A ravishing swath of blue dominates Shane Neufeld’s painting “Oculus” at Alpha Gallery. The title is the Latin word for eye, but it’s also an architectural term, referring to a circular window or opening at the top of a dome. Neufeld is an architect, and his paintings often grapple with structure and space.
Most of the paintings depict the woods in pungent hues, with loose, brawny strokes. “Oculus” aims the eye up, through a clearing bounded by trees. Neufeld constructs his illusion of depth in the clearing with light and shadow: Sun pours in from the right and ignites the foliage in limey greens. A dramatic wedge of shadow rises from left to right, which circles round in the foreground to a cool black canopy. Space is deep and high; we are enclosed.
The oculus — that leaf-rimmed block of blue sky — turns the illusion on its head. It flips from the forever quality of a clear sky to a flat patch of color, and places us suddenly in a world of abstraction and facture: Paint smudges and seeps, forms jut and cluster. Let your eyes wander, though, and you’ll find yourself back in the woods.
“Colonnade” likewise takes its cues from architecture. A row of trees cuts down the middle of the painting. Neufeld’s tree trunks can feel otherworldly — stolid but often bright, like bolts from above. These three break the world in two — a forested scene on the right, faceted with light and dark, and an open grove on the left, cradled in shadow like “Oculus.” High-keyed color — tangerine and lemon on the ground! — giddily bounce the eye around.
Architectural structures may make a scaffold in Neufeld’s paintings, but they support fever dreams of spatial mutability, outrageous color, and delicious materiality.
‘Mountain’ lifts the mundane
A large salt crystal sits on a pedestal in the middle of “Salt Mountain,” Allison Cekala’s exhibition at Howard Art Project. It’s lovely — squarish and translucent, slightly larger than a soup can. Cekala found it at a salt mine in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It’s not the only salt crystal that made it to Boston from there; most of the rock salt used to melt ice on streets here comes from Chile.
For “Salt Mountain,” the artist’s master of fine arts thesis exhibition for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, she uses photography and video to follow the salt from its extraction from salt flats to its application to snowy roads. The photographs, from the “Salt” series, all depict the mountain of rock salt in Chelsea, where it’s delivered by freighter and kept until the snow flies.
The video should be viewed from beginning to end, unlike many video installations that run on loops. It has a linear narrative. Cekala astutely frames each shot, from the sunlight shifting over salt pebbles to the sun warming the red sands of the desert. Drills chop open salt crystals; the rock salt moves by truck and conveyor belt and freighter. She takes her time, lingering with an avid eye on scenes and processes.
It’s a visual narrative, with no script. None is needed. The images startle; they are often stunning and dramatic, while they tell the mundane story of a material we take for granted. Gracious close-ups and wide views of the landscape weave among shots of the heavy machinery required to mine, sift, transport, and distribute the salt.
Cekala’s project moves next to the Museum of Science, where its title will be somewhat less poetic: “Road Salt: A 4500 Mile Journey” opens on Jan. 31.
Attending to surface and depth
Sheffield van Buren flecks the surface of his subtle, frothy paintings with bits of metal leaf, like autumn leaves falling and crackling, curling and twisting. His show at Ars Libri, presented by Ars Libri and the former Boston gallerist Mario Diacono, feels alternately melancholy and joyful.
Everything depends on the soft color he chooses for the ground — the barest whispers of violet and blue — and the density of his silver flakes, which sometimes swarm and sometimes disperse. There’s a balance to be achieved between the blushing colors, lovingly applied, and the sharply glittering flecks.
In “Embrace,” silver flutters over the palest blue. Because it’s sparser at the top, it suggests settling, or coming to rest: the quiet of snowfall.
Van Buren titles some of the works “Light off the water (Crane Beach),” and it’s clear why: Light flits and winks. The title places the emphasis on the daring metallic bits and draws us away from the color, which is less like water and more like twilight. The metal on the surface is something to see and be entranced by; the color below feels softly enveloping — a sensation almost more than a sight.
The trick, as van Buren suggests in his artist’s statement, is to hold those two experiences at once. Attend to surface and depth, which here isn’t about flatness and space, but about what pleasingly pings the eye and what is more quietly felt and inchoate. Attend to the external and the internal at once. It’s a meditation of sorts: stilling, and awakening.
Shane Neufeld: Sightlines
At: Alpha Gallery
37 Newbury St.
through Feb. 4.
Allison Cekala: Salt Mountain
At: Howard Art Project
1486 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester
through Jan. 23.
Sheffield van Buren: Recent Paintings
At: Ars Libri
500 Harrison Ave.
through Feb. 1.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.