Friday, September 26, 2008

Karen Gelardi

Karen Gelardi of South Portland, Maine, fills Montserrat College of Art’s 301 Gallery with black ink drawings of trees and flowers and plants that seem to unstoppably spread across the walls. Her drawings have a loose, vital, lush style that recalls traditional Chinese drawing. They sprawl across paper and opened-out file folders patched together with tape that forms a lattice pattern.

The drawings are accented by pillows – balls and lumps and logs – silkscreened with similar designs. She groups them on the floor and on platforms in some sort of strange taxonomy. The drawings and pillows surround you, and the feeling is exuberant and delightful.

A second room of the exhibit offers stylish photos of still-lifes of printed fabric and what look to be test tubes, but they don’t really do anything for me. More interesting is a display of print-on-demand books Gelardi commissioned, each featuring one of her drawings on the cover and all the pages. There are three different types. One by one the books are just okay. But she gets a neat effect by stacking them in piles, that seem somehow like minimalist mass-produced abstracted trees, with the stripes on the ends of the papers vibrating against each other.

“Terrarium: Karen Gelardi,” 301 Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, 301 Cabot St., Beverly, Sept. 3 to 27, 2008.

MFA tops off new wing

Yesterday afternoon, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts “topped off” its under-construction Shapiro Family Courtyard by placing the final beam atop the steel structure. Last week the MFA announced that it had raised $504 million in its “Building the New MFA” campaign, $345 million of which is targeted for the museum’s renovation and expansion, which is expected to be completed in late 2010.

Steve Hollinger

Boston artist Steve Hollinger is a sort of garage innovator whose most fascinating works are machines that mix old timey mechanics, carnival amusements and contemporary electronics to mimic living organisms. They entrance because of how they stand between the two worlds, and tap our wonderment at both.

Perhaps his best known work (after his umbrella) is “Jellyfish,” now in the collection of the DeCordova Museum. The sculpture seems like some crackpot Renaissance inventor’s mechanical version of a jellyfish, all glass and metal, fluttering up and down inside a small aquarium in response to light.

His exhibit “What’s Left” now at Boston’s Chase Gallery offers new work in this vein, like “Heart #4” (pictured below), a solar-powered contraption that pumps blue fluid through a series of little clear tubes and globes like a model of a heart.

His “Pod” devices (pictured below) are slung over rods in the gallery’s front window. They each feature a solar cell connected by wire to a little metal fin inside a clear capsule. Sunlight triggers them to shake and click against each other – like jumping beans. They seem uncannily as if they’re alive.

Hollinger’s most ambitious (or so it seems) project here is his “Pod Tanks” (pictured at top), which feature groups of his “Pods” floating in mineral oil in heavy glass aquariums like futuristic electronic seaweed. They look like the sort of slick decorations you find behind the maître d's station in tony restaurants. Light causes the metal fins inside the capsules to spin this way and that, but they don’t shift in the fluid. And that’s a let down.

In other pieces here, Hollinger demonstrates that he remains a master of special effects, presenting fragile-looking little translucent boxes made from leaves, magical picture devices showing things like people flying a kite under full moon, and simple animation machines that show people dancing.

But on the whole, it feels as if Hollinger is in the middle of working out ideas. The works seem to be successful components that could – and I hope will – develop into something more complex and animated.

Steve Hollinger, “What’s Left,” Chase Gallery, 129 Newbury St., Boston, Sept. 3 to 27, 2008.

My review of his 2006 Chase exhibition.

Thomas Allen

I feel I need to admit that I’ve had a change of heart about New York photographer Thomas Allen, whose show “Cheap Trade” is now at Carroll and Sons. When I first noticed his pulpy photos a couple years ago they struck me as so slick, so flashy, so pleasurable that I was suspicious that there was nothing substantial underneath.

But I’ve decided that this suspicion doesn’t matter and I don’t care, because his images are so wickedly deliciously right.

Allen slices out illustrations from the covers of vintage dimestore pulp paperbacks, folds them out, and arranges them into dramatic scenarios that he then photographs in shallow focus to create racy noir dreams of lust and violence. A man looks up from his paper as a fellow in the blurry background strips off his shirt. A boxer, cut from the cover of “The Last Round,” slumps to the mat. Two ladies fight. A sailor turns around in a bar to eye the shirtless sailor getting tattooed behind him. The eyes of a man in a diving helmet bug out at the busty lady behind him.

Part of Allen’s magic is how often the books themselves are part of the scenery, as in a shot of a gunslinger walking into a saloon. The walls of the room are actually the ends of books. Or the shot of two sultry dames eyeing each other around a corner that’s actually the end of a book. It’s marvelously inventive, addictively seductive stuff.

