Painters pushing into 3D have been trending. Lisa Sigal, in her show at Samson, pushes toward 3D, but rather than sculpture, she dances with architecture. Her works, such as “Hinged Painting (Frogtown)” delve into the rubric of painting — they explore surface, picture, and frame; they tug at the edges of abstraction and representation – but they do it using building materials. Metal studs, Tyvek, window screens that lean against the wall. The materials place you in the context of a building’s skeleton; the images (photos printed on Tyvek, it turns out, look like paintings) – desolate urban landscapes of deserted lots and bland, ticky-tacky buildings – place you at a distance.
Painters Sheffield van Buren and Katherine Porter have mounted a magnificent pop-up show in a renovated warehouse space owned by Harvard. It’s a museum-quality space, with soaring ceilings and 5,000 square feet, not to mention original theatrical lighting by John Powell. Porter is an old school abstract painter with a lexicon of gestures and a keen color sense. Van Buren tackles surface, digging in or adding to. His paintings, with luscious, creamy grounds, are studded with metallic crinkles – they look like Hershey’s Kisses wrappers. Trashy, yet sweet, and in this case, magical. Finally, the “Interiors” show at ACME Fine Art offers some smart, dizzy paintings by Provincetown painters.
In this week’s galleries column: Chris Frost’s “Shiny Bits” at Boston Sculptors Gallery is a playful, painterly, and impertinent show of small-scaled sculptures, all shiny and proud with paint and nickel-plate, yet flawed and humble. Paint drips, wood chips; nickel-plated bronze circles a sock-puppet form with all the grace of orthodontic nightwear. The wall pieces, such as “One Armed Bandit,” above, are equally indelicate, yet sensitive – a sawed up table top, perhaps, put back together in awkward jigsaw-puzzle fashion, yet still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. With this body of work, Frost veers into abstraction and its unpredictability; he used to lean more on metaphor. It’s delightfully refreshing work. Also at Boston Sculptors: Dan Wills utilizes the nostalgic power of old toys in a show that features images of erector set projects sand-blasted out of black resin, and painted in primary colors. They read like fossils of a time gone by, when children played with toys that didn’t have screens or buttons.
Also this week: basketry artist John McQueen’s marvelous technique in his show at Mobilia sometimes isn’t enough to make trite forms of figures (or the bust of a head) into something more, but when he works with abstract or simple forms, it’s magnificent. And Stephen Holding’s paintings on Plexiglas at Lot F are whizz-bang — sometimes too whizz-bang. Holding is impressively adroit when working with space; lines careen, breaths of paint vaporize; there’s depth and shadow and it’s hard to grasp where you are. But he can also get too slick and pretty, especially when he uses faces and eyes that look torn out of a comic book.
It’s that time of year again: Boston art schools are churning out what seems like an unprecedented number of MFA thesis shows. Every April, I check in with some of the most promising MFA grads. Here’s the class of 2013:
Painter Karmimadeebora McMillan, who will be receiving her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, makes multilayered collages and kaleidoscopic paintings (a detail of her painting “On The Road Again” is above) into which she inserts figures based on an old lawn ornament of a frightened black girl and black rag dolls. She’s offering these downtrodden characters bright new futures. “Darkness is considered a terrible thing,” McMillan says. “I associate darkness with everything I am. Why not make it the most colorful thing you’ve ever seen?” Also coming from the Museum School: performance and video artist Jessica Borusky. Her seven-hour video “The Posture Grid!” delves into social history, eugenics, and art theory in a performance full of comedy and pathos, that also is a fierce critique of marketing.
Over at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, sculptor Nicholas Sullivan is making 3-D sculptures that play with the aesthetic of flatness, but they also embody today’s onrush of visual stimuli by mashing up and skewing unlikely sources – Japanese wood prints and Abstract Expressionism, for instance, in his sculpture “Kiddos,” but also children’s drawings, cartoons, and more. Mass Art’s Studio for Interrelated Media has nurtured installation artist Unum Babar, who has created an intimate, small-scale city made out of casts from low-relief drawings of buildings from her home in Pakistan.
The Art Institute of Boston has a new MFA in photography, and Cotton Miller is among its first graduates. Miller, who was diagnosed with MS before he entered the program, has used his process-oriented, non-digital art to better explore his disease. And up the street at Boston University, painter James Case came to school trying to paint from his head, but hit his stride when he started painting the same place along the Charles, trying to find a balance between abstract and representation. Then he moved to still lifes, and found the simpler, the better.
