, photographs and audience prompts. There's Philip Pyle II's commentary on African-American consumer spending, Irvin Tepper's large-scale photographs of the sleeping homeless, and Beth Secor's blue, airplane model-flying homage to her deceased father. Secor's show is one of the most successful in "Round 36," completely transforming the space into something new. She used the walls of the house as her canvas, drawing blueprints of model airplanes and flowers on nearly every open surface. She also hung model airplanes from the ceiling and painted the floorboards blue. It's full of emotion and sentiment even before you know the prints and airplanes belonged to the artist's father (must be all that blue). There's an obsessive quality to it all, with the strange language of the model airplane blueprints surrounding you, but there's also very pretty and clever imagery. I loved the visual of half a plane attached to a wall, circles surrounding it where it makes impact as if it's going through the surface — it's telling you that your rules don't work here, that this place is different and special. Through June 24. 2521 Holman St., 713-526-7662. — MD

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Meredith Deliso
Contact: Meredith Deliso