Thomas Allen “Cheap Trade,” Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Sept. 3 to 27, 2008.

Pictured from top to bottom: Thomas Allen, “Mate,” and “Knockout,” both 2006.

RISD opens Chace Center

From my essay on RISD’s Chace Center:
Rhode Island School of Design’s new Chace Center, which celebrates its grand opening this Saturday, September 27, is the physical embodiment of the 131-year-old institution’s effort to rebrand itself as a more open place, a RISD that is more engaged with the world — particularly the part that includes Providence.

So the $34 million, five-story, 43,000 square foot Chace Center fronts North Main Street, faces downtown, and has the school’s name written in big silver letters across the facade. “We’ve occupied so many borrowed and reused buildings. We’ve never been in a place that you know is RISD,” James Hall, assistant director of the RISD Museum, tells me. “This is the front door of RISD . . . . For the first time in our history, we’re saying, ‘This is where we are. Please come in.’ ”
Read the rest here.

Pictured from top to bottom: The front of the building, the side, the lobby, the student gallery, the curatorial spaces on the fourth floor. First and last photos by Warren Jagger Photography, 2008, courtesy of RISD Museum of Art. The rest of the photos are by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ben Sloat

Boston artist Ben Sloat has found a doozey of a subject in Michael Jackson. The gender bending, race-shifting (former) “King of Pop” churns up all sorts of complicated, uncomfortable feelings about race and sexuality. And even though he’s a schadenfreude freak show, as a subject he seems wicked cool.

In “I’m Not Like the Other Guys” at Boston’s OHT Gallery, Sloat presents a series of painted, cast-plaster knock-offs of “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” Jeff Koons’ 1988 ceramic sculpture of Jackson with his pet monkey. He paints them up in matching red and black attire (as Jackson wore in his 1982 “Thriller” video) and gold and white as in Koons’ original (Sloat calls it “Two OG’s” as in original gangsters). Other pieces transform the pair into a ThunderCat and Care Bear or Elvis and Ringo Starr. What these variations have to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Sloat also riffs on Jackson’s transformation from teen to werewolf in “Thriller.” In the original music video, Jackson softly tells his sultry but prim bobby-socker girlfriend, “I’ve got something I want to tell you, I’m not like other guys.” Then he turns into a monster and chases her. Sloat converts this into View-Master slides and re-edits it into “Fear of a Black Panther,” a stuttering video punctuated by Vincent Price’s evil laugh from the music video.

Sloat uses a shot of Jackson dancing as the basis for a stained-glass window (pictured left). In the painting “Seductive Whiteness” (pictured at top), the artist places a very white Jackson into a bucolic scene and surrounds him with hovering white putti sampled from 19th century soft-porn paintings by William Bouguereau. It’s a let down that both the painting and stained glass are really just gussied up digital collages. For example, the “painting” is a print-out with a bit of paint dabbed here and there. But I guess its cheap knock-off quality touches on middle-class taste and the art you can buy at your local mall. Which is where Jackson’s kingdom began.

But the main thing here is the discomforting prickly racial, sexual energy going on – the black man as monster and monkey, the black man transformed to white, the black man as sexy beast, the black (panther) man as dangerous political force. At this moment, it’s hard not to notice how such things rhyme in weird ways with portrayals of Barack Obama.

And of course that line “I’m not like the other guys” also has all sorts of other disconcerting resonances now – the black man as closeted homosexual, the black man too interested in little white kids.

Sloat lays out all these powerful ingredients – but I’m not sure that he cooks it into something more than its parts. For example, “Seductive Whiteness” brings up Jackson’s tabloid-fodder sexuality and his strange, sad racial conversion – and snickers. But what does it make us think that we haven’t already thought before?

Ben Sloat, “I’m Not Like the Other Guys,” OHT Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Sept. 5 to 27, 2008.

Curators leaving ICA

Curator Carole Anne Meehan will soon leave Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art to take a job as senior project manager with the Houston Arts Alliance’s Civic Art + Design team, according to the ICA. This follows ICA assistant curator Emily Moore Brouillet’s departure about a month ago to take a job with a Cambridge design firm.

Meehan organized the “Art on the Harbor Islands” show in 2007. And she has been overseeing the Foster Prize exhibit, which opens Nov. 12, and is expected to continue to help it along. Brouillet organized the Misaki Kawai and Ranjani Shettar Momentum shows in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Brouillet left the ICA to work for IDEO, one of the firms featured in last year's "Design Life Now" show at the ICA, which was organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Brouillet oversaw when it came to Boston.

