Capsule Reviews

"Courbet and the Modern Landscape" Realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) is widely considered the forerunner of the impressionists for his "radical" self-expression at a time when the popular French Salon championed conservative, narrative painting. That said, don't expect anything as provocative as his 1866 works The Origin of the World (a close-up depiction of female genitalia) and The Sleepers (a painting of two lesbians), both of which were banned from public display, in this exhibit. On the other hand, Courbet's rebellion against romanticism is perhaps most evident in these remarkable landscapes. The Gust of Wind (1865) carries all the touchstones of his groundbreaking techniques -- the knife scrapings, stippling, delicate strokes countered with huge, sweeping gestures -- to render an oncoming storm over a rock face, hills and trees. The Stream (1855), first in a series of paintings of the Black Well, a site in Ornans, France, contains abstract elements in its shadowy, murky rendering of a dark forest stream. There's something nightmarish in these pictures, as opposed to Courbet's seascapes, which carry a bright, inviting coolness, even in his depictions of turbulent waves. Through September 10, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

"Frank Stella - 1958" So here's a painter who became one of the leading lights of minimalism in painting in the '60s, one of the real names of the art world for the last half of the 20th century. A grad student and museum curator together track down a batch of his paintings from the year he graduated college and moved to New York to become an artist. With the help of hindsight, it's easy to see a premonition of the paintings for which he is now known. The smudged lines and "dirty" colors of many give the impression of rough drafts, of explorations. The sense of experimentation is emphasized by the way some trial motifs are repeated through several paintings. East Broadway and Red River Valley both feature sets of horizontal stripes in one color over a constant background, each with a darker rectangle set in slightly different positions. Clear indication of future work is apparent in Criss Cross and the parallel figures in Delta and Macro. Mary Lou Loves Frank is the one piece best able to stand on its own, outside the context of Stella's career, with its deep green background and dark rectangle with the title scrawled and mostly painted over. Through August 20 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Houston Folk: African American Self-Taught Artists" Right now, the self-taught artist is hot subject matter for galleries and museums. Recently, the MFAH staged its big-deal exhibition of self-taught juggernaut Jean-Michel Basquiat, and its current Gee's Bend quilt exhibit continues the trend. Last year, the Menil showcased the work of folk modernists Bill Traylor and William Edmonson. Houston is a natural champion for this horribly underrated work: So much of it exists here. In "Houston Folk," Texas Southern University's University Museum highlights ten black artists from this area, and the results are impressive. While each artist contributes charming work, much of which documents and renders the black experience, two artists stand out. Phyllis Harris's quilts run the gamut from a tribal African scene to a portrait of Buffalo Soldiers to one called Larry's Travel, a delightful amalgamation of tourist T-shirts from places like Taos, Aspen and Lake Tahoe to Texas curiosities like Luckenbach and Jefferson. There's even a shirt from Montrose's own Black Labrador Pub. Steven Murray's collages and sculpture really hit the mark. His tribal-influenced chess pieces dazzle, and his 28 Ships, a collection of ships and tiny figures in bottles, which chronicles the slave trade, alone is worth the visit. Through September 10. 3100 Cleburne, 713-313-7120.

"Kaneem Smith" Kaneem Smith doesn't make pretty sculptures. There's usually something slightly icky and unsettling going on in her loose, abstract forms. They're covered in fabric and liberally coated with viscous substances that tend to evoke visceral reactions from viewers. New work by the artist is on view in the "Kaneem Smith" exhibition at Rudolph Projects/ArtScan Gallery. Smith mixes earthy, natural hues with latex and silicone to make things look rubbery and fleshy, while her tinted resin calls to mind the hard, shiny exoskeletons of insects. Adding to the organic nature of her work, Smith herself weaves much of the fabric she uses. It's usually stretched over or wrapped around metal or wire armatures, giving them furry pelts or epidermal coatings. Compulsory Matriarch hangs slackly from a nail on the wall. It's an elongated oval shell of felt lined with thick, matted strands of light brown camel hair. The six-foot-long work feels like a cross between a giant orifice and a nest. You don't know whether it's a place for birthing or for sleeping, but it doesn't feel creepy. There's a kind of warm animal comfort to the piece. Other wall pieces are less successful. Progressive Aggression is a series of works that use flat bands of metal and strips of thick and fuzzy gray felt bent and wrapped together. Hung on the wall like paintings, they're all pretty rectangular, around three feet high by about a foot and a half wide. The series illustrates an underlying problem in much of Smith's work: its overwhelming rectilinearity. She's a young artist, and it will be interesting to see what happens to her intriguing sculptures when she jettisons their internalized conventions and embraces their organic yearnings. Through August 12. 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836.

"Light My Fire" Each summer Rice Gallery shuts down, but it installs a big artwork in its window to appease the summer students, visitors and faculty. "Light My Fire" is artist Lisa Hoke's contribution to the tradition. Known for her use of cheap, everyday materials -- plastic cups, neon drinking straws, rubber bands -- to produce bombastic, color-soaked installations, Hoke turned the gallery's 16- by 44-foot window wall into a wispy, abstract stained-glass panel using colored paper and hot glue. The painstaking process involved curling 100,000 strips of heavy paper and arranging them into mirror-image panels, which were attached to both sides of the window wall. The effect is mesmerizing. It's essential to view the piece from both sides of the window. From outside, "Light My Fire" burns with hot pink, orange and red, subdued by cool blue patches. It has texture; it's a trippy wall of light. From inside, the piece becomes fencelike, but made from curly filaments instead of wrought iron. It also fills the viewer's field of vision, evoking cinema -- the aquarium world of people and nature outside, seen through the installation, flickers like film. "Light My Fire" is a worthwhile 15-minute diversion for most. The chemically enhanced will want to assign a designated gallerygoer to drag them away. Through August 31. Rice University, 6100 Main, 713-348-6069.

"Yigal Ozeri: The Montfort" If one doesn't look at the Montfort series closely, it's easy to mistake the pictures for blown-up color photos of a landscape with a ruined castle. Look too quickly and the series is even boring. What kind of delusional tourist blows up landscape snapshots of his vacation? Well, whether these paintings were based on snapshots or not, they're actually quite remarkable. Built by French crusaders in 12th-century Israel, the Montfort castle is a landmark to religious dominance, both awesome and awful. Ozeri's paintings, when examined up close, reveal the subtle details of the hilly landscape, which looks similar to central Texas, and subtle blurs in distant foliage assert themselves behind highlights in the foreground. From the right viewing distance, Ozeri's paintings offer a pleasantly meditative vibe and an elegant, cumulative force. They'll tell you when to stop looking. Through August 31. New Gallery, 2627 Colquitt, 713-520-7053.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
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Troy Schulze
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