Theater & art

What’s up at area art galleries

Above: one in a series of photos from Benny Merris called “An Other Another.’’ Below: an installation view of John Guthrie’s “Situationistic.”
One in a series of photos from Benny Merris called “An Other Another.’’

“Elements, Rudiments, and Principles,” a quirky and disjointed group show at Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, sounds from its title as if it gets down to the basics. But it has an esoteric, wandering feeling to it. Its theme is spirituality, a topic that is impossible to pin down.

Organizers Dana Frankfort, a painting professor at BU, and gallery director Kate McNamara set up too many categories within that theme. There are artists with deeply ritualized studio practices, artists whose work attempts to picture the spirit, artists who strive for purity, and more. If they had stuck to just one category, the show might have cohered.

Still, there are several wonderful pieces. Heather Rowe fills her sculpture “The Self” with secrets and surprises. Built in the shape of a doorframe, with the door rotating in the center, it employs mirrors, translucence, and hidden patterns to make a magical threshold.

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For his “Aura Portrait” series, Peter Coffin took color photographs with a magnetic camera, capturing colorful auras around his subject’s heads. There are no faces, just ethereal pastel glimmers, with a sharp color value that pings the eye. Other intriguing photographs include Erin Sherriff’s sepia-toned pictures of the interiors of buckets, which look like glowing orbs, and Matt Ducklo’s compellingly intimate images of blind people stroking sculptures in art museums.

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Xylor Jane uses numerical systems to guide her painting. Numbers formally anchor the pieces. In “2,3,5,7,” those black figures are positioned boldly in a grid. But the smaller grid pattern that flows beneath them barely seems mathematical, with its delicate, smudgy brushwork and its warm, flickering tones.

Benny Merris’s striking “An Other Another” series of color photos take painting into the landscape, by means of the figure — specifically, vibrantly painted arms and hands. In one, a brightly striped hand points dramatically into the divot of a cliff, behind which a waterfall cascades.

I’m not sure how Merris’s work fits within the parameters of the show. Is there ritual involved? Is he depicting something intangible? Or is he, like many contemporary artists, challenging the parameters of the known — of what we expect of landscape, or painting? If so, perhaps that’s a spiritual practice.

When you get down to it, making any art is inherently a spiritual practice. It gives form to the inchoate. It makes meaning from chaos. With all art on the table, the curators should have narrowed their sights.

Jake Levin
An installation view of John Guthrie’s “Situationistic.”

Wall drawings

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Boston painter John Guthrie has taken the awkward, narrow little annex at Boston University Art Gallery and filled it with crisp, geometric wall drawings in an installation called “Situationistic.” The space has never looked so good. He fills one wall with gangly bars of color, which almost magically join up into a series of interconnected tilting quadrilaterals.

Guthrie, a super-attuned colorist, knows how to strum his hues. One drawing features a vertical rectangle pleated with blue and ocher, which vibrate against each other. He cinches the form like a girdle, and shifts the hues slightly to suggest a shadow at that tuck. Other works rise and dance on the walls. His geometric forms, no less crisp than his colors, make the room move. The whole installation is a retinal delicacy.

David Avery’s etching “Obeliscolychny.”

Prints on exhibit

The Boston Printmakers are at it again, mounting the 2013 North American Print Biennial at BU’s 808 Gallery. In some form or another, the group has been staging such exhibitions since 1948. This year’s show, boasting more than 150 prints, was juried by Dennis Michael Jon, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Technical mastery and thoughtful craftsmanship are consistently high, and Jon has chosen works across the printmaking spectrum, from old-school woodblock prints to digital prints, such as the poison glow of a smoggy pink water tower in Thom O’Connor’s “Pink Tower #3.”

A few of my favorites: Cazia Bradley’s lithograph “Mysterion,” a smoky vortex of swirling fish; David Avery’s Tower of Babel-type etching “Obeliscolychny,” overgrown and patched up, and rendered with extraordinary detail; and Suzanne Chouteau’s brooding woodcut “Black Water Horizon” artfully sets nightfall against the last wisp of sunlight.

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The Boston Printmakers invited Cuban artist Ibrahim Miranda to create an installation of his island-themed prints on one wall. “Mapas,” prints made on maps and drawings, burbles musically in tropical tones over a grid of horizontal scrolls, threaded with historic and mythical narratives.

The annual Arches Student Print Show is on view alongside the biennial, with some wonderful work, especially by BU students and faculty. It dedicates one large wall to portraits. That wall, like Miranda’s, hangs together with simple clarity.

My perennial objection to the North American Print Biennial remains. Although it was clearly installed with care, the viewing experience of such a big exhibition is jumbled. So many technically impressive but otherwise wildly varied works mounted salon-style, several to a wall, don’t do each other favors. They compete with each other; they don’t converse.

The fix is an easy one. Introduce a theme. Something very general would be enough to link the prints. Then the show would be more than the sum of its scores and scores of parts.

More information:

ELEMENTS, RUDIMENTS, AND PRINCIPLES 2013 NORTH AMERICAN PRINT BIENNIAL

At: 808 Gallery, Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through Dec. 20.

617-353-3371, www.bu.edu/cfa/visual-arts/galleries/808gallery/

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.