Paul Stopforth is an artist of witness. Before he left Johannesburg for Boston in 1988, he made a searing series of drawings about the death of black activist Steve Biko, and he continues to plumb the legacy of apartheid. He has paintings and mixed-media work in “Then and Now,” a group exhibition also featuring Boston-based South African artists Ilona Anderson and Sophia Ainslie.
Stopforth homes in on details and monumentalizes them, with loving attention to texture and tone. He distills complex themes fraught with emotion into lucid metaphor.
“Lime-Stone” explores the quarries in which prisoners labored on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years. The dark background, running with black and rusty red and drawn over with a network of gray lines like mortar in a wall, refers to black slate. Two gritty blocks of gray rise off the surface, each with text — “LIME” and “STONE.” The limestone quarry, Stopforth tells us in wall text, is a place where the sun glaring off the walls damaged prisoners’ eyes.
“Empire Building” depicts a British-built stone fort erected during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Stopforth redraws the top of the structure at the bottom, making it into a Mobius strip of a fort, endless, inescapable, and dotted with window slots from which to shoot attackers.
Ainslie is the daughter of the founders of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, where blacks worked alongside whites during apartheid and afterward, and Anderson taught there. Earlier pieces that these two have on view feel limited by their concepts, but their most recent works are less shackled by heady ideas and smartly complement one another.
Ainslie’s mural “Fragment-wall 2” is a flowing abstraction that joins a section of undulant lines to a sweep of flat colors. Sources for her imagery include an X-ray of her mother and Google Earth maps of Johannesburg — a conflation of mother and motherland.
“Dwell: A Drawing Installation,” Anderson's quirky, bright, ever-expanding depiction of a tacked-together tree house on dozens of tacked-together sheets of gray and black paper, could, like Ainslie’s mural, go anywhere. Both artists explore rootedness, displacement, and belonging.
Stopforth does, too: His third piece, “Threshold,” describes a breakwater in Provincetown. “My search for a connection and anchor to my new home,” he says in an artist’s statement, “has been found.”
Over at Boston Sculptors Gallery, in Peter Lipsitt’s show, everything’s about the inside — even the outside. Lipsitt’s humble, scruffy works are made of concrete and Hydrocal, a kind of plaster. He casts many of these works in found boxes, on the insides of which he draws, so the sculptures are tattooed with the texture and markings of the boxes’ interiors — as in “Residence of Professor Wu,” cast from a takeout container and written over with blue and earthy red. Sticks poke out of the sides, and we can peer into the container because the lid is warped and ill-fitting.
There’s a sense of always more to find within. In “Dig,” the surface is a smudgy, luminous blue. One face of the piece has several pursing orifices and a pocket that opens to a cluster of nested clamshells, opening, leading us deeper inside.
George Sherwood, best known as a kinetic sculptor who works in stainless steel, has a show at Boston Sculptors for which he recycles the thin ribbons of steel left over from the lathing process into kinky, frothy, steel-wool-type sculptures. Some, such as the knotty nest “Bad Hair Day,” are downright ugly. But then there’s the transporting “Knurl Net,” in which stray, gleaming wires curlicue delicately within a circular frame.
“All Warm and Fuzzy” takes the nearly life-size form of a sitting person, with arms wrapped around raised knees. The pose couldn’t be more solid, but you can breathe through the medium; the figure may be on the verge of dissolution. He’s an industrial-age Buddha.
“Secondary Sex Characteristics,” Caitlin Berrigan’s series of ink-on-vellum drawings at Proof Gallery, is equally full of curlicues and strands. Berrigan depicts chest hair — of former lovers and other artists. She gives us only the hair — no contours of flesh. One sheet of vellum has no marks that I could see. Another has just two spare halos that look like wide, blank eyes gazing back at you. A third takes the shape of an ancient helmet, with openings for eyes and a protective column dropping over the nose.
The drawings are strangely endearing; they have the nakedness of nudity without any of the formal tropes. They play with eroticism, but, in their matter-of-fact quality, don’t push for it. While many of these are clearly portraits of men, some of the sparer ones might portray either a woman or a man, and that uncertainty nods at the slipperiness of gender, which we used to see as so clearly defined. Berrigan is a multimedia artist, but her drawing technique is precise. Even without all the meaning seething just below the surface, these are simply lovely works of art.
THEN AND NOW
At: Spoke Gallery, Medicine Wheel Productions,
110 K St., South Boston, through June 29. 617-268-6700, www.mwponline.org
PETER LIPSITT: Natured and Nurtured I
GEORGE SHERWOOD: MACHINE Tears
At: Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., through June 24.
CAITLIN BERRIGAN: Secondary Sex Characteristics
At: Proof Gallery, 516 East 2nd St., South Boston, through June 23.