Friday, December 15, 2006

Cristi Rinklin

South Boston artist Cristi Rinklin’s 16 paintings at Rhys Gallery continue her exploration of the brightly billowing, smoky forms with which she’s swathed the walls and windows at Tufts University’s Art Gallery through Jan. 14. Here her abstractions of eye-popping sky blues and candy reds, accented by greens and purples, are hybrids of the stylized clouds of classic Asian paintings; drapery and landscapes you might see tucked in the backgrounds of old master portraits; and floating webs that could be Eva Hesse doodles. Things resembling tentacles or maybe intestines made of glass doorknobs wiggle out toward you. Cartoony drapery and clouds somehow bring to mind lady parts.

Rinklin floats crisp shapes -- some photographically “realistic” imaginings, some flat outlined cartoon forms -- atop backgrounds blurred to suggest deep space. All this layering, blurring and stretching of forms feels like Photoshop – and it is. Rinklin digitally reworks and combines images she collects from Baroque painting, cells, constellations, natural history illustration. In an artist statement, she says she’s thinking about how the sea of images and data in our synthetic Sims world has infested our imaginations.

Our ever more artificially, technologically manipulated world is one of the preeminent issues of art (and life) today. You see it when Danish artist Heidi Hove Pedersen, who also has work on view at Rhys, and Cambridge artist Kelly Sherman, one of the finalists for the 2006 ICA Artist Prize with work on view at the new Institute of Contemporary Art, trawl the Net for images and information, trying to trace human connections. And in an exciting related development, we’re beginning to see artists not just mine the Web for material, but making Flickr, eBay and other online entities their medium.

Rinklin is at the handmade end of this issue, and part of the delight of her work is her suave craftsmanship. Her paintings seem like jaunty, playful cousins to paintings by folks like Sarah Walker, Peter Saul, Philip Hansen and Lari Pittman. They’re tasty treats, like cotton candy, and after a while all the sugar starts to make you feel sick. Underneath all the razzmatazz is an emptiness that echoes the anxious, troubling, lonely hollowness at the heart of the Internet. This is a conceptual success, but--

Cristi Rinklin (and Heidi Hove Pedersen) at Rhys Gallery, 40 Fay St., Boston. Nov. 30, 2006, to Jan. 27, 2007.

Cristin Searles

Providence sculptor Cristin Searles' show at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery, 600 Mt. Pleasant Ave., Providence, Dec. 7 to 29, 2006.

From top to bottom: "Dark Dark Day," "Urchin," "Burlesque" and "Cheeky."

Jane Smaldone

The best show on Newbury street right now is Roslindale painter Jane Smaldone’s exhibit at Nielsen Gallery. Smaldone paints portraits and floral still-lifes in a naïve-looking style recalling Colonial American folk art and energized with an air of mystery that’s right out of surrealism.

In “Still Life with Red Sun” (2005-06), the orange and white flowers sprouting from an odd white vase seem to have wandered out of an early Miro. It’s not just because of the spooky clouds and red sun lurking in the background, these plants seem to have minds of their own. The Chinese girl in the pretty lilac dress in “The Girl Who Loved Animals” could be some colonial American aristocrat. She’s actually the artist’s daughter. She stares blankly at us, holding up the sides of the skirt so that birds and a snail can nestle in its folds. A butterfly pauses on her hand, a rabbit and turtle creep along the ground, a snake slithers out the branch of a frail little tree toward her.

One of the sharpest paintings here is “Nora and Isabel on the Blue Chair” (2006), depicting the artist’s daughter, Isabel, and a young pal comfortably crammed into a soft chair together. It has an antique look, but the girls’ outfits -- Isabel’s beaded heart necklace in particular -- identify them as contemporary adolescents. What’s striking is how Smaldone conveys the personality of the girls – warm, curious, bored, tired. Smaldone favors lovely odd colors – sickly greens, the grays and browns of cubism, tans versus light phthalo blues. Her apparent naïve simplicity hides her mastery. Like the best folk works, everything is precise and peculiar, all wonderfully, idiosyncratically human.

