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Capsule Art reviews: September 11, 2014

"Aloe Vera: group show" Gray Contemporary is a new gallery in the Houston Design Center, large, high-ceilinged and beautifully air-conditioned. Several paintings are quite bright and colorful, with Shape Study 8 (Three Sides), by Christopher Derek Bruno, the most intriguing. It has four three-dimensional vertical square pillars, with the front panel of each white, but each side panel colored and different; it's a work meant to be viewed from several angles, suggesting a cheerful artist at play. Nathan Westerman shows three colorful circles, consisting of multicolored, horizontal stripes. All seem similar, but one pops out, Slat Painting 014.005, which has a yellow stripe in the top half that makes all the difference in the world. Dmitri Obergfell has an apparently simple mosaic, Crystal plane (penrose), which turns out to be complex and fascinating. It has a trompe l'oeil effect, as it is composed of scores of individual metal tiles, each anchored to the wall, but the spaces between, which are open, seem to be the metal framework one would see in a stained-glass window. The individual tiles form boxes, creating a series of optical illusions; it is the work of a wizard, magical. Deborah Zlotsky's The Artist is complex, with central grays and peripheral blues and orange, and structurally an interlocking of an irregularly shaped cube, rectangles and curves added to soften the impact. It has intelligence and rich composition. Douglas Witmer has a number of works, with The Hour Grows Late most accessible, made up of two deep-blue broad horizontal stripes against a grayish-white background, seemingly worn on the edges — as though time had passed and a lot had happened. Through September 15. 7026 Old Katy Rd., Suite 253, 713-862-4425, graycontemporary.com. — JJT

"Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris" Charles Marville was an early and prolific photographer of old Paris, commissioned to record the before, during and after of Emperor Napoleon III's radical transformation that remade a medieval city into the first modern one. But these aren't the rose-tinted images of the City of Light we've come to love. Working from the 1850s to the 1870s, Marville made 425 often haunting images of a city about to be, and in the process of being, ripped apart to create the honey-hued boulevards we love today. The streets he shows us are eerily devoid of people. This is partly a result of the technical limitations of early photography — long exposure times meant that people in motion became only ghostly smudges. But the people weren't the point. In fact, the lives lived in those streets were irrelevant — obstacles to be displaced or crushed as the Baron Haussmann carried out the Emperor's orders to re-create Paris as his modern stage for imperial grandeur. We know what Paris would become, but the few people who stand stark still in these photos didn't. The Paris they knew was about to be destroyed, and that tension gives the photos much of their power. Marville didn't often present his photographs as art. For him, photography was a livelihood. But he was an artist to the core, and the art crept in. Through September 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. — RT

Literary Inspirations: The Art of Carl Köhler Carl Köhler (1919-2006) was a portrait painter who never met his subjects, though he came to know them intimately through reading their books. Köhler varied his artistic style to match the subject - for example, the portrait of the French poet, playwright and critic Guillaume Apollinaire was superimposed upon a newspaper. While Köhler usually drew heads only, for playwright Antonin Artaud, Köhler included his hands - perhaps to permit applause? There is an intellectual and emotional power in these portraits that is compelling. Köhler's subjects tended to be intellectuals, iconoclasts who challenged the rules of conventionality, and often lived outside these rules. For authors such as Henry Miller, Günter Grass and Franz Kafka, Köhler used woodcuts where the heavy dark ink suggested a seriousness of purpose. Köhler's portrait James Joyce Getting Blind is extremely complex, very suitable for the author of the difficult Ulysses and the even more difficult Finnegan's Wake. By contrast, Köhler's portraiture of two Nobel Laureates, Claud Simon and Francois Mauriac, is confined to a few red lines or a simple line drawing. Köhler's portrait of Virginia Woolf shows the anguish that would eventually lead to suicide. Köhler's portrait of the influential author Anais Nin gave him a subject who was beautiful and strong-willed, and reveals the serenity of a woman who marches to her own drum. Carl Köhler's son, Henry Köhler, believe he is an under-appreciated genius—on the basis of this extremely varied and most interesting exhibition, I am inclined to agree. Through September 19, Houston Central Library, 1st Floor Gallery Area, 500 McKinney, open Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a..m to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., 832-393-1313, houstonlibrary.org. — JJT

"The Left Bank on the Bayou: Avant-garde Art & Theater in 1930s Houston" A burgeoning 1930s art scene included Margo Jones founding the Houston Community Players in 1936. The opening of The Little Gallery on Branard Street provided local artists with an opportunity to exhibit their works, including abstract art. That era can be revisited thanks to a fascinating exhibition at the O'Kane Gallery at the University of Houston – Downtown curated by its director, Mark Cervenka. One of the most striking works is a portrait by Nione Carlson, believed to be of the poet Edith Sitwell, that captures the power of her commanding personality. Carlson's "Small Landscape with a Tree" is eminently successful; the blue-green tree has a feathery quality, the steps might also be books, the tall buildings suggest dynamic growth and the discarded window frames suggest the opposite — decay. Robert Preusser's "Dwarf Dwellings" reminds one of hobbits gone urban, as small huts nestle, like a Brazilian favela, with step stairs that also serve as walls. Under a dark-blue night sky, the crowded hillside is empty of dwarves yet seems pulsing with life. Forrest Best's painting "Male Figure Study" shows a model standing on a small wooden block on a platform in a classroom, leaning on a table for support yet maintaining a graceful pose despite the awkwardness of his footing. Moving from painting to painting, the viewer senses the comradeship that must have been present and is filled with admiration for these talented artists. Through October 16. 1 Main, 713-221-8042, www.uhd.edu/academic/colleges/humanities/arts_humanities/okane_gallery. — JJT

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