Reaching Critical Mass

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As one walks in the front door of Art Palace, there are a series of black and white photos of a scrolling-text electric sign. The images capture random snippets like "Plan Ahead" and "Good Luck." The photos are a part of Charlie Morris's show "spinning under trees." Titled "hell-narrow-path," the images were apparently shot in Hell, Michigan. According to gallery director Arturo Palacios (who, BTW, has the best-named gallery EVER), Morris had applied for a grant for the project from Art Pace San Antonio with the heading "Take Me to Hell."

Now Morris is showing the work in Houston, a city once considered "hell" by outsiders. How times change. As you have doubtless heard, Houston's been getting a lot of press lately. Last year Forbes said we were cool, and this year we ranked # 7 in The New York Times's The 46 Places to Go in 2013 — right after Amsterdam! Then there was the Matthew Kronsberg travel piece in The Wall Street Journal. Some of these articles highlighted the city's visual arts in addition to our food scene.

Coincidentally — or not — the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau did shell out $440,000 for an ongoing series of massive ads touting the city's visual and performing arts and culinary scene in the Times and the Journal. But it's not just some CVB hype; Houston has one of the best contemporary arts scenes in the country, behind New York and L.A. and well ahead of Chicago. And while Houston's art scene is dotted all over the city's Inner Loop, the 1928 Isabella Court building has rapidly become the commercial gallery epicenter. The latest round of Friday-night openings certainly made the case. Here is what's up now, gallery by gallery, north to south along Main Street. Clip 'n' save for any alleged out-of-towner onslaught...


Inman Gallery: "Farewell Ruins: Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin" and "Beth Secor: Trees"

Through March 30. 3901 Main, 713-526-7800.

David Shelton Gallery: "CruzOrtiz: I Speak Lightning"

Through March 30. 3909 Main, 832-538-0924.

Art Palace: "Charlie Morris: spinning under trees"

Through March 30. 3913 Main, 281-501-2964.

Devin Borden Gallery: "Nicholas Kersulis"

Through April 2. "Geoff Hippenstiel" opening March 8 and running through April30, 6-8 p.m. 3917 Main, 713-529-2700.

Inman Gallery's front room hosted "Farewell Ruins: Julia Haft-Candell and Julia Kunin." The two Julias have some nice sculptures that show well together. Kunin's lumpy, metallic glazed scholar's rocks are a witty and exuberantly decorative riff on the tradition of Chinese scholar's rocks, naturally occurring rocks selected as objects of natural beauty and contemplation. Kunin's towers of craggy "rocks" are stoneware cast from rocks found at a 15th-century Hungarian monastery. The gorgeously iridescent metallic glazes on the piece are an art nouveau-era company secret from Zsolnay, the Hungarian porcelain manufacturer with whom Kunin collaborated.

Haft-Candell's wonky and inventive multimedia sculptures are wire and rebar structures that incorporate everything from pieces of fired porcelain and fabric sleeves to wood thread and resin. These highly linear constructions sprout swirls, fragments and wads of material that read like drawings in space. They're gorgeous and feel playfully improvised, but their disparate elements manage to work together.

Inman's South Gallery features "Beth Secor: Trees," the artist's gouache contemplations of oaks, pecans, pines and the like. It's a series she started while sitting with her ailing father in the garden of his nursing home during the 2011 drought. One of my favorites, Oak Tree, Fall, 2012, is vividly hued and densely painted. The survivor's leaves seem to roil with life, surging back after the drought.

Next door to Inman, Kinzelman Art Consulting hosted an open house in its very hiply decorated new digs in Bryan Miller Gallery's old space. (If only Miller were still on the block as well.) Kinzelman often has small shows in its offices, and organizes some interesting ones elsewhere; as a part of its consulting, it has pulled off some surprisingly cool things in corporate environments. Kinzelman commissioned an amazing El Anatsui piece for ConocoPhillips offices in 2006, years before he really hit. It was the artist's first U.S. commission, and Kinzelman flew him over from Nigeria for the project. Kinzelman was also behind Spanish artist Daniel Canogar's first U.S. commission, an undulating band of LED video hung in the lobby of Two Houston Center and recently unveiled. For the project, the artist created a giant green screen over which dozens of the building's tenants walked, cartwheeled, danced — and, apparently, dirty danced. The footage was manipulated and abstracted into the video that plays on the curving LED surface.