Painter Ann Pibal’s small, acrylic-on-aluminum pieces, now up at Steven Zevitas Gallery, are succinct, careful abstractions that read a bit like a physicist’s whiteboard equations, puzzling out small-scale unknowns. She balances straight lines, intersections, and sometimes tangy colors in a way that commands intimate examination. The works are rigorous, intellectually engaging, and cool, but arid and confined until you see evidence of the artist’s hand in edges that look ripped, or in the case of “THFR,” above, a ground that’s breathy with lush brushstrokes. The stakes rise. Motion is pit against emotion. The slender lines seem threatened, suddenly, by space and atmosphere.
Meanwhile, over at LaMontagne Gallery, sculptor Tory Fair is striving to make the immaterial material, using cast aluminum and resin to represent the stuff of daydreams. Sometimes, she’s terrifically effective. “Windshield” beckons and terrifies — it’s opaque, and ringed with crystals, and embodies both the blind threat of spacing out while driving and the enticing portal of the imagination. Other pieces are clumsier, unable to make the metaphoric leap from object to reverie. Finally, the group show at Blanc Gallery is wittily installed, with pieces crawling through the space and over the walls, including a cheeky takeoff on the Gardner heist by the collective !ND!V!DUALS.
Two exhibitions at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery examine the costs of the Iraq War – one from the perspective of an Iraqi, the other from that of an American. Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal’s “The Ashes Series” features solemn, quiet photographs of tableaus he created based on news photos of buildings in Iraq — bombed, looted, reduced to piles of rubble. Like James Casebere and other photographers, Bilal made intimate models, recreating sites of destruction – in a way, they become reliquaries. For dust, the artist scattered 21 grams of human ashes over the 10 models, as if anointing them with loss. The images, including “Piano,” above, are desolate and sacred.
American Daniel Heyman attended testimonies given by Iraqis tortured by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib in 2004. His gouache and watercolor portraits in “I Am Sorry it is Difficult to Start” depict ordinary men expressively – eyes averted, or seemingly looking inward, as their own words about their abuse swim around them, as in “There Were Three Interrogators There,” at right. Even at the time of Abu Ghraib, we learned more about the tormentors than the victims. These works make their suffering palpable.
Another show, “Tamziq: Scattered and Connected,” at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, brings together American and Middle Eastern artists making art about issues that pivot around both: War, immigration, refugees. The many voices in “Tamziq” (which means “torn” in Arabic) don’t have the power of Bilal’s “Ashes Series.” But they have many worthwhile things to say.
Television can wash over us like the effect of a potent narcotic. Howardena Pindell dissects the experience, and the potent visuals of sports television, in her show at Howard Yezerski Gallery. She makes a drawing of arcing arrows, points, and numbers on transparent acetate, positions it in front of a sports event on television, and, when the time is right, shoots a color photograph.
This body of work has been sporadically ongoing since 1973, as Pindell has built an international career as a multi-media artist, but she hasn’t shown it as a group before in the U.S. Look at “Video Drawings: Swimming,” above. The image blurs, the pool glows blue, and those arrows, points and numbers slide around the athlete like tadpoles. Some of them seem to chart his movement, or to measure its force and velocity. You can see the sliver-thin vertical bands of color distinct to old television sets.In the same way that a slow-motion replay breaks down the components of an athlete’s technique, Pindell, in her still image, breaks down the components of the moving picture and reveals what makes it so riveting.
Also in this week’s galleries, a slew of nature shows. Gail Spaien attempts to evoke the experience of looking at the landscape in a series of patterned abstractions at Ellen Miller. She achieves a kind of soothing spatial quality, but there’s no invitation for the eye to roam. At Carroll and Sons, Sandra Allen’s spectacular and exacting graphite drawings of sections of tree trunks – such as a peeling, molting one in “Mantle,” at left – resemble portraits of wise old elders, and Wendy Richmond’s installation of many snippets of videos playing on many boxy monitors strewn over the floor, which show her kicking over stacks of rocks on parkland in Maine, cagily blends sly play, good citizenship, and desecration.
“My initial thought was to make a film without images at all,” says Boston filmmaker Jane Gillooly’s of her latest project, Suitcase of Love and Shame. That’s because audio drives the film. A friend of Gillooly’s stumbled over a cache of reel-to-reel audiotapes on eBay, packed in a suitcase and advertised as “Suitcase of Love and Shame.” The tapes recorded 60 hours of sad, sweet, and sultry spoken correspondence between Jeanne, a young widow, and her married lover, Tom, during an affair they conducted in the mid 1960s. The audio is enticingly vivid as it follows the pair as they tease each other, visit St. Louis together, and cope with roadblocks. That includes poignant moments, such as when Jeanne laments into her tape recorder that Tom is hours late, and she hasn’t heard from him. There’s comedy, too, when Tom explains exactly how he used plaster of Paris and candle wax to custom-make a sex toy for his lady love.
