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What’s up at Boston-area art galleries

A video still from Clifford Owens’s performance “Anthology (Maren Hassinger).” 

A video still from Clifford Owens’s performance “Anthology (Maren Hassinger).” 

“Upsodown,” a wild exhibition at the New Art Center, revels in the sensuality of Carnival. In the Christian calendar, Carnival comes right before people buckle down for Lent, so it’s an opportunity for indulgence and exploding social norms.

Pushing the party to the edge, curators AJ Liberto and Kate True invite Summer Wheat, who seems to be everywhere lately, to make paint into flesh with canvases that are so built up they look like dessert — except that they’re monstrous portraits. They call in Tara Sellios, whose photos of spent feast tables sodden with goop, detritus, and scooped-out shellfish may make you cry out for an antacid.

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All of these works have a dark side. That’s what makes Carnival so thrilling — it’s a time to break all the rules. At the heart of the show hangs the late Robert Colescott’s roiling print “Pontchartrain,” in which the thick, black mud of the Louisiana lake spawns dreams and nightmares: guns, twisting figures, an Aladdin’s lamp, paint buckets marked “sex” and “race.”

A riveting video of Clifford Owens’s performance “Anthology (Maren Hassinger)” has Owens, a black man, nude, on the floor inside a chalked rectangle. Small groups of people, all clothed, step into the space, pick him up, and reposition him, again and again.

Owens solicited the performance score from Hassinger as part of his “Anthology” show, which opened at MoMA PS1 in late 2011. He sets this video up with the camera aimed directly down at the rectangle; it looks like a moving painting. The scene, with its submissive and naked performer, is freighted with the history of a black man’s agency and subjugation in the United States. It taps into a taboo, spelling out issues about race that we don’t talk about in polite society.

Even the more lighthearted works here feel manic, like Marcus Kenney’s terrific mixed-media collage “Tomoh Chee Chee,”  depicting a grinning mask built out of old cigar labels, Sunbeam Bread stickers, patterned paper, and more. Mania on the verge of chaos gives the show its nerviness.

In Joyce Pensato’s “Here’s Looking at You,” a painting of a familiar cartoon animal — Felix the Cat? Krazy Kat? — shadowy, and drenched in streams of silver and black enamel paint, the figure holds up under threat of glittery dissolution. “Upsodown” gets at the gusto of Carnival, and examines how transformation, destruction, and revelation can go hand in hand.

Chance and beauty

An installation view of “Lottery Grid Drawings” by John O’Connor.

An installation view of “Lottery Grid Drawings” by John O’Connor.

“Diagram,” a breezy, nerdy group show at Drive-By Projects, spotlights artists who map and systematize. Janet Cohen charted out innings of baseball games with energetic, peculiar drawings — numbers, names, lines, symbols — creating a visual narrative that feels sensible, even if you don’t know baseball. Kelly Sherman diagrams her own poetry. “Horizon (full test: so far away on this horizon)” plays along horizontal and diagonal lines, through layers of vellum, so that the image gracefully underlines the text’s content.

John O’Connor’s “Lottery Grid Drawings” feature his own color additions to his landlord’s numerical scratchings on graph paper, which chart a system for understanding the lottery. Set in a five-by-four grid, the two-colored pages bordered with black-and-white checkerboard blink dynamically on the wall.

Then there’s Andrew Mowbray, who builds elaborate projects to illustrate randomness. For “Wind Driven Drawing,” he strapped on a pole with an ink pen, and let it drift in the wind. It’s rather lovely, with two bold arcs and other stuttering gestures in a rainbow of colors, with a key to denote which hue was used when. Mowbray and O’Connor, in particular, strive to harness chance, and see what beauty it reveals.

A rush of images

Greer Muldowney’s “Cheung Sha Wan #2.”

Greer Muldowney’s “Cheung Sha Wan #2.”

At Gallery Kayafas, Greer Muldown-ey’s unsettling photos of a rapidly growing Hong Kong show glossy, anonymous skyscrapers towering above the older city. “Cheung Sha Wan #2” captures two smaller buildings — one with an ambulance bay, the other, according to the gallery’s owner, Arlette Kayafas,  elderly housing — dwarfed by green and gold high-rises. Look closely at many of the photos, and you’ll see exterior air conditioners (no central air?) and clothes hanging to dry outside the windows of even the tallest buildings. These are pictures of expedience, of ticky-tacky hives built to house an escalating population.

Robert Knight’s show, “Rated G,” explores today’s rush of images and society’s push for children to grow up fast. For “Digital Dolls,” he utilized an app aimed at girls, used to dress, shape, and place a doll-like figure with the face of, say, a 9-year-old. The app amplifies breasts, cocks hips, and offers sexy outfits — all of which looks disturbing with that sweet young face.

He cleverly intersperses his own photos with layered images from the “Dick and Jane” book series, to show how far we’ve come, or fallen, since then. Beside pictures from there of a girl thrilled by her image in a store’s three-way mirror, the photo “Jesus and the Polly Pockets” depicts a meaty clash of values. It captures the interior of a girl’s dollhouse: Dolls in their underwear lie on the floor, while against the painted fireplace, the dollhouse’s owner has placed a prayer card. Jesus appears to have risen and sent the dolls into a dead faint.

UPSODOWN 

At: New Art Center,

61 Washington Park, Newtonville, through

Feb. 22. 617-964-3424, www.newartcenter.org

DIAGRAM  

Drive-By Projects, 81 Spring St., Watertown, through Feb. 23. 617-835-8255, www.drive-byprojects.com

GREER MULDOWNEY:

 6,426 per km2

ROBERT KNIGHT: Rated G  

At: Gallery Kayafas,

450 Harrison Ave., through

Feb. 16. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.
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