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3rd Qtr 4:51 4th & 10, Own 21

In ‘Rough Shape,’ architecture in decay

“Anemone” by Anne Lilly.

“Anemone” by Anne Lilly.

Antoniadis & Stone: Rough Shape

At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave. Through Jan. 28. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com

“Rough Shape,’’ a dour yet cheeky exhibit at Samson by the sculptor duo Antoniadis & Stone, startles right out of the box with sheer dreariness on a grand scale. On first impression, the work is all big and breaking down: toppling towers of concrete, overturned staircases, and rusted steel. The works reference institutional architecture - the kind found in places where the design is based on utility, not on aesthetics, or where the aesthetics are overtly modernist (such as the Brutalist architecture of Boston City Hall). We can extend the metaphor and read a critique of crumbling institutions of power.

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But here’s the funny thing about Antoniadis & Stone, who will have work in the 2012 deCordova Biennial opening later this month: Nothing is ever what it seems. The duo builds trompe-l’oeil sculptures. There’s no concrete here, no metal. “Support System’’ looks like three pillars of painted, stacked concrete blocks, with one falling into the next. But they’re made of particleboard and plastic. The artists finesse every dirty detail - dings and streaks and scratches. While you think you might be able to smell the mold on these things, they’re complete fabrications.

“Social Climber’’ makes a giant upside-down V out of what look like two inverted concrete staircases. There will be no climbing here. At the bottom stands what appears to be a brown paper wrapper that might swaddle a wine bottle. The irony of the title is a little heavy-handed, but the handiwork is, once again, fascinating - this one is made of urethane foam.

The objects here don’t have the histories they hint at. They’re lighter and newer. They demand to be looked at as precisely crafted works of art, not relics of institutional decay. They turn out to be absorbing and funny, even as they grimly comment on what they represent.

A wide-ranging show

‘‘Maria Cristina No. 1’’ by Silvia López Chávez..

Notes on the Species

At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St.. Through Jan. 22. 617-426-8835, www.bcaonline.org

For “Notes on the Species’’ at the Mills Gallery, the annual exhibit of work by artists with studios at the Boston Center for the Arts, independent curator Kara Braciale has put together a wide-ranging and deep show of work by five artists. Braciale, who runs Proof Gallery in South Boston, frames these artists as portraitists. Some depict individuals, and some depict the larger culture.

Caitlin Berrigan, another 2012 deCordova Biennial artist, has a droning audio, “Casualties,’’ in which she simply counts numbers denoting Iraqi civilian deaths attributed to the US invasion. When I was there, she was in the 19,000s, adding up to a piece that is both mournful and intentionally mind-numbing. Braciale has smartly installed it nearby Jim Cambronne’s “Chronograph VIII - Homage to Al Gardiner,’’ a grid of numbers blocking out time spent with a departed friend. The march of days is just as regimented, yet the craftsmanship and focus on one loss makes a poignant counterpart to “Casualties.’’

Cambronne has a breathtaking group of gouache on paper works, “10 Days in May,’’ purely abstract pieces that conflate the patterning and warm hues from Native American art with tenets of Modernism, made to celebrate the birth of a sibling. The most traditional portraits are by Silvia López Chávez, whose “Maria Cristina’’ series of fluid drawings captures her young niece making faces. Charming and goofy, they also explore how sitting for a portrait is a kind of performance.

David Reichert documents the work of anonymous artists on a Provincetown beach who make small installations out of flotsam and jetsam in “Totem.’’ It’s a video and an unfurling grid of photos that drops onto the floor and runs beneath a series of nautical ropes. It celebrates the urge to create, even if what you make gets washed out on the tide. Finally, Alice Stone screens a special cut from her unfinished documentary, “Angelo Unwritten,’’ a not uncommon tale of a child adopted out of foster care who runs into a host of difficulties growing up. The film so far is crisply edited and deeply felt, but this is just a nine-minute snippet of what looks like an epic tale that will no doubt be challenging to put together.

Elegant dances

Anne Lilly: Nimbus: Recent Sculptures

At: Nesto Gallery, Milton Academy, 170 Centre St., Milton. Through Jan. 20. 617-898-2335, www.milton.edu/arts/nesto.cfm

Kinetic sculptor Anne Lilly, who has a graceful and absorbing show up at Milton Academy’s Nesto Gallery, brings the mind of an engineer to her exquisitely calibrated works. These pieces are all gears, cogs, and rods, made of stainless steel - all machines. Yet when you set them spinning, long rods launch, slowly, into elegant dances. Lilly, as she devises these works, clearly extrapolates the effect a single movement, say of a turning gear, out beyond where most of us dream. Then she makes it happen.

“Anemone’’ begins with a mirrored plate set on a pivot, so it wobbles like a slow-spinning top. A wide “T’’ of steel sits on the plate, and rods revolve around the horizontal top. Push the mirror and the rods begin their slow whirl; push the rods, and they move faster, tilting this way and that like gentlemen greeting ladies at a Victorian ball, and the mirror picks up speed. It also casts reflections bobbling along the wall, each with a network of lines spinning within. It’s captivating.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com

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