Gillooly ultimately did add images, but they’re indirect, and prompt further imaginings in the viewer: a cracked door with light framing it, tape players with reels spinning, random suburban houses. The imagery is intended to spark free association. Being guided by the sound, rather than pictures, prompts a rich internal engagement, like listening to a radio drama or reading a great novel, in a way that most visually dynamic films do not. The effect enhances the highly charged listening experience. Hearing the voices of the lovers on their private tapes, viewers become voyeurs. “So much of the film is about who is listening, who is witnessing, and where the audience is located,” Gillooly says.
What started out as a two-person show in which one artist – Kate Gilmore – appears in her work, and the other –Zsuzsanna Szegedi – disappears, Absent/Present at Montserrat College of Art Gallery grew into a deeper examination asking where, exactly, is the art? For example, Szegedi’s rapturous and sad “A Proper Erasure” installation, pictured in part above, started as a drawing in a different gallery, which was then erased by dancers in white, and recorded with stop-motion photography. That video projects onto a new drawing at this gallery, which viewers have been eradicating with spray bottles for the duration of the show. A second video on a nearby monitor documents that last process. Where is the art located? Here, yes, but it’s also vanishing, and it started somewhere else. Then there’s Gilmore, who videotapes herself in performance (although are no spectators). Her actions create a sculpture of sorts. Is the art in the performance, the video, the sculpture, all three, or some combination thereof? And with both artists, to what degree is it on the Internet? Where is the art? Everywhere, almost. Luckily, we can experience juicy portions of it here.
Also in this week’s galleries, “Me Love You Long Time,” a clamorous exhibit about sex workers at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery, feels disorganized and chaotic, and some of the artwork is just plain silly. But when it hits its notes, it hits them well. Sex work is a terrific, multilayered theme, and several artists from Southeast Asia and North America tackle it with humor and care.
On March 27, performance artist pioneer Raphael Montañez Ortiz will perform at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ortiz, a member of the Fluxus and Destruction Art movements and founder of El Museo del Barrio, will give a “destruction concert,” according to Liz Munsell, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art and MFA programs, which will involve paper bags and paper shredders.
Boston is a hub for performance art in the U.S., and it has been for years, thanks in large part to Mobius artists group, founded in 1977 by Marilyn Arsem, and the ample curriculum in performance art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where Arsem has taught since 1987. (That’s Arsem on the right, in her 2011 performance “I Scream” outside the Museum of World Culture in Sweden, holding 30 liters of peppermint ice cream). Only recently has it caught fire with museums and commercial galleries. Above, Creighton Baxter and Hayley Morgenstern in their performance “It Might Get Better” (photo: Sarah Hill) at Anthony Greaney earlier this year — part of an evening of performance art that took place in three galleries on Thayer Street.
There are many reasons presenters are climbing on the bandwagon. Performance art is becoming more and more central to contemporary art and art theory (even painters, these days, are seen in a performance context, as they apply paint to canvas). It’s often something viewers can participate in – which there’s more a demand for in these days of social media. And 23 years after the NEA defunded four performance artists due to their graphic content – which effectively put a muzzle on institutional programming – museums are shaking off their apprehension about contracting performance artists, and stepping into the 21st century.
Boston Cyberarts has organized programming to coincide with PAX East, the big gaming convention in Boston. That includes lighting up the 80-foot tall, multi-screen LED marquee outsie the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center with several 30-second artist-made videos. Above, William Russell Pensyl’s sleek “Tiger Training” is more about the kick-ass aesthetics contemporary games are capable of than it’s about gaming. At the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, The Game’s Afoot: Video Game Art offers more interactive pieces, some of which are actual games. Many of them feel retro and technologically basic, recalling arcade games of the 1990s. But they’re witty, applying gaming rubric to art theory and office work. Anthony Montuori’s “Into the Void With Yves Klein” has the conceptual artist consulting with a sage-like Marcel Duchamp (as Rrose Selavy) as he proceeds on his hero journey into the void.
Elsewhere, “The Origin of the World /\ The Force of the Source \/ The Cause of the Vigor,” a group show at Samson, celebrates the vagina, with a mix of old-style feminist work from as far back as the 1970s to some provocative pieces made more recently, such as Rohan Wealleans’s “Brides Maids,” for which the artist painted the bodies of two women and stacked them to photograph one vagina above the next, each painted concentrically in bright tones. Wealleans’s stacking, cropping, and coloring makes a totemic abstraction.