Imagine you’re at an exhibit opening: pricey art on the white walls, red wine in plastic glasses, schmoozing art-world types. Abruptly, a woman spits her wine onto the floor. Soon, people are spitting wine everywhere.
This is the setup for Derrick Adams’s performance piece “Pagan Rite.’’ A laugh-out-loud video of the piece is on view in the clever, layered, and provocative show “The World According to Derrick: Performative Objects in Formation’’ at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery. Adams examines and upends unwritten social expectations. He and curator Nuit Banai will give a talk at the gallery on Aug. 24, and Adams will return for a performance on Sept. 7.
For “Pagan Rite,’’ he staged the opening and instructed four people to initiate the spitting. Would people leave? Or would they join in, and make it a contemporary bacchanalia?
“Pagan Rite’’ is funny because everybody breaks the rules; frat party, meet art opening. It’s also more one-note than most of Adams’s work, which here consists of videos and sculptural objects he has used in performances. He scrutinizes and skewers such freighted subjects as race, class, sexuality, and American identity.
His wearable sculpture “The Romantic’’ takes on the first three: It’s a fake fur-tuxedo jumper with a kente cloth cummerbund and bow tie — part cuddly stuffed animal, part formal wear. And it has what would be a long tail, if it were coming from the back, but it’s at the front. It coils on the floor around a bouquet, a phallus of ridiculous proportions, sweetly offering flowers.
The video “Time to Save the World’’ similarly weds the sweet with a particular virility projected onto African-American men, a myth charged with both fear and allure. As elegiac classical music plays, a black man drops his shorts and pulls on a pair of super-hero briefs, the type a 5-year-old boy might wear. We only see his hairy black legs and his hands pulling on the pants, as whispers of audio from broadcasts made on Sept. 11, 2001 thread through the music. The child’s dream of saving the world was many Americans’ that day.
Several of Adams’s sculptures feature faux brick walls, another metaphor for black masculinity. The sculpture “Four in One (The Same League)’’ houses those walls, mortared with glitter, in hoodies, and tops them with a lean male figure carved in an African style. Hard and soft, flat and sparkly, contemporary and traditional.
“In the House,’’ a black-and-white image from a performance, sets a model of the White House on a faux brick platform, which rests on a black man’s head. At the bottom of the frame, we see only his eyes as he gazes directly at us — the rest of his face is cropped off. It’s a potent picture of fear about having a black man in the White House, and it speaks to a history of power being built on the backs of the powerless.
Adams is deft at deploying familiar and iconic symbols from American culture to unravel old and persistent saws about who we are and what we’re after. As with “Pagan Rite,’’ a lot of it is comical because it’s about what we’re not supposed to do, what we’re not supposed to talk about. The laughs are sincere, and uncomfortable.
Bromfield, times 2
Memory is so unreliable it almost has to be acknowledged as fiction, not history. Painter Linda Klein runs with that approach in her show “Fragments: The Dishonesty of Memory,’’ at
Bromfield Gallery. The installation begins with a handful of drawings Klein made 20 years ago based on memories from her girlhood, including an imposing, seen-from-below depiction of “Grandma’’ as roundly bell-shaped and footless. She then takes that material and riffs on it in a series of increasingly surreal paintings.
“Grandma in Red,’’ painted this year, takes the same geometric figure in “Grandma’’ and adds color and funnels of light where feet should be, as if the old girl is jet-propelled. A pattern of birdlike forms rustles to her left; in the next painting, “Flight,’’ that pattern gives way to more lifelike birds, and the one that escapes through the window is also rocket-fueled. Did any of this happen? Impossible, but the metaphors make a felt and poetic through-line.
Also at Bromfield Gallery, the Zea Mays Printmaking studio, based in Florence, Mass., offers up several large-scale prints. The best blend delicacy with obsessiveness. Carrie Scanga’s “Ballast’’ comprises blue drypoint prints made on tracing paper, which she folded into bricks and assembled into a pillar. Such bricks can hardly be relied upon for support, and these crumple on one side, leaning and torqueing deliciously toward the wall. Ballast indeed.
Louise Kohrman’s “. . . forever on the mind’’ is an exquisite installation, a concentric circle of smaller discs, cut from etchings that describe yet more and tinier circles. They’re attached to the wall with long pins, standing two inches out at the edges and receding and getting smaller toward the center, like petals in a flower blossom.
Oh, and for yuks, check out Pat Falco and Fish McGill’s “Bathroom Art’’ in the gallery’s restroom. It’s bawdy, and it sure livens up a usually mundane space.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DERRICK: Performative Objects in Formation
At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts,
551 Tremont St., through
Sept. 23. 617-426-8835, www.bcaonline.org
LINDA KLEIN: Fragments: The Dishonesty of Memory
ZEA MAYS PRINTMAKING: Large-Scale Prints
At: Bromfield Gallery,
450 Harrison Ave., through Aug. 26. 617-451-3605, www.bromfieldgallery.com