Looking at art is a private pursuit, even in company; it strums different chords in each viewer. “Fertile Solitude,” an arresting show about the experience of being alone, is cunningly apropos.
The exhibition, organized by independent curator Elizabeth Devlin at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery, makes no romance of solitude. In her statement, Devlin cites a 2014 University of Virginia study that found many people would rather shock themselves than sit quietly for 15 minutes.
Her clever installation sets most of the art inside a maze of plastic greenery, allowing the viewer privacy and a chance to get lost.
Some of the art pulls the curtain back on habits of thought usually kept to oneself. Painter Shelley Reed draws us toward “In Dubious Battle” with sensuous realism, but confronts us with a panorama of animals ripping into one another’s flesh — in shades of gray, mercifully. If this reflects the privacy of our minds, the beasts represent the ferocious ways we can tear ourselves down.
In a photo, conceptual artist Annette Lemieux quotes painter Philip Guston’s “Painting, Smoking, Eating,” which depicts a guy smoking in bed, a plate of fries beside him. Lemieux puts a woman in the bed, but it’s the change in medium that shifts perceptions: The photo makes the desultory scene less satirical and more woefully real.
“Fertile Solitude” is not all painful. Megan and Murray McMillan’s enchanting installation “While She Waits for the Light” features a 3-D grid filled with lamps. The video opposite takes us inside a larger version, the lamps aglow. A man retrieves one, passes it out a portal, and it eventually arrives on a woman’s desk.
What an odd, nonsensical story! Yet the very nonsense of it prompts reveries about light as a metaphor, about passing torches, about illuminating dark spaces — reminding us that solitude is as much an opportunity for dreaming as it is for brooding.
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Dec. 18. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid
@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.