The earth breaks open. Massive hands bust from beneath its surface and grab hold. That’s the alarming first take on John O’Reilly’s “No. XI Claude Series,” just one collage in a sensuous, aching show of them at Miller Yezerski Gallery.
Or see it like this: The hands break through a landscape drawing by Claude Lorrain, sepia-toned and a little warped (rest easy — it’s a reproduction). One hand, fingers slick, grasps a large rock beside which an artist placidly sits, sketching. Another hand sneaks up through the landscape below. A torn portrait lurks beneath the landscape to the left.
O’Reilly, 84, continues to patch together scenes that throb and crackle with creative and erotic themes. Sexual and artistic energy intertwine. Longing and disconnection surround them.
In this show, century-old reproductions of works by Claude and Rembrandt serve as foundations, to which O’Reilly appends snips from gay porn magazines, old snapshots purchased at flea markets, and tear sheets from art history. He plants single snapshots upon several Rembrandt folios. Lines match up seamlessly, narrowing the gulf between jarringly different images.
A picture of boozing young men in swimsuits obscures Rembrandt’s depiction of the body of Christ brought down from the cross in “No. 182 Dutch Set.” One of the loafing guys has a slack posture similar to that of Christ. Is he, we have to wonder, sacrificing himself, and in what way? On another Rembrandt folio, O’Reilly centers a small picture of a boy opening the flaps of a tent, as Rembrandt’s figures bow and look toward him. Is he, too, some kind of savior?
“Artist’s Studio” joins a Caravaggio nude, seen from the back reading music, with crossed legs snipped from a porn magazine, tilting picture frames, and a cup for mixing paint. In the foreground, O’Reilly places a black-and-white Thomas Eakins photo of a male nude, languorous, head bent. Back echoes back, legs echo legs. The love of flesh as form is palpable.
The dusky background depicts Velazquez’s studio. It’s like Plato’s cave: Shadows flicker on the wall. O’Reilly’s art explores the confluences between desire and creation, and the deep well of things unknown, yet urgently felt, that inform them both.
Enigmatic narratives and spatial perplexities drive Sean Downey’s vividly weird paintings at LaMontagne Gallery. The artist casts a gimlet eye on New Age idealism, expansive fancies about the American West, and the “back to nature” approach to life.
A steeply pitched image of a ravaged forest, “Young Frankenstein” portrays denuded, chewed-up, fallen trees over a ground littered with wood chips. A rolled-up blanket with a blue, saw-tooth pattern associated with Native American textiles snakes its way across the bottom and up the trunk of a tree leaning into the scene. What might be a blue yoga mat arcs over one of the logs.
The title suggests bringing the dead back to life — to disastrous, even comical, consequences. The blanket and the mat read like items some well-meaning camper left behind — traces of an overheated society that values nature, contemplation, and history, but keeps on heedlessly wrecking forests.
“Wheel in a Wheel” also takes place in ragged nature, amid thigh-high cannabis plants. An old Japanese movie is being projected on a flat-faced boulder. A giant rope circles the boulder and drops over its top like a lock of hair. The green dome of a nylon tent squats beside the rock. A woman with her back to us spray paints a red ladder. Maybe she hopes to climb to “way in the middle of the air,” where, the folk song says, Ezekiel saw a wheel in a wheel.
The song is about faith and God’s grace. The painting seems to be about the transporting powers of the imagination, via film, pot, or art. Whether any of those will take us way in the middle of the air remains to be seen — a ladder is one shoddy way to climb that high.
If Downey’s paintings tell mysterious stories, they’re equally filled with hope and cynicism. That, and the lush colors (his skies are backdrop flat, and lustrous), and the occasional bollixing of space, engage the eye, and more.
Fort Point Channel is a vast canvas. When I was there on a cool, gray day last week, Peter Agoos’s public art piece “Tropical Fort Point” floated in the middle of the channel between the Summer and Congress Street bridges, dwarfed by the murky green water surrounding it. Several Majesty Palm trees, each on its own little floating island, seemed to cower in the wind. They’ll be up for Fort Point Spring Open Studios this weekend, and through June 15.
Riding on the water, the palm trees project higher tides and warmer temperatures, even as they whisper about paradise. But they look unfortunately pathetic, overpowered by their surroundings. To be visually effective, there need to be more trees (I counted 15 or 16). Or perhaps just one: Its singularity and solitude would play against the channel’s scale, and viewers might relate to it.
Sean Downey: HUNKER Hawser
At: LaMontagne Gallery,
555 East 2nd St.,
South Boston, through
May 17. 617-464-4640, www.lamontagnegallery.com
Peter Agoos: Tropical Fort Point
At: Fort Point Channel, between Congress and Summer Street bridges, through June 15.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.