Jane Smaldone at Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., Boston, Dec. 2, 2006, to Jan. 13, 2007.

This review expands upon a brief essay I wrote for the Dec. 14, 2006, Boston Globe Calendar.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dave Cole

I happened to be at Mass MoCA at the start of July 2005 when Providence sculptor Dave Cole lead a team driving excavators that knit a 30-by-20-foot American flag using utility poles as needles. Cole has said that when he first performed “The Knitting Machine” in Providence to mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks it was about “the relationship between place, art, and nationalism” and when I saw it at Mass MoCA it was about “nationalism, internationalism, and colonization.” To me, the point seemed to be how to make America whole after the terrorist attacks while also critiquing American imperial dominance via our big manly machines by conscripting them for “women’s work,” or something like that.

Cole is a wry conceptualist. He knit a 14-foot-tall pink teddy bear out of soft, prickly fiberglass insulation for the 2003 DeCordova Annual, probably his most accomplished and, despite its scale, subtle work – a complex rumination on cuddliness and warmth and poison and menace, or the toxic trade offs we’re willing to make for security as individuals, and as societies. And there were compelling ideas in “Knitting Machine,” too, but I had trouble giving myself over to the Mass MoCA project because I couldn’t help feeling that mostly Cole was getting off on playing with big macho machines -- which seemed to undermine what he was talking about.

Now Cole presents “Memorial Flag,” a small exhibit of flag works and faux Native American wear, at the Danforth Museum in Framingham through Dec. 23. Cole noticed that 19th century Native Americans made breast plates from beads manufactured by the white society that was trying to exterminate them. So to drive home this observation, he recreated Arapaho, Brule and Caddo breastplates with bullet casings and rubber and lead fringe. His “American Flag (Toy Soldiers)” and “Memorial Flag” feature hundreds of plastic soldiers glued together to form rectangles and painted red, white and blue like American flags. Cole’s work is often pretty didactic, so you can trust he’s saying something here about the flag representing all the blood and bullets spilled in our nation’s rebellions and conflicts and conquests.

At Judi Rotenberg Gallery in September, along with some of these flags and breastplates, he exhibited “Trophy Wife” sculptures made from found dressmakers’ dummies lovingly shellacked and topped with racks of antlers (punch line: nice rack) to say something about ladies’ bodies as trophies for men. “The Money Dress,” a thousand shredded dollar bills knit together in the pattern of a Vera Wang evening gown, seems to replicate what it’s talking about -- something about high fashion flaunting wealth – rather than critique it.

Cole chooses important subjects, and his pieces are finely crafted, but is any of this war-gender-wealth stuff news? He’s clearly a talented guy with the potential to make great art when his ideas and delivery are a bit more nuanced and complex, when he insinuates his themes rather than clunking you over the head with stuff you already know.

I’m not sure what to make of his latest scheme, a plan to erect a mobile of old pickups taller than the Statue of Liberty. It seems a monument to the ludicrousness of our car-petroleum culture. The poster, model and macquette for the “Truck Mobile” that he showed at Rotenberg were slickly done – and I think this prep work to embody the idea is the point, rather than actually ever building it. It’s a send up of such grandiose projects. I hope.

Dave Cole at Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Ave., Framingham, Sept. 10 to Dec. 23, 2006.

Steve Hollinger

The first sculpture you see when you visit Bostonian Steve Hollinger’s show "Atomic" at Chase Gallery is “Twenty-five Atoms,” a rack of 25 balls – or rather circles of film linked to suggest the skeletons of balls, or the orbits of atomic particles -- inside a glass walled box. As you watch, parts of the strips seem to appear or disappear as if by magic.

