“The Calender’s Tales: Fantasy, Figuration & Representation,’’ a juicy group show at Boston University’s 808 Gallery, plunges into the mythic, adult world of “let’s pretend.’’ The title refers to a storyteller in “The Arabian Nights.’’ Curator Lynne Cooney has called upon artists who use invented beings - personal avatars, fantastical creatures - to explore concepts of otherness. The figures in these works are not noble knights and fair ladies. They are often monstrous.
For instance, Trenton Doyle Hancock’s works revolve around a complicated mythology about a human-plant hybrid he calls the Mounds and their enemies, who are flesh-eating vegans. Yes, “flesh-eating vegan’’ is a contradiction in terms, but deconstructing “otherness’’ is an exercise in bringing magnetically opposite forces together in the same room, and in the same character. Us and them. Vegans and flesh eaters.
Hancock’s mythology is dense and filled with such contradictions. It’s also an allegory for racial issues, which have often been guideposts for “self’’ and “other.’’ His technique in the astonishing mixed-media piece “The Legend Is in Trouble’’ is as variegated as his subject.
The character of the Legend, the progenitor of the Mounds, is a great lump of black-and-white stripes, here being attacked and eaten by the vegans. The artist uses sharply distinct layers, tearing away the furry stripes to reveal networks of red corpuscles beneath. The vegans, skeletal and grotesque, are drawn over the patches of fur and flesh. There’s a comic-book punch to the piece, but despite the strong characters and lines, the art object itself, with its tears and ravages, is a picture of violence and decay.
Julie Heffernan calls her elaborate paintings self-portraits, although they are narratives in landscape. “Self Portrait as Sentinel’’ depicts a green, abundant land with several watchtowers. One supports a peacock perched on a dog sitting on an alligator. On another, a human couple has sex on the back of a snarling dog.
These guards are preening, self-occupied, and animalistic. And beyond them, despite a seemingly thriving kingdom, men in business suits behead someone in a cave. As a self-portrait, we can read this work as we might read a dream, with each character playing a different aspect of the dreamer. But as viewers, we’re complicit. This becomes our dream, too.
Hybrid human-animals are everywhere in this show, from Kojo Griffin’s dog-headed and bear-headed characters to Rebecca Doughty’s bunny-eared figures, acting out allegories of loneliness and disconnection. Iris Charabi-Berggren’s two drawings “External Vantage Point’’ and “Internal Vantage Point’’ feature bird-headed humans.
In the first, several stand stunned, observing an explosion. In the second, the artist puts us inside the boom, amid flying splinters of wood and choking smoke. We glimpse the bird people through veils of smoke, thrown and tumbling. This one is an allegory for trauma - the immediate numbness and inability to understand, and the internal havoc.
In this show there are many more artists whose work includes the exacting, jewel-toned paintings of sexually ambiguous figures by Virgo Paraiso, Joyce Pensato’s gorgeously drip-slicked “Silver Batman,’’ and Summer Wheat’s virtuosic and harrowing “Melting Skull Candle.’’ Die Raúl, the duo of Raúl Gonzalez and Elaine Bay, has an installation of drawing and videos springing from Gonzalez’s familial roots in Mexico and a mythology explored in works full of sweat, ardor, starvation, and violence.
We all have our own mythologies, and our own perceptions of “the other,’’ the parts of ourselves we discard and deny. You could say the work in “The Calender’s Tales’’ is reclamation art, telling stories that may frighten, but may also lead to healing.
More tales are spun in “Passions of the Soul: Stories We Tell Ourselves,’’ at the Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College. Many of these, though, are based on stories we already know, which artists have borrowed from mythology and popular culture.
Kathleen Bitetti deconstructs Disney-fied fairy-tale characters in the “Royal Traveler: Works on Paper’’ series. Her tongue-in-cheek takedown of Snow White rates the winsome character on a scale of femme to butch, and graphs her abilities: She’s poor at self-defense, but her leadership skills are moderate. It’s funny to filter old tales through present-day lenses, but Bitetti doesn’t offer a macro view. Disney heroines have changed as the culture has. I’d like to see that charted.
Most of Michelle Muhlbaum’s mixed-media paintings borrow from folk tales about women. “The Water Palace’’ depicts a Venus type reclining underwater in the bed of a pink shell. Muhlbaum annotates her paintings with the stories they illustrate, which I found distracting. I would rather just find my way through the narrative in paint.
Rene Lynch and Tabitha Vevers depart from familiar stories to explore visions of utopia and dystopia. Lynch’s luscious watercolors from the “Dangerous Utopia’’ series depict celebrations of spring, with people lolling and smiling amid florid blooms. Vevers makes exquisite, pre-Renaissance-style paintings of grotesques, who might fit better in “The Calender’s Tales’’ than in “Passions of the Soul.’’ “Lioness Gynandromorph’’ is part lion, part human hermaphrodite, on all fours with kits hanging off her. In the distance, an ice cap melts and the sun hangs sickly in a gold-leaf sky. It’s a horror, beautifully conveyed.
THE CALENDER”S TALES: Fantasy, Figuration & Representation At: 808 Gallery, Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through March 31. 617-358-0922, www.bu.edu/cfa/visualarts/galleries
PASSIONS OF THE SOUL: Stories We Tell Ourselves At: Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons College, 300 The Fenway, through March 22. 617-521-2268, www.simmons.edu/trustman