Capsule Art Reviews: "Lighter Than Air," "Maurizio Cattelan," "The Paper Runway," "Seth Alverson"

"Lighter Than Air" This exhibition, presented by Blaffer Gallery, showcases Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno's eye-popping creations. Saraceno approaches art from his background in architecture. He's influenced largely by the geodesic domes and spheres of Buckminster Fuller (Epcot Center's "Spaceship Earth") and utopian ideals of sustainability. Saraceno imagines a future in which entire cities float in the clouds, or in space, protected and nurtured by technology and the science inherent in their perfect geometric designs. While space-aged in look, the inspiration for the exhibit is very much earthbound. Saraceno based his designs on close-up photographs of spider webs (also on display). His beach ball-size, transparent spheres — contained in netting and tethered to the gallery walls with elastic rope — mimic tiny water droplets caught in the webs. They're like little prototypes for potential living environments, augmented by an aerated water system pumped into the spheres from below. Little tillandsia plants, also called "air plants," live inside the bubbles, perhaps as a representation of the prototypes' ability to sustain life. Other works are more sculptural, like Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/32SW, a spherical cluster of smaller spheres, encased in netting. And don't miss the supremely weird Iridescent Planet Colors, the only sphere in the show that isn't suspended in air. It lies in a dark room of its own, draped in iridescent foil, rippling in brilliant color and mysteriously incandescent from a light source inside it. It looks like a giant soap bubble slumped over with a slow leak. Maybe it's an example of what happens when the proper tension can't be maintained — a planet out of balance. Through August 7. 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-2255. — TS

"Maurizio Cattelan" It's tempting to think that artist Maurizio Cattelan is putting one over on The Menil Collection. The Italian sculptor's works often tease art-world conventions and mock institutional authority. What's happened, though, in the delightful exhibition "Maurizio Cattelan," is a perfect harmony of two voices, the artist's and the institution's. Always smart in its approach to curation, the Menil has allowed Cattelan to make selections from the collection to display in juxtaposition with his own works, as well as install pieces within the museum's permanent exhibits. The result is a building-wide scavenger hunt that yields some pretty thrilling moments. And ironically, the Menil plays the trickster by figuring out an ingenious way to make patrons who only show up for the rotating exhibits check out the permanent ones again. There may not be a more perfect place for this experiment — Cattelan is a self-taught artist and was influenced greatly by surrealism. If one begins exploring the Menil at the west side of the building, Cattelan literally spells it out for us by choosing to display Joseph Kosuth's 1967 painting Titled. In white letters on a black canvas is the definition of the word "meaning." The majority of the Cattelan works on display are untitled, so introducing the definition of "meaning" seems to imply "abandon all hope of." The exhibition's major work is Cattelan's All, nine human figures lying horizontally on the floor that appear to be covered with white sheets — at least, that's what your brain tells you when you walk into the room. Closer inspection reveals a material of significantly greater substance. Another Cattelan work resides near a selection from Warhol's Electric Chair series. (You have to look for it.) And inside the surrealism galleries, find the hanging, upside-down hand with its fingers cut off (except for the middle one). Cattelan's summation of Dada, perhaps? Through August 15. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — TS

"The Paper Runway" Making clothes out of paper is the definition of counterintuitive, but it was big for a brief period of the mid-1960s, considered avant-garde and futuristically practical. This show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft features an abundance of paper fashion by contemporary creators as well as a few of those period pieces. Organized by the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the exhibition has a lengthy, international list of curators. But that may be the cause of its problems — it's in dire need of editing. Let's just say that some of them have significantly better taste than others. One of the standouts is a great A-line paper dress, produced by the Mars Manufacturing company of Asheville, North Carolina, that might have been white but now has the hue of old newspapers. It has a keyhole neck with black string tie and a black-and-gray pattern of bold baroque swirls and florals. The manufacturer ingeniously had the "fabric" printed with patterns by a gift-wrap manufacturer. The piece has a wonderful label that instructs you not to wash it or dry-clean it. There's another great 1960s dress by Hallmark with a cheery pink-and-green floral print and the de rigueur A-line style. Unfortunately, this show is as badly hung as it is overcrowded, and right smack in the middle of these two period dresses is a contemporary contribution that seems like it's supposed to be wearable as well. A long, boxy shift that would look like hell on and would doubtless rip when you walked, it's made out of "marbleized" coffee filters applied like fish scales. Placed between the two crisp A-lines, the dress looks like an ugly stepsister. The show's absolute standout is Nancy VanDevender's Ruffled Tattoo Jacket, a long, sweeping, belted wrap coat of what looks to be vinyl-coated paper. It's digitally printed with a funky pattern of drawn and photographed ruffles. The sleeves and edges are cut to follow the ruffles' outlines. It's hip, witty, modern, well-designed and dramatic. Through September 4. 4848 Main, 713-529-4848. — KK

"Seth Alverson" In his current slew of oil paintings at Art Palace, Seth Alverson displays an extraordinary ability to charge seemingly banal subjects with slow-burning menace and mystery. Many of the paintings, when viewed from a distance, could be photographs — like Bed for One, a simple image of a tiny room with single bed draped in a yellow blanket, viewed from outside the doorway. Something about it suggests a malevolent presence; Alverson intentionally maintains a distance, as if entering the room would effectively cross a psychic boundary. Mop is a gruesome scene of inexplicable violence: a white-walled hallway corner with a blood-covered floor and a mop propped against the wall. Why no blood on the walls? And why does the mop seem to stand upright in the space, regardless of its handle's shadow against the wall? Alverson is forcing questions that bypass the work's horrific narrative, desensitizing his subject with optical illusions. Works like Fence display a masterly ability to render out-of-focus subjects, like a forest in the distance viewed from behind a sharply focused wooden fence. You see it again in Dress, a woman in a solid-blue dress framed from neck to knee. She is standing in an open field, with blurry trees on the horizon, both hands grasping a camera. Alverson is withholding essential bits of the story, perhaps even non-dramatic, boring ones, and it causes us to imagine the worst. It's compelling work. Through August 21. 3913 Main. 281-501-2964. — TS

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer
Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze