Social practice — art actions within the community — can be seen as a kind of performance art. But the way independent curator Juliana Driever frames it in “About, With & For” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery, the form’s DNA reaches further back than the early performance art of the 1950s and ’60s. She roots social practice in any community-minded creative undertaking: a quilting bee, for instance. In press materials, she calls it a “folk ethos.”
It’s an exciting and at times perplexing show, with a buzzy, daring energy. Whether it’s the enormous, goofy goose puppets made by “HONK! The Festival of Activist Street Bands,” or Mare Liberum, described in the exhibition brochure as “a free-form boatbuilding and publishing
waterfront art collective,” which has canoes built from laminated paper on view, you get the sense that these are passion projects. Commercial interests, if any, are secondary.
Driever pushes at the boundaries of art when she brings in the Fixers Collective, a group of tinkerers represented by a couple of work tables scattered with electronics, cables, and tools. Are they making art? Like many of the groups here, the Fixers Collective is holding workshops (the next one is Nov. 2). Therein lies the social practice, I suppose. But if you water down this form to include any well-intentioned group, the art is lost.
For comparison, look at Jeff Stark, who stages social interventions in taboo places by hosting fabulous dinner parties. A gorgeous photograph, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” documents one of these extravaganzas, held on an abandoned stage inside a Boston church.
Unlike the Fixers Collective, Stark has a nuanced concept and aesthetic, challenging participants to break rules, and perhaps the law, in order to create their own community around a meal. Likewise the National Bitter Melon Council, which promotes the cultivation of bitter melons and the contemplation of the experience of bitterness with actions ripe with metaphor, such as tossing “seed bombs” in places that may arouse bitterness.
Matt Bua’s installation “Continuum Tri-Plex (With Staffs of Power)” is visually impressive but hard to grasp. Bua built a shaggy, complex structure out of found wood. Texts and maps refer to his research about the original topography of Boston — were hills here ancient earthworks built by natives, or were they naturally occurring?
He includes several walking sticks that he encourages viewers to borrow; these seem like an afterthought, to fit it into a show about community engagement. The piece attempts to convey the span of time. Perhaps that’s too ambitious, because there’s just too much going on for it to cohere.
If “About, With & For” doesn’t always work, it burbles along by stretching the idea of utility to include anything that brings people together, including art. Indeed, it suggests that a mix of utility, creativity, and community may just be a recipe for happiness.
A critical view of utopia
At Montserrat College of Art Gallery, “Wish You Were There?,” organized by gallery director and curator Leonie Bradbury, takes a critical view of utopia. That is, implicit in every vision of a perfect world, there’s awareness of all that’s wrong with the one we have.
But not enough works take on that complexity: The show often veers wildly from utopia to dystopia. Alex Lukas’s gorgeous mixed-media paintings of nature overtaking crumbling concrete structures look post-apocalyptic. With no signs of human habitation, they’re worse than dystopic.
In contrast, Amy Wilson’s winsome painting “A Utopian Vision (After Bosch)” takes her experiences during Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park two years ago and translates them into a Neverland for girls. They wander through the grass, swim, and congregate in domes, amid bits of text such as “the absence of corners would bring us together.” But if girls ran the world, would it truly be a better place?
Gregory Euclide’s landscape paintings sprout with actual plant life and move seamlessly from picture to reality. While they portray idyllic settings, they more deeply engage thematically with painting than with society.
The sharpest blend of hopes for the future and a gritty understanding of what can go wrong comes from Abigail Newbold. Her installation “Dwelling Structure, Hope Chest, Porch Time” reiterates her “Crafting Settlement” installation up earlier this year at the Currier Museum of Art. It features a puckish and eclectic group of tools and clothing and a small cabin. Like Lukas’s paintings, Newbold’s piece takes place sometime after disaster, but this time humans have survived, and begun to construct a new life.
Mary Anne Davis’s installation “Through the Mirror: Utopia Reconsidered” would work well in “About, With & For” at the BCA. Davis has set up a table and benches, surrounded by her mixed-media works promoting optimism. When I was there, she was serving tea to Montserrat students, discussing utopianism and what they might contribute to a better society.
Another feel-good artist: Merritt Kirkpatrick, who has covered a bench, a child’s bicycle, and a sled in colorful knitting, and put bright cozies on trees and railings around outside. Like Wilson, Kirkpatrick seems to cling to childhood. Her work is truly sweet, but if innocence is an equivalent to utopia — and maybe it is! — it won’t last for any of us.
Wish You Were There?
At: Montserrat College of Art Gallery, 23 Essex St., Beverly, through Dec. 14. 978-921-4242, www.montserrat.edu/galleries