Saliva plays a dominant role in “Pretty Ugly: Deviant Materialism,” now up at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery. Three of the eight artists make mouthwatering work. Then there’s a piece made of chocolate that is quite the opposite. Let’s get to that later.
“Pretty Ugly,” organized by Nina Gara Bozicnik, plunges with relish into art that pleases and provokes on a visceral level — work that sparks, as the curator writes in lovely introductory wall text, “the pleasures of the taboo and the unsightly.”
It’s not all unsightly, but it does all echo a young child’s delight in mud pies, the unbridled messiness we edit out of most of life but reserve for deeply pleasurable experiences, such as good sex and great food. Some of the work here is swoony, some of it is clever, some of it is cheaply transgressive.
Marilyn Minter’s video “Green Pink Caviar” belongs in the first category. Shot from below a pane of glass covered with gleaming, opalescent, edible goop, the video features lips and tongues licking, sucking, and consuming. Parts of the video appeared as a backdrop in Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour. You get the idea: It’s unadulterated eye candy, irresistible, cannily triggering pleasure. Is there something contrived, manipulative, even cynical about blatantly pushing those buttons? Sure. I didn’t care.
Lauren Kalman continues her investigation of jewelry and adornment by pushing it over the edge. In the gorgeous, outrageous inkjet print “Hard Wear, Tongue Gilding,” she coats her tongue in gold, and it lolls out of her mouth like a gift, drool spindling from its tip.
The final salivary work comes from Michelle Handelman, whose video “Candyland” has much in common with Minter’s. The nude artist crawls across her studio floor, licking up shiny bits of candy and spitting them out. Like Minter, Handelman plays off intentionally tantalizing pornographic tropes, but this work poses an intriguing thesis: Making art is an act of consumption as much as it is an act of production.
The rest of the show is all mud pies — that is, a ceramist, two painters, a chocolate artist, and Kate Gilmore. Gilmore, in her video “Sudden as a Massacre,” has five women in pretty dresses and sandals ferociously tear apart a giant cube of clay and hurl what they tear against wall and floor. It’s a 30-minute video, most effective at the beginning, when the women appear almost dainty until they attack the clay. It was made last year, and Gilmore’s suggestion that there’s something subversive about women getting dirty is an antique.
Nicole Cherubini, who makes sensuous yet droopy clay vessels that look pulled together like tired drag queens, is a good fit for “Pretty Ugly.” So is Summer Wheat, who globs on layer after layer of paint to portray scenes and characters, as in the gape-mouthed, green-skinned “Party Girl,” both vulnerable and monstrous. Painter Ashley Nightingale layers studio detritus with paint in works that protrude like a pimple you have tried and failed to disguise with makeup, and matches them with endearing animations depicting their making.
Charmaine Wheatley’s “Moonpies” are, according to wall text, “accurate solid chocolate casts of the space between the artist’s butt cheeks.” In a performance, she offered these up to audience members to eat. Taboo? Sure. But too easy, and unlike the other art in this show, not the least enticing.
Dazzling, dissolving century
“Provincetown Views,” an exhibition of art depicting the artists’ colony and a celebration of the Fine Arts Work Center there, is hung salon-style at
ACME Fine Art, and it packs a wallop. The presentation is almost dizzying, as it speeds through almost a century of work, but it also dazzles. ACME director David Cowan installed the show intuitively, not chronologically, and that makes time dissolve, and Provincetown perennial.
There’s a lush, effusive 1927 watercolor by Charles Webster Hawthorne, one of the colony’s founders, “Provincetown Landscape #3,” in which the weather seeps out of the sky and smudges itself over the stippled land. Moisture also infuses Edwin Dickinson’s small oil, the 1955 “Shack, Peaked Hill Bars,” except for the utter, shocking crispness of the shack’s window, opening toward us. And Hans Hofmann’s 1936 painting “Light House” looks like sheer play, with its brilliant, tactile smears of color and the architecture scrawled like an afterthought.
My favorite piece in the show is Mary Frank’s “Seaside Study IV,” an ink drawing from 1968 that portrays a woman stretched away from us on the white sand. Her foreshortened form, with its raised knee and twist of the torso, becomes almost abstract and monumental at the water's edge. Then there’s Michael Mazur’s 1990 “Seascape/Sand 1,” a breathtakingly shimmery monotype on silk depicting clouds over the painted strand.
There’s plenty more, including Mary Hackett’s homey “Interior” (1971), Susan Baker’s cheeky paintings of Provincetown denizens, and Richard Baker’s trompe l’oeil paintings of books, such as “Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod” (2012), with the inscription on the front: “It is a wild rank place, and there is no flattery in it.”
“Provincetown Views” effectively conveys the artists’ affection for the place. More importantly, it captures how tied the art made there is to the community and especially to the landscape, expressed in humble detail throughout, even in abstract works.
PRETTY UGLY: Deviant Materialism
At: Mills Gallery,
Boston Center for the Arts,
551 Tremont St., through
June 24. 617-426-8835, www.bcaonline.org
At: ACME Fine Art,
38 Newbury St., through June 23. 617-585-9551, www.acmefineart.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.