"James Surls: The Splendora Years 1977-1997" Wood, wood and more wood is at the center of James Surls's art. Eyes stare out from charred trunks; chunks of wood are carved into petals and knives; twisted tree limbs become figures. The artist's symbol-laden, woodsy surrealism is on view at the Blaffer Gallery. Curated by gallery director Terrie Sultan, the exhibition focuses on work from the artist's years in Splendora, 45 miles north of Houston. Surls grew up in East Texas. At age five, he chopped down his first tree with the help of a hand ax and his seven-year-old brother. The natural forms of wood are intrinsic to Surls's sculptures, and his Splendora property became the perfect laboratory for his work. The best of Surls's sculptures are the ones so free-flowing and uninhibited that they have to be hung from the ceiling, their limbs twisting in space. Dia de Muerte (1991) is a collection of snaking forms with glowing eyes that seems to writhe through the air like some unknown entity. There's a lot of earthy hippiedom in Surls's work that can make it seem a little quaint to later, more cynical generations less enamored with Joseph Campbell-esque ideas. And while Surls is a widely beloved figure, his writing (which is featured in an essay in the exhibition catalog), with its self-conscious romanticizing of his place in the world and the sweeping romantic view of his own work, can be a little hard to take. But Surls did become -- and remains -- a mythic figure in the Houston art scene, even though he has since abandoned Splendora for Colorado. Through November 12. University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9525.
"Pat Colville: Scapes" Pat Colville's work at Moody Gallery reminds us just how nice small paintings can be. Most of the works are around two square feet, and they're beautifully crafted on panels, creating a wonderful, objectlike quality. Colville's paintings have well-worked, burnished grounds that reveal layers of colors, as if paint were being scrubbed away on an old cabinet door. The grounds are overlaid with crisp, abstract shapes painted in dense solid colors with the matte look of fondant. A bright red line delineates an amoeboid shape; clusters of pale blue circles are connected into bubbly forms; and vividly colored rectangles and swirls float over surfaces. These are skillfully composed works with a vintage feel imparted by the panels' surfaces and '50s-era color schemes. Through November 26. 2815 Colquitt, 713-526-9911.
"Robin Utterback" Robin Utterback is having his first Houston solo exhibition since 1996. The artist just completed a residency in Strasbourg, France, and is back with a whole new crop of work. In his current paintings, Utterback has used dark twill fabrics on stretcher frames instead of canvas. They create a novel ground for nonchalant abstract forms that feel like riffs on ornamental shapes. His paper works are some of the most interesting in the show. An eight-foot work pieces together sections of paper and swatches of canvas in a loose quilt of images. On another wall of the gallery, Utterback arranged a collection of pieces that use found scraps of paper, cardboard and newspaper. The paper works are simple and unfussy, many with masklike cut-outs and chalky accretions of paint. Utterback has a loose but skillful hand with his imagery and materials. The show marks a pleasant return for the artist. Through November 26 at Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200.
"Wesley Heiss: Suburban" Wesley Heiss has used just about every square inch of the Glassell School of Art's upstairs project space for his installation Suburban. Stuffed in the red-painted room is a big gray inflatable figure, partially inflated. To experience the installation, you squeeze past it and stand on an "X" along one wall. Suddenly the flaccid figure begins to inflate, crowding you into the space. Move off the "X" and it stops. Step back on and it starts again. The figure is of a dog, lying on its side, its head in the corner next to you. While the act of stepping on and off the "X" is comic, there's also something pathetic about the rising and falling dog with its face hidden in the corner. In Suburban, Heiss has made used-car-lot decor poignant. Through November 22. 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7500.
"William Wegman: New Paintings" Everyone knows William Wegman's dog pictures, those witty photographs he stages with his Weimaraners. But Wegman also makes paintings, and his humor runs through this work as well. On view at Texas Gallery, his paintings are built around an assortment of kitschy postcards. Wegman glues them to the canvas and then extends their images with paint, working the disparate collection of images together into compositions. Blue Bays (2004) pieces together a landscape. There's a postcard from some goofily named place in Finland -- oh, wait, they all have goofy names -- and images of the London Bridge, Del Ray Beach, Mount Fuji, the Rockies...Meanwhile, Museum (2005) builds galleries around a bunch of artwork postcards with oddball inserts such as an image of two 1960s-looking women operating massive punch-card machines. Wegman has a great eye for kitsch, and while it can be entertaining to play "find the hidden picture" with the paintings, overall, they aren't successful. Wegman just doesn't do a good job of composing the works around the postcards, and the majority of the paintings feel too awkwardly pieced together. It's not a bad idea, he just doesn't execute it well enough. Through November 12. 2012 Peden, 713-524-1593.