Hollinger repeats the trick in smaller kinetic displays built into stylishly antique wooden crates. Look in the window cut into one and see a glass vial holding a similarly appearing-disappearing film ball. When I asked how they work, the gallery presented with me with the official explanation sheet. Apparently the secret is that the things are made of polarizing film and hidden behind is a rotating disc of the same stuff. Depending on how the film in front and the film on the disc behind line up, the film in front appears transparent, black or somewhere in between. A quick inspection reveals that the discs are driven by solar panels on back (which inside the gallery are powered by light bulbs). It’s a neato optical trick.

And so alluring that you might not realize that Hollinger is ruminating on the potential and cost of atomic energy. In an artist statement, he says he’s moved by the “iconic beauty and potential of the smallest atomic particles,” while being haunted by the fearsome above-ground atomic bomb testing conducted between 1945 and 1960 -- those antique crates he uses are actually vintage explosives boxes.

“Heart” has blue fluid bubbling through a system of teensy tubes, like a miniature mad scientist’s lab. “Cenotaph” is like one of those old timey dime amusement hall cranky animations. Look in a glass prism viewfinder atop the concrete box, step down on a floor pedal, and inside you see a series of cards flipping one behind the other so that a fellow with a spear seems to dance and then a mushroom cloud explodes behind him. It calls to mind how our military displaced people from tiny Pacific islands so they could test blasts there. But Hollinger puts it across with the subtlety of an old black and white cartoon

What holds you is the gee-wiz surprises of Hollinger’s devices and the nuance and delicacy of his craft. The ambition of his subject is admirable, but here his message struggles to catch up to his formal achievement – by turns so softly whispered that it disappears behind the beauty of his visual effects or so bluntly stated that it clashes with the subtlety of his workmanship. His technique evidences great complexity – if only the content here matched it.

Steve Hollinger “Atomic,” Chase Gallery, 129 Newbury St., Boston, Dec. 1 to 30, 2006.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Deb Todd Wheeler

A friend aptly described Hyde Park artist Deb Todd Wheeler’s show “Live Experiments in Human Energy Exchange” at Green Street Gallery as a cross between Mad Max and Munchkin Land. A modified bicycle becomes the human-powered generator for a collection of Rube Goldberg contraptions: lights that illuminate ant farms behind silhouetted futuristic building designs (actually pavilions from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York); a paddle wheel fan that flutters a paper humming bird; an old speaker that pipes out woozy sounds from the fair; pulleys that make paper butterflies flap atop a wooden model of Biosphere 2, the failed attempt to replicate the earth’s ecosystems in Arizona greenhouses, surrounded by cartoony flowers that the artist and gallery visitors made of wire and recycled plastic bags.

Wheeler’s exhibit (the last at Green Street Gallery before it transforms into the new home for Cambridge’s Axiom Gallery on Jan. 12) also offers wire models of crazy failed 19th century flying machine designs and a hand-crank that powers a monitor showing the view from a surveillance camera focused on the bicycle.

“Live Experiments” is a smart, witty, generous riff on our addiction to fossil fuels, conservation, recycling and green energy in our Inconvenient Truth moment. It’s an inspiring joke about dropping off the grid. But it’s also sad – a graveyard of failed utopian dreams. The ant farms, in particular, seem a dark joke on the old saw that cockroaches will be the only critters to survive a nuclear holocaust -- or nowadays a pollution holocaust. Underneath Wheeler’s cheerful, whirligig stylings is a cloudy forecast for our future.

Deb Todd Wheeler at Green Street Gallery, 141 Green St., Boston, Oct. 31 to Dec. 14, 2006.

Chris Armstrong

Gloucester artist Chris Armstrong’s photorealist “Ocean Paintings” at Beth Urdang Gallery suggest someone standing on land looking out to sea -- even though these seascapes bear no buoys or other signs of being close to shore. It’s something about how the waves seem to roll in with their deep momentum and a white crest bubbling on top. In each one, you gaze out to the horizon, which is sometimes crisp and sometimes obscured by fog. Here the water is flat, there it’s agitated. Sometimes fleecy white clouds drift lazily above.

