Standing in the darkened gallery of Megan and Murray McMillan's video installation “When We Didn't Touch the Ground’’ isn’t the same as being in the video itself, of course. But then a transporting moment in the video opens a trap door, and you drop into magic.
The McMillans strive, in their work, to bridge the tangible world and the visionary one conjured on the projection screen. Their installation on view at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University, is about child's play. The video, shot in a Pawtucket warehouse, shows a group setting the dinner table as a boy (played by a man) lingers outside, climbing on a wall constructed of furniture, wandering along a brook.
That brook — an abstraction, really, not water but reflective planes zig-zagging over the floor — spills out of the video and into the viewer's space, as does the furniture-wall, which stretches down the length of the gallery.
It all seems contrived until, in the video, a great wooden box rises from behind the wall and floats toward the table. A woman inside drops a rope made from sheets to the ground, and gracefully lowers herself to dinner. She's like Wendy from “Peter Pan,’’ arriving home from Neverland.
The visuals enchant: the box's altitude, the unfurling sheets, the woman's acrobatic descent. There's no CGI, no bells or whistles. The McMillans eschew artifice. They're not trying to convince us that the abstracted brook is real, or that a man is a boy. They don't hide the mechanics at work as the box hums along a rail suspended from the ceiling. They're like children building a fort from sofa cushions, working with what's available.
Watching the video, I felt like a skeptical grown-up until that box lifted into the air. Then I stepped whole-heartedly into the McMillans' fantasy, happily captive in their imaginary world. If only the suspended box was hanging from the gallery ceiling. That would have closed the loop between the real world and the projected one.
Stephen Tourlentes’s large-scale black-and-white photos of prisons, up at Carroll and Sons, were shot at night and from a distance. The buildings are wildly illuminated complexes. From far away they might be Emerald City, lit up and beckoning. That sets up a satisfying confusion.
The prints are so velvety you feel as if you could wrap yourself in one. Shifting tonalities in an image such as “Rawlins, Wyoming, Wyoming Death House’’ — in which a haze traps the light, and the hills in the foreground glow with snow, effectively delineate the meaning of the phrase “shades of gray.’’
For Tourlentes, those grays have as much to do with the ethics, industry, politics, and psychology of incarceration in the United States as they have to do with hue. Mostly, he titles his images with the name and location of a prison; “Death House’’ adds another level of information.
Tourlentes conveys the uneasy relationship between prisons and communities. Many prisons are surrounded by empty acres, others are part of the neighborhood. “Rock Haven, Pennsylvania Death House’’ looks as if it were shot from someone’s backyard, with a shed to one side as we look through veils of leaves at a vast prison complex in the distance. Even with the dark weight of night looming over it, Rock Haven glares with light. You don't want to look. You can't turn away.
Photographer Tim Donovan, in his show “Phantasmagoric” at Gallery Kayafas, makes portraits with a point-and-shoot digital camera. Then, using Photoshop, he bleaches out most of his subjects’ features, leaving their eyes and lips. It’s the eyes that grab you: They rise, limpid, out of a pale fog. Their gaze penetrates. There’s something almost Buddha-like about many of them; with the other facial features fading, these eyes appear filled with sympathy. It can be unnerving.
But there’s more to Donovan’s portraits than the eyes. Up close, all you see are the eyes and the mouth. Step back, though, and outlines of the face coalesce out of the whiteness. The artist raises questions about the slipperiness of identity and offers us a screen upon which to project our assumptions, be they sympathy or judgment.
Neatly paired with Donovan's show at Kayafas is Zoe Perry-Wood's “BAGLY Prom’’ photos, documenting the annual dance held by the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. These young people, with their creative costumes and makeup, assert their identities and defy judgment.
Perry-Wood offers several tender, endearing photos of couples, such as “Kristin & Amanda, BAGLY Prom,’’ with Kristin in a snazzy three-piece red-and-black suit and Amanda in a strapless gown. The individual portraits are inherently more confrontational, but reveal much. “Untitled, BAGLY Prom’’ depicts a subject in a short dress, fishnet stockings, long purple hair, and dramatic makeup, but with a strikingly demure posture and unassuming tennis shoes.
So it goes with adolescents, bravely declaring who they are, but still not really sure.
Megan and Murray McMillan: When We Didn’t Touch the Ground
At: Cohen Gallery, Perry and Marty Granoff Center
for the Creative Arts, Brown University, 154 Angell St., Providence, through May 16. 401-863-1934, www.brown.edu/academics/creative-arts-council/granoff
Stephen Tourlentes: Of Length and Measures
At: Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 19.
Tim Donovan: Phantasmagoric
Zoe Perry-Wood: BAGLY Prom
At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 12.