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Art Review

‘Figuring Color’ exhibit shows pigments of their imaginations

In the ICA’s sensuous antidote to winter, four artists have made works that suggest the human touch

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

“Mesmerchandize, 2007” by Kathy Butterly.

Kathy Butterly’s scintillating ceramics, on show in “Figuring Color’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, are things, with insides and outsides. They’re not illusions, they don’t come at us by means of a screen, they’re not images to be placed on a wall.

They’re small, color-saturated, portable, and - crucially - within reach. This fact alone changes how our bodies relate to them.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

Painter Sue Williams’s “Color Pile’’ from “Figuring Color’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

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Yes, they are displayed in glass cases; but instinctively, as we look at them, we mentally weigh and caress them in our enveloping hands.

In “YO,’’ a twisted and crumpled vase with a glossy mauve glaze stands on a yellow circular base with a pumice-textured blob resting on top. From this blob emerges a dark and smooth tongue with a flickering orange tip.

In “Mesmerchandize,’’ a yellow glaze, cracked to reveal orange beneath, covers another crumpled, biomorphic shape. Pink frilly curtains open onto a cavity painted rich red. A blue, drop-shaped pendant dangles from a turquoise chain embedded in the surface. Nothing so gorgeous was ever invented.

“Figuring Color,’’ the show these works and 26 others by Butterly appear in, is terrific. Organized by the ICA’s Jenelle Porter, it features four artists: two women, two men, three of them in their 40s or 50s. (The fourth, Félix González-Torres, died in 1996 at 38.)

Bright and lively, it’s a perfect winter show for the ICA, and a sop for those seeking relief from the varieties of conceptual minimalism that tend to hold court there. Strolling past works by Sue Williams and Butterly, in particular, you may feel as Edgar Degas did in front of the paintings of Gustave Courbet: nuzzled by the wet nose of a calf.

Most of the works are tactile and full of sensuous entreaty (although in truth, the two male artists, Roy McMakin and González-Torres, properly belong back in the conceptual-minimalist camp). But, diverting as much of it is, I’m afraid Butterly, who is 48 and lives in New York, rather steals the show.

Her works are 3-D - in the actual, not the virtual sense. You don’t need silly glasses to grasp the way their surfaces fold, bend, crumple, and twist. Colors and textures change at a prodigious rate as our eyes pass over them.

Besides being witty, erotic, and technically virtuosic, these little ceramics - many of them the product of 20 to 30 visits to the kiln - have the great benefit of being philosophically modest. In contrast to, say, those other self-trumpeting colorists, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, they have no extracurricular agenda.

Many of them, verging on sexual obscenity, may provoke blushes. But then so do many flowers. It ultimately feels no more Butterly’s fault that some of her ceramics suggest the folds and protuberances of concealed body parts than it is an orchid’s.

It’s not that Butterly doesn’t know what she is doing. It’s that the works are too messy, too real, too rounded - in short, too human - to be mere markers of sex.

Take me or leave me, is what they announce. There’s confidence and sincerity in the pose. But they sure look like they want to be taken.

Butterly’s pieces are not suavely or clinically erotic in the manner of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings or Edward Weston’s photographic close-ups of peppers. They’re closer, in spirit, to someone like Carroll Dunham, riffing on cartoonish exaggerations and louche energies with great technical panache.

If cartoon lasciviousness and currents of violence are never far beneath the surface of Butterly’s works, they are right on the surface of Sue Williams’s paintings. Resembling all-over abstractions or lurid wallpaper from afar, these teem with explosions, viscera, and bodily orifices up close. It ain’t pretty.

Except that, strangely, it is. Williams sees her recent paintings, which have titles such as “War of the Turquoise,’’ “Record Profits,’’ and “American Enterprise,’’ as responses to American greed, hypocrisy, and war-mongering. On these terms alone, I’m not sure how much traction they get; their decorative loveliness somewhat domesticates the message. But they succeed on other terms - as paintings of powerful, dirty energies harnessed to a dynamic graphic idiom, all of it ignited by color.

PHOTOS BY PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

“Untitled,” 2004, by Roy McMakin.

Williams is also showing an earlier series of paintings. In vivid but gorgeously harmonized colors, juicy lines descend, loop, and overlap against blank backgrounds. The sense of decorative profusion links them to the more recent body of work. But the overall effect is sparer and flatter - Brice Marden meets Morris Louis. They look great.

The inclusion of Félix González-Torres puzzled me at first. But the artist’s red hanging bead curtain, the pile of wrapped sweets, and the blue-tinted mirrors - all well-known works, beloved by institutions - do have something at once restrained and inviting about them, and it may be that González-Torres’s (absent) presence gives the show a gravitas it might otherwise have lacked.

Next to Butterly’s endlessly giving ceramics, mind you, González-Torres’s famously “generous’’ works (one is invited to take a sweet walk through the hanging bead curtain, look in the mirror) can seem neurotically restricted and pinched.

The fourth artist, Roy McMakin, designs furniture which his workshop then constructs with exacting precision. The works are painted in uniform, often bright colors. The pieces, which are in some cases re-creations of furniture McMakin remembers from his childhood, have pointed idiosyncrasies (missing drawer knobs, slight curves, unexpected amputations and surprise protuberances) and they straddle the divide between functional furniture and inviolate art object.

To what end? In some ways, each piece is a proxy for a memory. But because these memories are shut off from us, the works themselves tend to repel the imagination. There’s something impregnable - an “I couldn’t possibly tell you’’ quality - about the results, which didn’t endear them to me.

One large installation of different furnishings, all painted gray, takes its title, “Lequita Faye Melvin,’’ from McMakin’s mother’s maiden name. It’s the one point in the show where color feels conspicuously absent. We sure do miss it.

A final word: The catalog is a wonderfully refreshing affair, mostly devoid of artspeak, and fleshed out instead with poems on the theme of color. More of this, I say!

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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