MARK COOPER: More Is More At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 10. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
GEORGE NICK: The World Is Flat (Until You Paint It) At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Dec. 17. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com
CATHERINE MCCARTHY: Flower Arranging At: Ellen Miller Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Dec. 7. 617-536-4650, www.ellenmillergallery.com
At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 10. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
“More Is More’’ is an apt title for Mark Cooper’s daringly gluttonous exhibit at Samson. Cooper has plastered the walls with his prints, photographs, and paintings. His ceramic vessels squat on top of his sculptures. Undulant wooden forms with shelves might be taken as pedestals until you see that they, too, in places, sit atop other sculptures. The gallery is so crowded with art that you have to be careful where you step.
Cooper effectively disrupts expectations about the relationship between viewer and art. It’s no longer a one-on-one relationship between person and object. Nor is it a singular installation piece. It’s a riot in which the art encroaches on you, very nearly breathing down your neck. It almost makes the viewer unnecessary - as if the art were having a jolly enough party on its own, thank you very much.
But stay, because it is a rollicking good time. Cooper shuffles several basic structures. He has loopy, bulbous sculptures, such as “Jacks Are Blue,’’ which looks something like a 12-headed beast with three legs, streaked with royal blue and periwinkle. His delicate silkscreen images on rice paper look like dragonfly wings, overlapping with hot-hued photographs of India. His collaged, multileveled paintings, such as “After India #28,’’ race with images, centipede-like drips, and patches of color, all finished off with glossy surfboard resin. The whole thing is a clamorous collage in three dimensions.
Ceramic vessels adorn sculptures as jewels highlight a beautiful face. Some are blue and white, recalling Delft porcelain. Some reference ancient Chinese bronzes. Some crackle, as if about to shed their skins. Despite their evident lineage, they are lumpy, humble things. Cooper abhors hierarchy. Even the most beautiful lines and shapes here have rugged qualities. “More Is More’’ elevates nothing - except perhaps the act of creation - sifting through history and across cultures to make a spicy, messy, tasty stew of a show.
Lighting up the moment
George Nick - now 84 and still making the rounds in his mobile studio, setting up his easel and canvas in the street - is a painter’s Buddha. His works are all about catching the moment, but during the process of painting, the moment constantly changes. Sunlight shifts. Shadows grow. Nick doesn’t pin one time to the canvas. Somehow, with his exuberant, expressionistic strokes, he captures time’s shifting, and the results don’t feel like something “captured’’ at all. They’re fluid, raucous, and pregnant with light.
Nick visits the same old terrain in his show at Gallery NAGA, but it’s always new. There are Back Bay brownstones, gleaming vehicles, and sun-soaked houses. One of these - “The Tran House, Newton January 2011’’ - glows in the sun, and is so wonderfully lemony and topped with frosty snow it looks like a wedding cake house.
My favorite piece, “Max Mara September 2010,’’ was painted on Newbury Street. At the center, an earthy pink column anchors the scene. Shafts of sun make a golden game of pickup sticks. The storefront is a maze of glimmers and reflections: We are looking through glass at mirrored pedestals. The mirrors are portals opening to deep, sunlit spaces, but they are also flat, and casting their own shadows. The painting conveys life’s hall of mirrors. Nothing is solid. Light and shadow come and go. You could see this as discouraging, but Nick clearly prefers to find it exhilarating.
Catherine McCarthy, another painter’s painter, takes a new turn in her show at Ellen Miller Gallery. For years, McCarthy has explored history, making roiling narrative paintings that pull in references to everything from Hokusai’s prints to mid-20th-century advertising. Her floral works in this show are comparatively pared down. She does use a 1960s-era manual on flower arranging as a source, so she can’t help but conjure a housewife’s hobby, but these paintings are about paint - not about the past, or storytelling.
You would think such a flowery show would be pretty. Not this one, although the works are generally stunning. “Hogarth’s Curve Red’’ is nightmarish. The blooms themselves are blots of yellow, shaded but without detail. But McCarthy renders the leaves precisely, sharp and edgy against the fluid flowers. The red ground to the left drops into space; the vase casts a velvet shadow. But on the right, the artist makes an angry downstroke of red on lime green, flattening everything. Above, white speckles black, like a distant, starry sky.
The luxuriant, gray “Driftwood’’ shows blooms arranged on a jutting piece of wood. McCarthy portrays the leaves sharply, but the flowers vanish. They are just a pebbly wash of pale blue. Still, their crisp edges and breathy nothingness make them pop off the richly painted surface.
Flower arranging is itself, like still-life painting, a tame illusion of nature. McCarthy breaks her still lifes open with a variety of painting techniques that play up that tension between nature and artifice. She has always been fearless in her experimentation with different paint applications on one canvas. When she narrows down her subject matter like this, all that experimentation ramps up the pressure on the composition. The effect, for an exhibit of floral still lifes, is explosive.