Saturday, May 24, 2008

“Tree of Paradise” at Boston College

In 1883, French soldiers digging a garden for their captain behind his home in what is now Tunisia accidentally uncovered an ancient mosaic floor. It is believed to have been the ruins of a Jewish synagogue apparently built over the 1st to 6th centuries CE (AD). The find provided a glimpse into life of the Jewish Diaspora in the early centuries CE, and its integration into Roman society.

“Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire” at Boston College’s McMullen Museum, reassembles portions of this find. The exhibit was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and drawn exclusively (well, except for some African slipware lamps) from its collection. The French army captain, Ernest de Prudhomme, later had the pieces shipped home to France, where the museum acquired some of them from an antiquities dealer in 1891. (The exhibit doesn’t explain what happened to the rest, but McMullen assistant curator Naomi Blumberg says the others ended up at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.)

To suggest what the whole floor would have looked like, Brooklyn’s temple mosaic fragments are laid out atop an enlarged version of a French corporal’s watercolor sketch documenting the floor as it appeared when they uncovered it. The designs are oriented to the side of the room, facing east, toward Jerusalem. A Latin inscription between a pair of menorahs suggests that a woman by the name of Juliana was a major funder: “Your servant, the girl … Juliana, paved the holy synagogue of Naro for her own salvation out of her own resources.”

The 21 mosaics are good – a lion, date palm, fish, dolphin, ducks, menorah – but relatively small in scale. (If you want to see a terrific ancient mosaic check out the Worcester Art Museum’s more than 20-foot-square Roman hunting scene from the early 6th century.)

Some 40 supporting objects provide contemporaneous cultural context – small fraying textiles patterned with loping hares, gold earrings from Egypt, a giant linen Coptic tunic decorated with strips of patterned wool weavings, classical sculptural fragments including a head of Athena.

It’s a charming, but modest show. And though there’s much here, one can’t help wincing at the floor’s gaps, which remind that the temple floor was broken up and divided. The overwhelming impression is a sense of what has been lost.

“Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire,” McMullen Museum at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave, Chestnut Hill, Feb. 17 to June 8, 2008.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Globe hires new critic

The Boston Globe has hired a new visual arts critic, Sebastian Smee, the 35-year-old former national art critic for The Australian. See Geoff Edger’s post and the same thing in today’s Globe.

Here’s a selection of his reviews.

Soprafina Gallery moving on up

Soprafina Gallery, at 450 Harrison Ave. in Boston, will move upstairs within that building in August into a gallery being vacated by MPG Contemporary, according to Soprafina owner Frank Roselli.

“I’m coming out of the basement,” Roselli says. “The reaction of most of the artists I’ve told is, ‘Wow, that’s great.’”

MPG Contemporary plans to close in July, as we reported last week. Roselli has two more shows planned for his current space: Liz Leggett in June and Michael Palmer in July. Soprafina is scheduled to then move from the lower level of storefront galleries facing Thayer Street into the spot directly above it, and reopen in September with an exhibit of work by Lori Warner.

“It’s more visible [to visitors] when you’re on Thayer,” Roselli says. “It has higher ceilings, which makes it seem more spacious. It has much brighter light. It’s kind of dark down here. … I think there will be a little more access to walk-in traffic.”

Roselli says that the rental cost for his current location and the new space would be roughly the same (taking into account that rents are increasing throughout the building).

Roselli opened Soprafina Gallery on Beacon Street near Kirkland Street in Cambridge in 2001, and was there for three years before moving to his current location.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rhys Gallery is leaving for LA

“Do you need a space like this in Boston? Is there support for it?” – Colin Rhys

Rhys Gallery in Boston will close at the end of its current exhibition on June 19 and move to Los Angeles, according to gallery owner Colin Rhys.

He plans to open his new gallery, Rhys Mendes, in Los Angeles in March 2009 with partners who run Mendes Bahia Arte Contemporánea in Brazil. The upshot is this will add Brazilian artists to his roster.

Rhys says his decision was driven by what he described as a “lack of support, just from the community engaging in new things" and lack of critical dialogue in Boston, as well as the financial advantages of moving to a city which offers what he sees as a more receptive audience for the artists and art he shows – in particular medium- to large-scale installations.

“I don’t want it to come off like I don’t like Boston,” Rhys says. “I’m just doing what’s best for my gallery and my business and my artists.”

Though he adds that Boston weather is “too cold.”

“My issue is not sales,” he says. He’s looking for a city that’s more exciting, more fun than Boston. His impending departure seems to be a classic example of Boston’s difficulty in holding onto talent.

The 23-year-old grew up in suburban San Francisco and came to Boston to study art and “entrepreneurial leadership” at Tufts and the Museum School. He started his gallery in his Northampton Street loft in 2004, putting on “funky group shows” while still in school, and moved to his current location at 401 Harrison Ave. in the fall of 2006.

Rhys says he spent the past three months jetting between art fairs and meeting with clients in Dubai, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York.

“I’m starting now to finally make money at these art fairs. You can do really well. You can make $200,000 in a weekend,” Rhys says. “…I’ve also lost money. I lost a shitload of money in New York. It’s a gambling business.”

“I was ambitious to do something” in Boston, Rhys says. “I wouldn’t have built this space if I didn’t believe in this city. … I felt this energy happening. And I wanted to move it forward, to be a world-class contemporary city.”

But he finds that Boston is “a very academic institutional city. I think that is somewhat inhibiting.” Just finding homes for large artworks in Boston is difficult, Rhys says. “You cannot put an 8 by 10 foot painting in a Comm. Ave. brownstone.” He reiterates an observation that is frequently heard from local art dealers: major Boston collectors prefer to buy of town – in New York, at art fairs, abroad – rather than here in Boston. LA, he says, is “more supportive. It creates more interest around what you’re doing. It’s also the critical reviews that are there. There are a lot bigger galleries that bring bigger reviewers, bigger collectors.”

“At the end of the day, do you need a space like this in Boston? Is there support for it? We do 90 percent of our sales not in this gallery,” Rhys says.

“I want to be a global gallery,” Rhys says. “I think Camilo [Alvarez of Sampson Projects] is the only one that’s even gotten reviewed in Artforum. It just doesn’t happen. I want to be a global gallery with global artists. When you’re doing 80 or 90 percent of your business outside your gallery you have to look at what’s going on.”

  • My initial March report on rumors that Rhys Gallery might be closing, and a longer essay on Boston’s current gallery shakeup. Also, Big Red & Shiny’s April brief that Rhys would close.
  • Rhys Gallery’s last exhibit here features photos and videos by Judith Larson from May 8 to June 19, 2008. The Cambridge artist presents black and white photos of naked lady dancers, contortionists and models with images of sound waves, thumbprints, maps and other dazzling patterns projected onto their bodies.
  • My review of the Miracle 5 show at Rhys Gallery in February 2007.
  • My review of Cristi Rinklin’s show at Rhys Gallery in December 2006 and January 2007.