Petal Formations at Barbara Davis Gallery

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It's difficult to label Joe Mancuso's work by any traditional means. Is it sculpture? Painting? Installation? All of the above seem appropriate in the Houston artist's latest show at Barbara Davis Gallery, "Anodyne."

These art vocabulary-defying conundrums begin with the piece "Bouquet." It's a careful arrangement of polywood, with flower pieces layered on top of each other in a methodical process -- Mancuso's even left his pencil marks noting which piece goes where on the work. This bouquet is all about the texture -- there's no color here, just white on white, as the piece is attached to the gallery wall for a pleasing effect.

The petal motif continues throughout the exhibition. "Plastic Bouquet," for one, is pretty much the spherical version of "Bouquet," with these flowers arranged into a ball of resin and nailed together. "Precious Field," for another, is comprised of row upon row of hand-cast porcelain in the same flower shape as "Bouquet," but cleaner and on a much, much smaller scale. Hundreds of these flowers (it's too dizzying to count precisely) were identically made by machine and then laid by hand on the linen canvas, making for an unexpected domestic quality and clever contrast between these mechanical and human touches.

Mancuso shifts from flowers with two related works -- "Culture (waterlillies) and "Waterlillies." Both pieces are comprised of circles of white latex of varying sizes dropped across the surface of the canvas. In "Culture," the latex is dropped onto newspaper, making for one of the most colorful pieces in the show, even if it's still dominated by white.

Mancuso continues his experiments with latex, but with very different results, in his rectangular resin pieces. In these, the artist drips layer upon layer of black or white latex onto the canvas, like a more controlled, monochromatic Pollack, and then casts the whole thing in thick resin for a frozen, 3-D effect. The swirls of color look like Mancuso's own stream-of-consciousness doodles or graffiti, with words and, of course, petals discernible in the layers.

"Anodyne" is a modest show -- there are only nine works -- but it's plenty. Each piece needs room to breathe, there's so much detail to take in and appreciate (in "Precious Field," for instance, each flower cleverly has screws in the middle where the pollen would be). The relevant spring-like feel and overwhelming use of white add a likable lightness to the show, too. Anodyne does mean inoffensive, after all.

"Anodyne" at Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose Blvd. #600, now through May 5. For more information, call 713-520-9200 or visit the gallery's website.

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