Capsule Art Reviews: "Face Off: A Selection of Old Masters and Others from The Menil Collection," "Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes," "Perspectives 165: Contents Under Pressure," "Helen Lessick: Other Arrangements"

"Face Off: A Selection of Old Masters and Others from The Menil Collection" This is a relatively small exhibition at The Menil Collection which, according to museum materials, "examines one of the most primary elements of human interaction: to look upon the face of another." The work, in both selection and installation, has an emotive and conversational quality rarely found in museum or gallery installations, thanks to the combined genius of curator Franklin Sirmans and exhibition designer Brooke Stroud. "Face Off" includes paintings, prints and sculptural works both ancient and modern, sacred and secular; some are highly recognizable, others rarely seen. Standouts include Christian Bérard's Portrait of Tamara Toumanova (1931), which shows her in profile, with her face turned toward the viewer, looking slightly annoyed at having been disturbed; Joshua Reynolds's A Young Black (circa 1770), which exudes a dignity that I believe cannot be made up by the facile hand of an artist; and Rembrandt Van Rijn, St. Philip Baptizing the Eunuch (1641) and its near neighbor, a painting by Aelbert Cuyp, The Baptism of the Eunuch (circa 1642-43), two artworks that tell different versions of a story found in the book of Luke in the Bible. Even though the exhibition takes place in a relatively small space, each and every piece in "Face Off" is a treasure, from Goya's aquatints Disasters of War and Los Caprichos to the sweetest Egyptian funerary mask I've ever seen. Through April 26. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — BS

"Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes" This massive, abstract installation, constructed from discarded and deteriorating plywood harvested from construction sites in São Paulo, is Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira's first American solo exhibition. From a referential perspective, Tapumes bears striking similarities to abstract impressionist painting — its thousands of wooden shards resemble the texture of brush strokes when viewed from a distance, especially through the gallery window, which acts as a frame. Up close, Tapumes reveals its sculptural and architectural elements; it appears to have formed like cavernous rock weathered by the elements into a random conglomeration of tubes and contorted channels subtly stained with color. Oliveira built a rough frame of flexible plywood attached to the gallery wall, what he calls his "drawing stage," and then organically layered the painted wooden scraps he shipped from São Paulo to the frame — his "painting stage." Put together with staples, the result bears the hallmarks of a rushed process, like a gang of skaters throwing up a shabby half-pipe in a day, but the gorgeous interplay of color, texture and shape is a credit to Oliveira's instinctive but careful method. Through May 9. Rice Gallery, 6100 Main, 352 Sewall Hall, 713-348-6069. —TS

"Perspectives 165: Contents Under Pressure" Juried by artist Dario Robleto, this exhibition of works by Houston-area teens explores containers and containment. The most literal interpretation of the theme is a site-specific installation just outside the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's entrance. Titled What Contains You?, the work is a shipping container that visitors may step into, where they're invited to scrawl their answer to the titular question on a piece of paper and fix it to the metal wall with a magnet. A droning noise on speakers emphasizes an interior pressure and might work the nerves of the claustrophobic. The participatory responses range from the thoughtful to the silly, like "the bottle of memories, good or bad," "my middle name," "the shithole that is Houston," "the man," "skinny jeans" and "LSD." In the Zilkha Gallery, works by more than 40 teens are on display. Standouts include Alex Goss's photographic portraits, which feature subjects whose faces are obscured by Band-Aids, coffee filters and balloons, and a structure built from Hurricane Ike debris made by students from Sam Rayburn High School, which documents their experiences of the storm. It's a poignant reminder of the emotional amplification of adolescence, when even the slightest interruption of routine is tantamount to catastrophe. Through May 10. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250. — TS

"Helen Lessick: Other Arrangements" Internationally known artist Helen Lessick creates site-specific installations that riff on everyday themes, like the passing of time, and amplify their implications. She moved to Houston roughly a year ago to work as the director of civil art and design for the Houston Arts Alliance after helming similar arts advocate positions in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Reno. For her Texas debut exhibition, Lessick created an untitled installation that, according to Barbara Davis Gallery, explores the Texas night sky, but the execution is only somewhat successful in expressing that particular theme. Made up of hanging metal buckets with varying patterns of holes punched in the vessels' sides and bottoms, the work feels only halfway realized — the addition of dripping water somehow cycled through the buckets and their leak holes would be a welcome element. A series of graphic prints deconstructs architectural forms and includes a recurring motif of an unfolded house template. Lessick also offers a stack of the very same template, made of cardstock and printed on one side with a view of the Earth from the moon, and visitors may take one, "reconstruct" it, in a sense, and leave it behind. Also clever is an oval wall mirror embossed with the words "extraordinary" and "pathetic." Viewers are free to assess their reflections as one or the other. The show itself can't be assessed with either one of those descriptors, but it passes the time adequately. Through May 16. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. – TS

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Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze
Beth Secor