Summer Wheat’s portrait paintings at Samson are such a sweet mess it almost doesn’t matter whom they depict. They pulse with gaudy juxtapositions of color, and paint built up and dolloped. Three-dimensional ribbons of the stuff curl over the canvases. Knotted patterns like crochet, applied with a pastry pipette, veil features. The figures are all Frankenstein’s monsters, grotesques electrified to life by paint.
Wheat’s show is called “Hi-Lo,’’ and it purports to be about that often taboo subject, class (although parts of it are truly just about paint). Her style explodes propriety and prods at the edges of expectation. Her characters are fictional.
“Duchess,’’ taken in the vein of traditional paintings of aristocrats, is a horrible sight. Her skin is bright pink and fuchsia smeared with white, her blue eyelashes thick as centipedes, and her mouth a black hole. “Bully,’’ on the other hand, has a small, pursed mouth. His eyes are framed in finger-thick squirts of red and orange paint and his noise is a void. He’s the one in the crocheted veil. The duchess is garish; the bully is more delicate.
There are many portraits in this show. Only some question social expectations. I had to wonder if Wheat threw herself into painting this rogues gallery, then came up with the idea of class critique.
She carries it off perfectly, though, in an ambitious sculptural installation, “Luncheon on the Hill,’’ made to echo Édouard Manet’s iconic “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.’’ Manet’s painting scandalized the public when he first showed it nearly 150 years ago, because it showed a nude woman picnicking with two clothed men. It has since been quoted often, most notably by Picasso.
Wheat’s version is a riot. The trio sits on a mound of dirt, indulging in spaghetti and meatballs, a bowlful of melted ice cream and bananas, and more. They have outsize hands and monstrous faces. The pop-eyed nude wears an ornate hat. Using just a few signals of posture and gesture, the artist imbues this vulgar group with gentility, smashing high with low into a delicious, unnerving pulp.
Vitality and strength
John Goodman’s grainy, black-and-white photographs at Howard Yezerski Gallery emphasize motion and form. They convey a masculine sensibility, and a melancholy one; they celebrate vitality and strength, and grieve its short stay. The show, organized by curator Bonnell Robinson, visits several bodies of work, including photos of a Times Square boxing gym, Boston Ballet dancers, people in the streets of Havana, and more.
“Carousel/Tulsa’’ depicts a rodeo horse rearing behind a gate, mane flying. Goodman shot it at an angle; the people in the distant stands slide past the horse on a diagonal, ramping up the animal’s height and urgency. You can see that same athletic force in the boxer gleaming with sweat in “Anthony Greene,’’ all muscle and grit as he tapes his hands. Lights stream in from the doorway behind him, like those on a passing freight train.
A similar, more delicate rush appears in “Dominos/Havana, Cuba.’’ Goodman shot it from above, focusing on the worn game board, the dominoes reflecting in the sun. As in “Carousel/Tulsa,’’ he angles the frame to give the shot spin. The players’ hands blur as they pass over the pieces. Even the crisper photos seem to propel forward. “Father’s Day/Coney Island’’ depicts a canoodling couple on the beach; they roll off center, toward the edge of the frame: passion at its height, and on the way out.
Ladders are a common motif throughout art history, often as a metaphor for escape from this mortal coil. Liz Shepherd’s new show at Boston Sculptors Gallery suggests that escape isn’t always easy. Her works climb, but the climbing is arduous.
“Up and Out,’’ the terrific centerpiece of the exhibit, is a fastidiously crafted spectacle of hope charged with the likelihood of hopes dashed. Shepherd has built a staircase out of parts of old doors. At the bottom, the steps look navigable enough, but the higher up, the more precarious the climb, with risers angling and treads sloping and truncating. In most journeys up and out, there will be slides and stumbles. You may have to start again, more than once. Shepherd captures that.
Also at Boston Sculptors, Kim Bernard’s “Stuff Moves’’ show is filled with oversize toys. There are wheels you can turn, such as the “Tertium Quid’’ series, upon which the artist has painted vortexes that look three-dimensional when spun. There are balls on springs that you can poke and shake, as in “Chakra Shimmy,’’ a spine of balls representing the seven chakras, or “Readymade Color Wheel,’’ Bernard’s wink to Marcel Duchamp, with balls mounted on a bicycle wheel.
These are fun, but only one-stop works. Those that rely on more complicated mechanics are more absorbing. “Quantum Revival’’ features balls resting on a shelf. Each is strung to a wire attached progressively higher on the wall. Unhinge the shelf, release the balls, and they swing through captivating patterns - a wave gives way to the balls alternating, then swinging together. It feels magical, even if it is simply physics.
SUMMER WHEAT: Hi-Lo At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 17. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
JOHN GOODMAN: Echo At: Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through March 13. 617-262-0550, www.howardyezerskigallery .com
LIZ SHEPHERD: Up and Out KIM BERNARD: Stuff Moves At: Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., through March 11. 617-482-7781, www.bostonsculptors.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.