“Absent/Present,” the two-person show featuring Kate Gilmore and Zsuzsanna Szegedi at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, started out with a fairly obvious concept. Gilmore is always present in her performance-based videos and Szegedi tends to vanish from hers. But as the exhibit developed, curator and gallery director Leonie Bradbury writes in her catalog essay, the theme played out in deeper ways.
The question of absence or presence applies as easily to the art as to the artists. Szegedi’s smart, enveloping, and elusive “A Proper Erasure” happens over time, in two spaces. She created a massive, operatic wall drawing in another gallery on campus. Three white-garbed dancers proceeded to erase the drawing with their bodies, sponges, and a damp broom.
The artist captured the performance with stop-motion photography. She projects that in a video here, and makes another wall drawing around it, which she has invited gallery visitors to erase. A separate video of that ongoing erasure runs on a monitor to one side of the drawing.
The work poignantly drives home the sheer transience of the creative process, and plays against the attachment we have to art as commodity. We witness the drawings coming to be, and fading away.
Gilmore has said she considers herself a sculptor. Her labor-intensive performances, acted out in front of a camera but not spectators, result in objects or altered environments that can be viewed as sculptures. But her videos are more than merely documents: They are works of art in themselves. Three are on view here (and no art objects — although you can see one in “PAINT THINGS: beyond the stretcher” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum).
In “Between a Hard Place,” Gilmore, dressed in a black silk cocktail dress, black gloves, and gaudy yellow pumps, kicks and elbows her way through five gray sheetrock walls. The pretty clothes contrast with the gritty work, which would be better accomplished with the swing of a sledgehammer than a high kick with a high heel.
For Gilmore, art does not begin and end with a single object or action. So where is the art? It’s dispersed over time and space — a video here, a photograph there, a sculpture and video elsewhere, and in snippets on the Internet. That makes it harder to pin down. With Szegedi, it’s not a simple drawing, but a participatory experience of drawing and erasure. If you’re not there to experience it, you can catch it on Vimeo, where her virtual drawings may be less tangible, but they capture the swell and ebb of a drawing’s life more effectively than the object itself could.
“Me Love You Long Time,” a provocative and problematic show at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts, takes sex work as its topic. Organized by Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art in New Jersey and curated by Edwin Ramoran, the exhibit is overwhelming, diffuse, and cacophonous. You have to stumble your way through without much guidance or order. That does the material a disservice.
Some of the work feels obvious, throwaway, or silly. Andrew H. Kim’s video “Action Painting,” in which a nude man gives himself a black-pigmented enema and expels it onto a canvas (also on view!), and Rico J. Reyes’s “AC/DC” video in which a man pretends to get excited by rubbing himself against home appliances, are one-note jokes that don’t have much to do with sex work.
When he’s not running off track, Ramoran takes an appropriately coolheaded approach to a freighted theme with threads about power, economics, colonialism, violence, gender constructed identity, and love. The artists here are from Southeast Asia and North America.
For her video “Maria the Korean Bride,” Korean-American Maria Yoon traveled to all 50 states to stage weddings in which she dressed in traditional, elaborate Korean robes. The comical, culture-clash images of her posed demurely with her grooms from Hawaii, Montana, and elsewhere suggest the power struggles and economic contracts that go hand in hand with mail-order marriage.
The campy video “Our Love is a Condo (Baby, I Love Your Way/ Sexual Seduction/ Simply The Best)” by Bobby Abate and Lynne Chan has the two performers singing sexy karaoke praises to their home furnishings. Sex sells, and so does luxury, and a lot of the work here is about selling. Johanna Poethig’s array of toiletry items from her series “Four Letter Word Beauty Products” blatantly goes in the direction in which most marketing campaigns merely point. Her tamer products include “Need Me Conditioner” and “Lick Me Lather.”
Clifford Landon Pun’s “Opium, No Pun Intended,” depicts a nude man, decked out in jewels and flip-flops, on his back in an erotic thrall, advertising Yves Saint Laurent’s fragrance. He’s not the woman you’d expect in such a scene, but he plays the object of desire perfectly. He could be the young man in Lim Sokchanlina’s photo “Thief,” wearing swim trunks and a tie, standing alluringly in front of a motorcycle.
There’s a lot to see in this show, which makes no moral judgments and includes sex-positive sex workers alongside those some might see as oppressed. But it’s hard to unpack these complex themes when pieces by more than 50 artists are jammed into not enough space.