Capsule Reviews

"Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" If you go to this exhibition expecting to see works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, you'll be disappointed. By emphasizing important but perhaps less familiar artists -- indeed, many of the works on display have rarely, if ever, been shown in the United States -- the exhibition makes the argument that Latin American art has played a more central role in the vanguard of 20th-century art than it's gotten credit for. Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea and filling every spare inch of the Caroline Wiess Law Building at the MFAH, the show comprises more than 200 works by 67 artists. But it isn't a survey in any sense of the word. Instead, "Inverted Utopias" focuses on the two periods when the avant-garde really was avant -- the '20s and '30s, and again in the '50s and '60s -- and is arranged into six "constellations," thematic groupings that show artists from different generations together. The constellation is a rich organizing principle. As you move from grouping to grouping, connections are made between themes, practices and generations. "Progression and Rupture" includes Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García, who first appears in "Universal and Vernacular," but also Lygia Clark (1920-1988), a Brazilian conceptualist almost two generations younger. She also appears, with very different work, in "Touch and Gaze" (most of that constellation, by the way, is interactive -- yeah, that means you get to play with the art). There's so much more in this groundbreaking exhibit -- Julio Le Parc's mesmerizing light murals; Cildo Meireles's playful subversion of your senses in Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975); Antonio Berni's wonderfully hideous Sordidness -- than there is space here to consider it. It's not often that an exhibition makes you rethink what you know about art, but "Inverted Utopias" may just be that rare event. Through September 12. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Olafur Eliasson: Photographs" Olafur Eliasson presents a world with a quietly powerful, contemplative and fascinating beauty. For his exhibition at the Menil Collection, he's taken photos of Iceland and grouped them in grids, creating series of images and recording his movements though landscape -- over a trail, down a river. He creates what are essentially portraits of the natural and man-made phenomena he explores: chunks of intensely blue glacial ice, boulders, broken stones, bridges. Portraits of rocks may sound boring as hell, but his carefully examined presentation makes them fascinating. Nature's incredible variety is a patently obvious concept, but Eliasson explores it without heavy-handedness. You go through the same process of discovery he did in taking his pictures, editing them and grouping them together. The path series (1999), a grid of 24 photographs, depicts lush green grass worn away to reveal rich, dark earth, footsteps embossed in a line in the snow, and a trail burnished into a desolate stony field. It's a record of different landscapes and a document of the artist's walk through his environment. And what a strange environment it is. In The moss valley series (2002), a grid of 16 large photographs records sections of rocky, moss-covered earth. The undulating carpets of dull green look like NASA shots of an alien landscape. They're beautiful and just a little bit creepy. The landscape series (1997) has some lovely images, but the scenic shots aren't as compelling because they're not as specific as his other investigations. Eliasson's work is at its best when parameters are more closely defined. Through September 5. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"One Color Only?" Thomas Deyle's Scarabaeus paintings dominate this exhibition devoted to mainly monochromatic works. Consisting of about 600 (yep, 600) thin coats of paint on acryl-glass, the three paintings seem to throb off the wall, making you question your sobriety as you stare at the emanating panes. Keep blinking all you want; the haze just ain't gonna go away. Also impressive is a red resin block by Herbert Hamack, positioned so it sticks out from the wall like an open shutter. Mick Johnson has some of his text-based work on display here, which, much like his opus at DiverseWorks's "Texas Prime" show, consists of scrunched-up messages painted in solid colors and then screwed to the wall. Yes, this exhibition is proof that monochromatism doesn't have to be boring. But when it comes down to it, most of the works on display here have subtle changes in color throughout -- hence the question mark in the exhibition's title. When taken together, the works by various artists provide invigorating splotches of color on otherwise whitewashed walls. Through August 7 at Gallery Sonja Roesch, 2309 Caroline, 713-659-5424.

"Uncrated II..." This exhibition of works by Australian aboriginal artists is a mixed bag, but the show has some stunning paintings. These are individual artworks, all informed by their makers' cultures. John Lee's Ngarelli (Creation of the Country) (2003) is spectacular. Done in acrylic on linen, its colors are fantastically vivid. Black, fuchsia, orange and green lines of paint encircle each other, almost as if they were crocheted. Nana Booker explains that the organically abstract pattern has its origins in geography -- both mythic and real. Two thick black lines indicate a river made by a serpent's trail. The curving parallel lines of other sections indicate wind patterns or sand rills. Suddenly, the visually dynamic painting also registers as a gorgeous, loving topography; you see the importance of land to Lee and his culture. The loss of it becomes all the more poignant. In the art world at large, there's been a tendency to shove aboriginal works into the realm of cultural novelty and ignore their power as contemporary artwork. As "Uncrated II..." shows, works by aboriginal artists need to be exhibited in art museums, not ghettoized in natural history museums. Through July 31 at Booker-Lowe Gallery, 4623 Feagan, 713-880-1541.

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John Devine
Kelly Klaasmeyer
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Keith Plocek
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