Still life painting has often had an allegorical agenda. The resplendent, sometimes picked-over spreads in 17th-century Dutch still lifes could be read as a moral injunction against gluttony. Other still lifes of the era, featuring skulls and rotten food, cautioned viewers about life’s quick passage. Rendered with lush hyper-realism, these works pull you in with their loveliness before they pierce you with their message.
Tara Sellios, a young photographer, takes her inspiration from such paintings, prodding at the intersection between sumptuous and gruesome in her show “Lessons of Impermanence’’ at Suffolk University Art Gallery. Sellios, who received a bachelor’s degree from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in 2010, doesn’t always hit the mark with her large-scale color photos, but when she does, the results are hair-raising.
One untitled diptych, for instance, features a platter of uncooked meat, arrayed as if ready for the banquet table. The platter, on the left, boasts a glistening red cut of beef, a delicately pink array of pigs’ feet pointing upward like the toe shoes of a chorus of ballerinas, a lobster, and a bulbous, sectioned item that I, with some queasiness, took for a brain, but gallery director James Hull reports is actually a kidney. But the most prominent item is a plump, plucked goose, whose long, limp neck splays over into the print on the right. Much of the food in this elegantly arrayed still life is still animal-like enough to turn even a staunch carnivore’s stomach.
Sellios strides right into the territories between nourishment and violence, between how we anthropomorphize animals and how we use them. But her main fascination is the realm that mingles attraction and repulsion, and how art uses beauty to anoint violence, make it more palatable, and raise it to mythic realms.
Some of these works (they’re all untitled) push too hard - such as a bowlful of what looks like blood splattering on a white tablecloth, and one of blood (or wine?) overflowing a goblet. There are a few of Sellios’s deft sketches on hand too, and the watercolor and ink version of the flooding goblet is much more effective than the photograph - the flood like a waterfall, and agitated by staticky black lines.
Yet the watercolors are expressionistic, not hyper-real, like a photo or a Dutch still life painting, and consequently less threatening. Photos are the perfect realm for this kind of work, because they pretend to be real and true, even if they are fictions. In her photographs, the more details Sellios orchestrates in a single piece, such as in another still life of a feast, a lush yet terrible image of seafood, the more she seduces the viewer to look, and to feel delight and horror at the same time.
Interplay of light
Mary Armstrong’s wax and oil explorations of landscape and light at Victoria Munroe Fine Art explore deeper space than she has in previous work, but she always pops us back to the surface. She deploys layers and layers of pigment, then draws and smudges over it.
The title painting, “Any Given Moment’’ seems to capture a quicksilver change in the weather. The center is darkness, veined with light - deep green water, written over with gold, merging with the distant sky. It could suck you up. But along the sides and at the top, radiance explodes, with gold lines smeared over in pale pink - miracle clouds, infused with sunlight - and these dance over the surface of the painting, making the deep center seem yet deeper.
Armstrong reverses that interplay in “Near Here #2.’’ The water we look down upon, while distant, bounces light back up to us - blue, written over with rivulets of red and peach. But dark clouds gather along the painting’s surface, like dense puffs of smoke.
Darkness receding while light bursts along the surface suggests hope; distant light occluded by darkness has a gloomier message. My guess, though, is that Armstrong is more interested in how light and color affect the eye, and each other. How they affect the spirit is merely corollary.
Rhythm in texture
Collage artist Henry Wolyniec delights in the textures and grains of old paper. So
perhaps it’s not a surprise that he’s adding new textures in his most recent work, now up at Ellen Miller Gallery. He mixes relief printing with his paper scraps, adding yummy fields of tacky ink. Remarkably, it can be challenging to discern what’s ink and what’s paper. Wolyniec’s works have a surprising delicacy. They’re architectural, yet maintain an airy quality that recalls looking through prisms of light. The rhythm, too, is terrific - urban, but not the driving beats of hip-hop; rather, the elegant syncopation of mid-20th-century American jazz. The palette, likewise, feels like a throwback, all dust and rust with olives and mild yellows thrown in.
“HW10.73’’ has a rust-colored backdrop, which Wolyniec has cut out of and printed over, so that blocks of it are like flaps along the edges of the collage. He places over that blocky prints in navy blue dotted with hole-punch circles, brown squares, and a rambling architecture of olive and mint green. It’s dense but fleet, constantly moving, like a quickstep.
TARA SELLIOS: Lessons of Impermanence
At: Suffolk University Art Gallery, 75 Arlington St., through Jan. 11. 617-573-8785, www.jameshull.com/suffolkartgallery.html
MARY ARMSTRONG: Any Given Moment
At: Victoria Munroe Fine Art, 161 Newbury St., through Jan. 21. 617-523-0661, www.victoriamunroefineart.com
HENRY WOLYNIEC: New Work
At: Ellen Miller Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Jan. 11. 617-536-4650, www.ellenmillergallery.com