You may not know Hilda Belcher. Like many women artists of the early 20th century, she has not received the recognition she deserves. She was not a modernist groundbreaker like Georgia O’Keeffe, who shared a boardinghouse with Belcher and once sat for her. But an exhibition of mostly watercolors at Martha Richardson Fine Art reveals her to be a portraitist of exquisite sensitivity, as well as a cheeky, if kindhearted, satirist.
Belcher, born in Vermont in 1881, moved to New York as a young woman and studied with George Bellows and Robert Henri. Henri, the legendary art teacher, founded the realist Ashcan School and urged his students to relish and capture the details of ordinary life. Belcher won prizes, and her work was collected.
Like many of her Ashcan School peers, Belcher started out as an illustrator. From that beginning, you can trace the evolution of her skill with portraits. There’s the cartoonish dismay on the mug of the noodle-limbed gym rat batting his head with bowling pins in the ink drawing “Cudgelling His Brains.” A series of watercolors lampoon high society New Yorkers, such as a pair exchanging gossip over dinner in “The Juicy Bit.” Belcher was a master of facial expressions, conveying smugness, intrigue, or shy inhibition with a few delicate strokes — and always, it seems, with affection.
For decades, Belcher traveled to Savannah, Ga., where she applied her expressive realism and her eye for faces in a series depicting the African-American community there. There’s much nuance in the direct gaze of the black girl in “Arabella Martin.” Her wide and appraising eyes conflict with the caution of her stone-still face and her crossed arms. The slouching, slender adolescent in “Young Man in a Blue Shirt” looks as if he hasn’t adjusted to a recent growth spurt. His face, too, is the careful mask of a kid who has learned that it might be safer, sometimes, to remain invisible.
Belcher could occasionally veer into sentimentalism (The fuzzy “Calico Kitten” aims straight for the heartstrings). For the most part, though, her watercolors are not only adroit, they are keenly humane.
I took a peek at Jonathan Bonner’s sculptures online before I went to see his show at Ellen Miller Gallery. The pictures conjured pendulums and molecular models. In person, they come across very differently. They’re red, white, and black, and there’s something fleshy and saucy about them. They swell; they appear to excrete. Carved from industrial plastic, they have an almost rubbery, skinlike surface. At the same time, they often call to mind punctuation marks, which gives them another layer of exclamatory or inquisitive meaning.
“Red Bird” has at its center an elongated black droplet capped with a red plug and suspended from the ceiling on a black cord. A series of white ovals emerges from the bottom — like eggs being laid, or a string of pearls. Pieces such as this are oozy and sinuous, but their crisp forms and palette imbue them with orderliness distant from the mess of biological functions.
The two white batons hanging along the wall in “White and Red” have prominent red points at the ends. They look like anemic teats, like exclamation points, and like slender buoys or candles strung together. The sly accumulation of meanings is surprising and mirthful, a visual artist’s version of punning wordplay.
Bonner does a bit of literal wordplay, too in his “Body Pooms” series. According to Bonner, a poom is a one-word poem. In “TooTooToo” he uses the word “too,” written over and over, to outline an arm and hand. These are overly coy, but they underline the degree to which Bonner’s work sidles along the edges of language, activating the verbal along with the visual.
Stacy Scibelli employs a seamstress’s grammar in her wall sculptures at Proof Gallery. In some pieces, she deconstructs real clothing. Cut gloves open, as Scibelli does with blue dishwashing gloves in “Pair 3,” and fingers multiply and stretch, palms sprawl, in monstrous ways. For “Ma,” the artist sliced a velvety purple top. Split open, arms splayed, with the neck hole low and shaped like a space ship, “Ma” looks more like a painting than a piece of clothing, yet it retains a memory of the body.
Scibelli builds clothing-inspired work from scratch, as well, and these are the most intriguing pieces. “Infinity Pants” is perhaps 7 feet tall, with gray cloth shaped in a narrow figure eight, looking like slacks for a four-legged daddy longlegs with conjoined feet, complete with four pockets smartly sewn at the center.
Materials such as tweed and techniques such as pocket stitchery recall the work of a gentleman’s tailor and lend these works an urbane mien, despite their wild proportions. Amid these large and mutant garments, Scibelli has scattered pieces from her “Hieroglyph Series,” which feature simple glyphs — an X, a triangle — stitched into squares of sturdy fabric, underlining the idea that seams, hems, pockets, pleats, and flies are a lingo unto themselves.
JONATHAN BONNER: New Work
At: Ellen Miller Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through May 28.
STACY SCIBELLI: Vowels
At: Proof Gallery, 516 East 2nd St., South Boston, through
May 25. 617-702-2761, www.proof-gallery.com