Next door to Kinzelman is David Shelton's new gallery. Shelton moved from San Antonio to Houston and has some great artists in his stable. "Cruz Ortiz: I Speak Lighting" is currently on view. Ortiz uses gouache on panel and paper in bold, flat colors to create stylized images and text, often starring his alter ego "Spaztek," a space-age character and contraction of "Spastic Aztec." Ortiz's paintings ironically channel the aesthetics of high-school-boy doodles colored in with fluorescent highlighters. (Ortiz, who has shown at the likes of LACMA, still has a day job teaching high school.) Spaztek sports a helmet, goggles and a T-shirt that reads "Menudo Power" — (I'm thinking/hoping he's referring to soup rather than the 1980s Puerto Rican boy band, but you never know.) The show is rich in goofy Spanglish signs — emanating from the lovesick Spaztek? — like "Tengo hungry por tu amor" and "Te quiero mucho mucho a lot."

After Shelton's gallery is the one commercial space in the Isabella Court building that isn't occupied by a visual arts business. It's a large and mysterious space that's never open, its windows filled with Christmas lights offering glimpses of stacked baby bibs inside. One tenant explained that the building's owner uses it for her wholesale business. It's supposed to be a gorgeous space with a fireplace, not unlike some of the classic and highly desirable apartments in the building's upstairs. Having the space occupied by a gallery would, as one observer remarked, let Isabella Court reach critical mass.

Art Palace moved to Houston from Austin a few years back and is next door to the mystery space. Charlie Morris's intriguingly strange little exhibit reads as some sort of meditation on death and the world beyond. It's a solo show that includes such a variety of work in a variety of media that it looks like a group show. It does, however, hang together for the most part.

In the main gallery (after the "Hell" photos) is a video of the artist against a background of hand-drawn stars. He's wearing a paper bag over his head with a hole cut for the mouth and is lip-synching Internet-found recordings of people speaking in tongues. It's like a cult video produced by the Unknown Comic. On the opposite wall are monochromatic and melancholic gouaches of tombstones, mainly with single French words like "sepulture" and "regrettée." They have the grainy quality of over-copied photographs and are strangely elegant and poignant. Other works include Spell, a photo of the detached head of a rattlesnake, fanged jaw open. It's like a picture of frozen death. In other pieces, Morris collages cut-out pictures of caves.  In two of them, swatches of stalactite and stalagmite are arranged into circles like schematics for hell. The disparate works loosely relate to each other. The only pieces that felt off for me were the acrylic paintings on camouflage fabric. At first I thought the three vertical paintings were some take on semaphores or signal flags, but Palacios told me they were military ribbon bars turned vertical. I don't know shit about the military and have no idea what they might be awarded for — even with Googling. The acrylic on fabric makes the paintings feel out of place in the context of the other work, and for me at least, they are more oblique than the other pieces. But ultimately the show has plenty to chew on.

Devin Borden Gallery is on the south corner of the Isabella Court building, just after Art Palace, and will be opening a show of paintings by Geoff Hippenstiel this Friday, March 8. Hippenstiel is a painterly painter who has been showing a lot lately. His gesturally abstract works have figurative origins, and word is that in the new show they will be more apparent. In the back gallery, paintings and photos by Nicholas Kersulis are on view through April 2. Kersulis's found photos with text are odd and interesting, but the reasoning behind their pairing with his paintings is lost on me. Don't, however, miss his massive accumulations of paint on rocks in the back room. They're obsessive and fantastically baroque.

Isabella Court is by no means the only collection of commercial galleries in Houston, but it's the liveliest and always has interesting work. The Colquitt strip has been on the wane for years and the vacant spaces in the bottom of 4411 Montrose continue to put a damper on the building's potential — although a couple pop-up shows have helped things. Houston's gallery scene will likely continue to grow and reinvigorate old locations and cultivate new ones. In the meantime, make sure you hit the next round of Isabella Court openings. And be sure to loudly extol Houston's virtues if there happens to be a writer from a major publication within shouting distance.

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