Awesomeness at AS220

“New Obstructions” opens at the Mercantile Block, 135 Washington St., Providence, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday.

AS220 recently acquired the Mercantile Block building, next to its Dreyfus Building, and plans to soon renovate and convert it into studios, rehearsal rooms, offices, and live-work space for artists. But before work gets underway they’ve decided to fill it with art installations. Right on! The roster of artists includes Jacob Berendes, Eamon Brown, Kristina Brown, Jim Frain, Richard Goulis, Natalja Kent, Scott Lapham, Jon Laustsen, Jeremy Radtke, Nicole Reinert, Mike Taylor and Neal Walsh.

The show is open Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment until the closing reception on Oct. 17.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dale Chihuly at RISD

Seattle’s Dale Chihuly gave members of the press a tour of his show in RISD’s new Chace Center in Providence this morning. Pictured below is his glass installation “Glass Forest #4.” And check out his shoes.

Coming soon: my review of the show, which runs from Sept 27 to Jan. 4.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lafo resigns from DeCordova

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, director of curatorial affairs at the DeCordova Museum, is resigning after working at the Lincoln institution for nearly 25 years, the museum announced today.

“I have decided to leave DeCordova because I realize that the board and new director seek a different creative direction for the museum,” Lafo said in a press release put out by the museum. “After nearly twenty-five fulfilling years of leading the curatorial program at DeCordova it is time to move on to new challenges.”

Lafo will continue working at the museum on a reduced schedule through Nov. 1, and then plans to pursue independent curatorial and writing projects.

The staff change is not unexpected, as the DeCordova board’s decision to hire an outsider, Dennis Kois, as its new director in March was also a rejection of its insiders. And Kois has talked about shifting the museum’s curatorial programming, including the DeCordova Annual, an exhibition series Lafo founded in 1989. “It’s a nice program but who is it really helping, what’s it doing for the museum?” Kois told me in June. “I think we need to look at that. I’d much rather see it be a stronger show and be a biennial or even a triennial than a weaker show that’s an annual.”

During Lafo’s time at the museum, the press release said, “the museum expanded its exhibition program, publications, and loans to the sculpture park, raising the visibility of DeCordova as one of the primary contemporary art institutions in New England.”

“Rachel has been a valuable member of the DeCordova community for many years,” Kois, who began working at the museum on June 2, said in the release. “Her intellect and professionalism have helped build DeCordova into the nationally recognized institution that it is today. I join the Board and staff in wishing her well in her new curatorial and scholarly pursuits.”

With Lafo’s departure, curator Nick Capasso will temporarily lead the curatorial department. (He served as acting director before Kois was hired.) The museum reports that it does not plan to immediately seek Lafo’s replacement, but instead first to do some long-range curatorial planning.

“Campaign Buttons” at Miller Block

Here are some samples of “Campaign Buttons: Artists Speak Out!” at Boston's Miller Block Gallery.

Over the summer Ellen Miller invited local artists to design and decorate politically-themed buttons. The result is an art community party game, a light lark. The artists – surprise – are heavily in favor of Obama and voting and, uh, breasts, and critical of McCain.

“Campaign Buttons: Artists Speak Out!” Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury St., Boston, Sept. 5 to Oct. 11, 2008.

Pictured from top to bottom: Doug Bolin, Kanarinka, Scott Chasse, Ravi Jain, Gerry Bergstein. William Ciccariello and Kay Ruane.

Monday, September 22, 2008

One of the best of the year:
“Views and Re-Views” at Brown

From my review of “Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons” at Brown University:
“Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons” is one of the best exhibits you’ll see in New England this year.

The 160 posters offer a mirror-view of the 20th century. They prompt questions about war and peace, about economics and society that feel rivetingly urgent at a moment when oil dollars are fueling a resurgent Russia, when our debt-fueled consumerism is tanking, when Cold War stories (see Vietnam) are still dominating our politics, and when Russia’s invasion of Georgia last month is inspiring neo-Cold War posturing.

And they simply look cool.
Read the rest here.

“Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons,” Brown University’s Bell Gallery, 64 College St., and John Hay Library, 20 Prospect St., Providence, Sept. 6 to Oct. 19, 2008.

Pictured from top to bottom: El Lissitzky, “Everything for the front! Everything for victory!” 1942; Valentina Kulagina, “International Working Women’s Day is the day of judging of socialist competition,” 1930; Gustav Klutsis, “The USSR is the Stakhanovite brigade of the world’s proletariat,” 1931; and Alexander Zhitomirsky, “Hysterical War Drummer,” 1948; all courtesy private collection.