“Shallows” (2006) is about powerful currents running underneath the waves, and here what holds you is the way the water shifts from green to blue. In “Pearl” (2006) sunlight gleams in bands across churning blue waters. It’s about the surface of the sea and Armstrong nails the stunning, brilliant light sparkling across the top. These oil paintings look great in reproduction, but unfortunately in person the brushstrokes feel somewhat inert. I wish he could he keep the precisely realistic rendering while putting more life into the paint.

Chris Armstrong “Ocean Paintings,” Beth Urdang Gallery, 14 Newbury St., Boston, Nov. 9 to Dec. 2, 2006.

Amy Cutler’s Grim Fairy Tales

Strange things are going on in Amy Cutler’s paintings at Brown University’s Bell Gallery. A woman stands forlornly next to a heap of cakes in a wood trying to ignore the pigs it attracts. A pair of ladies walk bent under the ponies strapped to their backs. A woman irons a lady’s tongue. A lady with an egg basket for a head checks for eggs in a henhouse stocked with chickens with women’s heads.

They could be illustrations of fairy tales -- not Disney’s squeaky clean fables, but stories from the land of the original Grimm brothers’ yarns in which Cinderella’s shoe wasn’t just too small for her rotten step-sisters, but their toes were lopped off to make their feet fit. Like Grimm stories, they tell of coming of age, of womanhood, in a menacing, weird world.

Cutler’s characters sprout brooms for arms, are joined by their dangling noses or braided hair, swap places with animals. Boyfriends are melting snowmen. Robins swarm down upon a woman so nurturing she has a birdhouse for a head. In “Dinner Party” (2002), debutantes in elaborate bustled gowns (think mating plumage) bind cleavers and forks to the legs of chairs, which they tie atop their heads like antlers. Then they leap onto a lavishly set table to joust like deer during rutting season.

In “Traction” (2002), a quartet of women use their long long braids of hair to drag a house across a snowy field. Girls peek out from the front windows or sit inside with their heads on tables, their braids rising to the ceiling and spun onto giant spools upstairs. It feels like grrl power liberating women from sweatshops or women taking back the power of their bodies or something like that that you can’t quite put your finger on. You worry that their long braids will snap and the dream will fail.

Cutler, a 32-year-old New Yorker whose paintings were featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and "Greater New York" at P.S. 1 in 2005, works primarily in gouache (opaque watercolor) on paper, theatrically floating her characters and props in wide open white spaces. But she renders the people and critters stiffly, as if all their joints needed oiling. She isn’t quite able to infuse life into her realism. It’s an irritating lapse in technique, but it can lend her images an endearing human awkwardness.

And then Cutler will grab you with a magical scene like “Campsite” (2002), which shows a trio of girls lying in a forest clearing, the long dresses they’re wearing turned into tents. You wouldn’t guess that this was inspired by Cutler’s shock at an ad from a couple (apparently a pair of eugenicists) seeking an Ivy League blonde to give up her eggs -- that’s why that lady huddled inside the first girl’s tent-dress has a basket of bird eggs. But even if the subject of harvesting human eggs isn’t immediately apparent, the tent-dresses become enigmatic metaphors for how women’s bodies are entered during sex and become shelters during pregnancy.

These are girly paintings, complete with ponies and frilly dresses, that sound deep down archetypes of womanhood and speak to the unresolved feelings about femininity today (Cutler’s people are nearly all female) among those born in the wake of the women’s lib movement. What do we make of scientific advances that allow us to remove women’s eggs to generate babies in laboratories and fertility treatments that have packed schools with twins and triplets? Why do women still carry much of the burden of domestic chores? Is choosing to be a stay-at-home mom a betrayal of feminists fighting for women’s equality in the workplace? Cutler’s success is embodying these questions in mysterious dramas, calling forth feelings that sneak up on you sidelong like the unlogic of a dream.

Amy Cutler, Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, Nov. 4 to Dec. 22, 2006.