"Houston Area Exhibition" Curator Bill Arning's selections for this quadrennial show indicate a sensibility drawn to conceptual work. Installation and video are popular media here, but there's also traditional media, photography and drawing on display. Actually, let's bracket "traditional." Laura Lark's BIG drawings (almost 11 by 7 feet) are done with marker on Tyvek, an industrial paper with a hair-like texture. That's appropriate, because her subjects, which are taken from beauty-product ads in fashion magazines, explore notions of beauty and the role of popular culture in self-image. The fact that the works themselves are beautifully executed gives them added depth. Chad Sager's drawings might have you saying, "My kid could do that!" But -- and I'm sorry -- your kid probably isn't this smart. The simple figures apparently are drawn on ordinary lined stationery; it takes a moment to realize that the lines and the margins themselves are part of the drawing. You might then notice that the unusual whiteness of the paper is a layer of gesso and that the paper is slightly larger than standard size. If you like magicians, you'll appreciate Sager's sleight of hand in these witty drawings. The coherent, challenging, engaging show also features interesting works by Maya Schindler and Hilary Wilder. Through August 29 at the Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston, 713-743-9530.
"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.
"Perspectives 142: Boys Behaving Badly" Chloe Piene's short film about a boy in his undies, Little David, is projected onto a wall at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The boy tromps around in the grass, flailing about in an imaginary fight with an invisible adversary. "I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em," he says, using words taken from letters written to the artist by an incarcerated pen pal. "I'm a barbarian." By slowing down the video and putting a murderer's words in her subject's mouth, Piene has shown us how all little boys can be demonic. The work is unique in the way it flip-flops a cliché: Rather than showing us how all murderers were once little boys, Piene has shown us how all little boys could be murderers. The CAMH's literature states that the exhibition "features work that explores the clichés, isms and myths surrounding adolescent male behavior." Too bad many of the other pieces -- like Jen DeNike's wrestling adolescents or Pia Schachter's death-metal guys with a sensitive side -- just wind up being cliché. On the other hand, with his obviously staged photos of skaters, knights, vikings and bullies, Olaf Bruening takes clichés and amplifies them to the level of parody. And Anthony Goicolea does an exceptional job exaggerating, and thus unmasking, typical clichés of male adolescence. In Porn, four clones of the artist himself hang out in a tackily rustic room, watching a kinky lesbo love scene on the television, eating Oreos and drinking beer. One of them signs a cast on the leg of another, writing things like "fart-head," "penis wrinkle," "fuck you" and, of course, "get well soon." Through September 12 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.