Capsule Reviews

"John Hartley and Ernesto Marenco" John Hartley takes tiny figurines -- of soldiers, sailors, nurses, bakers, Batman, Aunt Jemima, the Boy Wonder -- and paints large oil portraits of them. His models are made from plastic, tin or ceramic and are in various states of decay. A soldier's paint-chipped face stares into the distance, its roughly cast features rendered with loving detail, and cast-off toys and bric-a-brac become individuals. Hartley's paintings have a softly blended, photorealistic feeling to them. In the back area of Rudolf Projects/ArtScan Gallery, Ernesto Marenco's tiny, surreal constructions are on view. In one sculpture, a paintbrush hangs on the wall, but instead of bristles, it features a cascade of long, dark hair. In pointed religious works, Marenco turns a rosary into a slingshot and attaches a suitcase handle to a Bible. Marenco's Insecure is a small, simple piece that speaks poignantly about frustration and inadequacy; it's a big safety pin Marenco rendered useless by cutting the pin part down to a tiny nub. Through November 26. 1836 Richmond, 713-807-1836.

"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.

"Restless: Interaction of Core Program Artists and Houston Artists in Early 1990s" For anyone involved with the Houston art scene during the early '90s, "Restless" will be a nostalgia rush. For everyone else, it's an interesting look at the edgy work of Houston artists from a decade ago. Mark Flood has lately been doing lush lace-patterned paintings in vivid colors, but ten years ago he was making smartass silk-screened paintings that boldly questioned art and commerce. Among them was his silk screen of an MFAH membership letter from Peter Marzio eagerly touting the joys and benefits of museum membership. For another work, Flood sold ad space and silk-screened the ads onto the canvas. Advertisers included a GWM personal ad, the Art Guys, Smoke 'n Toke, the Menil Collection and the Houston Press. Then there are Jenny Silitch's hysterical and pop-culturally incisive videos, in which she spoofed the then-nascent world of home shopping by selling a lifelike baby, touting its many features and its superiority to actual babies. Also on view is video of her stunt from the early days of talk shows, in which she donned a wig and bluffed her way onto a show with a made-up tale of a love triangle. Two other artists posed as her male and female lovers; the producers and audience were completely duped. Through November 27 at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, 713-639-7500.

"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.

"Round 23" For the latest round of installations at Project Row Houses, Michael Golden has hung hundreds (maybe thousands) of keys inside one row house, covering an entire wall with these multicolored bits of metal. More keys dangle from other walls, placed there by visitors who have written their hopes and secrets on tags attached to them. The visual effect is appealing enough, but the accompanying literature drips more cheese than a plate of soggy nachos. "This installation explores the key as a metaphor to unlocking dreams and locking up secrets," it reads. If this project were in a museum, it probably would upset the stomachs of even the most lactose-tolerant, but at PRH it somehow works, especially when you see how many people have participated. In his space, artist Jimmy Kuehnle has set up 30 televisions, all stacked up and strewn about at odd angles. Tiny cameras are placed around the house, filming visitors and feeding the TVs. The trick is that the televisions are set up so you can never see yourself; every time you get within view of a monitor, you've just walked out of range of its corresponding camera. The installation is clever and does make a statement about how we're monitored all the time without knowing it, but it's pretty straightforward; there's little room for nuance in the confines of this house. Then again, it's easy to imagine how much fun could be had in there by the kids of the single mothers staying in the row houses across the courtyard. Then there's Kaneem Smith's installation, which deals with the unknown in a palpable way. She has covered the floor of her house in dirt and gravel, and from the ceiling hangs what looks like a large curtain of burlap. But as you walk around the curtain, trying to see what's on the other side, you end up right back where you started; it's a closed loop, a clever trick. And it's easily the most interesting installation in this round. Through February 28. 2500 Holman, 713-526-7662.

"Thornton Dial in the 21st Century" Thornton Dial's art is dynamic, intense and cut with social and political references. He builds up the surfaces of his paintings not with paint but with detritus. Meat (2003) has an undulating surface painted in raw, visceral pinks and reds; it's constructed from wads of clothing attached to a panel and coated in thick gloopy paint that shines like marbled flesh. It's a brutal work; the surface feels violent, like flesh and bone have been ripped apart. In the upper-right part of the painting is a tiny rectangle of red-and-white-striped fabric with a dark brushed outline that looks like an American flag. It's attached to the carnage of the painting like a product label: Made in the U.S.A. In addition to the artist's constructions on panels, this show includes drawings and freestanding sculptural works. All in all, there are 78 works, all done since 2000. The number and strength of works Dial has created in five years is impressive. Although his approach to materials remains consistent, his ideas and subject matter are continuously evolving. Overall, the work resists becoming formulaic and repetitive, a danger with high-productivity artists. But there are less successful works in the show -- ones that feel overworked and could have been edited out for a tighter presentation. What Dial really needs is a retrospective. It would be wonderful to see the evolution of his work. The man is pushing 80. Through January 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer
Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek