Childs Gallery’s effervescent “The Boston Accent: 140 Years of The Museum School,” marks the anniversary of the first classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now at Tufts University). It’s not a survey — leave that to a larger institution — but a clever sliver of mostly figurative work. Don’t come looking for Ellsworth Kelly or Joan Jonas.
The show embraces the Boston School (American Impressionism) and Boston Expressionism. Works by contemporary artists hang salon style with older works, and witty resonances ring across the years.
Anne Lyman Powers’s 1948 social-realist portrait “The Stoker,” of a weary, circumspect workman, hangs below Ignaz Marcel Gaugengigl’s 1882 Colonial Revival painting “Small Audience” and Hannah Barrett’s 2012 “Nach der Scheidung,” which means “after the divorce.”
Barrett cobbles together comic portraits from many sources, deconstructing portraiture, gender, and class. This subject wears a frilly apron and a skewed smile. Gaugengigl depicts two wags in ivory breeches, one reading aloud to the other. The grouping hinges on Gaugengigl’s careful brushwork and deft expressiveness; his animated reader might be relating the story of either the stoker or Barrett’s awkward cook.
“Boston Accent” includes pieces by several notable artists. Impressionist Frank Benson has a nimble little ink wash drawing of fishermen. Boston Expressionist Karl Zerbe, legendary head of the SMFA’s painting department, has a simmering encaustic, part still life, part altar.
Many alumni who’d fit under the figuration umbrella aren’t here — Nan Goldin, Lois Mailou Jones, and Will Barnet, to name a few. “Boston Accent” is quirky, not comprehensive, and that’s part of its charm. Anything can happen. It’s a show where chandeliers in contemporary paintings by Lee Essex Doyle and Laurel Sparks find a sparkling formal rhyme with Leslie Prince Thompson’s 1918 oil, “Still-Life — Buddha.”
We so often trap art in its historical context. This show honors history; it also frees the art to dance with other partners. The thrill and surprise are ours.Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.