Jeff Huckleberry, a big, bald guy with a bushy beard, removed his glasses. Then he stood in a low box, drank some red pigment, smeared it on his face, and poured a bucket of it over his head. He did the same with orange paint, and yellow, and green, and on through the colors of the rainbow.
So began Huckleberry’s performance art piece last Thursday, the first of several performances by different artists scheduled throughout “Jeff Huckleberry: Things About Rainbows,” at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery through Aug. 24. After each performance, the remnants, such as Huckleberry’s paint-spattered box, will be left in the gallery for exhibition. Huckleberry’s the headliner, but his work will not always be what’s on view. (He will perform again on July 31.)
For most of the nearly 90-minute piece, the artist, who has been performing for 20 years, enacted an existentialist drama. He stripped to his paint-soaked briefs and dragged blocks of wood around by his neck. He played a wailing harmonica into more buckets of paint. He sealed bottles of beer into a long, low box, and then rolled with it in his arms over the floor. Hulking yet vulnerable, Huckleberry was captivating.
Performance art is more ritual than theater. Each of Huckleberry’s actions was charged with meaning. He seemed to be in a trance. What does it signify when a man pours paint over his head? It’s a baptism in color and materiality, an induction into the otherworldly world of art.
The wooden blocks, the low wooden boxes, and a bundle of wooden beams refer to sculpture, and Huckleberry’s personal history. He comes from “a family of ne’er-do-well carpenters,” he told a group of gallery guides before the performance.
The rough-hewn blocks are big and burdensome. During one passage, Huckleberry awkwardly lifted seven, one after the other, and tethered each to the ceiling. Would he drop one? Would he hurt himself? He didn’t. He had created a magnetic tension in his performance between everyman and shaman.
In the end, Huckleberry, in his broad and bungling way, poked holes into paint buckets he had set on those swinging blocks, and made fountains. He set up a pump through the seat of a chair he had sawed in half, and made another fountain. All that spouting paint felt celebratory. He put his glasses back on, looked around at what he had wrought, and the performance ended.
Did he leave an art exhibition behind, or just a bunch of messy, paint-sprayed props? It can go either way with performance art, but Huckleberry started off with a visual organization that already prompted engagement. A low box was propped on its side and smeared with green; it’s not a great painting, but it cleverly melds sandbox and painting. The row of swinging blocks, each coated and dripping now with a different color, looks like a sculptural installation. And the sheer havoc done to the gallery with spouting paint has a crazy, explosive energy.
Other artists in the lineup — curated by Daniel S. DeLuca, the director of Mobius, the nearly 40-year-old performance and exhibition space in Cambridge — include performance art luminaries such as Alastair MacLennan, Marilyn Arsem, and James Luna. Luna will perform Thursday, along with Sandy Huckleberry, Jeff Huckleberry’s wife. The full roster is at www.bcaonline.org.
Koetsch starts with sculpture
Performance and multimedia artist Geoffrey Koetsch has a retrospective up at The Quarry, Contemporary Arts International’s headquarters in Acton. Performance art revolves around the figure, and Koetsch started out as a figurative sculptor. In this show, he recycles sculptures and photographic works he has made into new tableaus, a strategy that echoes how our own internal personae recycle and, one hopes, evolve over the years.
Koetsch detoured into architecture and machining techniques in the late 1980s. “Gothic (Condensed)” comes from that period, and stands outside the gallery’s entrance. The lean, skeletal, metal structure borrows the lines of a double-apse medieval cathedral. In the center, Koetsch has placed a white plinth covered with white bone ash, like the remains of a body lying in state in a streamlined sacred space. During the run of the exhibition, Koetsch will occasionally lie on the ash-covered plinth himself, in performance.
His figurative sculptures work best pulled into larger narratives, as in “Node,” where a figure seated in a lotus position has countless wires and a metal armature like a root system springing from his head. Small monitors on the floor display his neural impulses, from 18th-century genre paintings to computer circuitry.
“Rub a Dub Dub,” a video of a performance Koetsch did at Mobius in May, first has him in conversation with three figures: a wise man, a fool, and the Buddha. The obvious dialogue takes away from the impact of the visual: The figures are all in a metal can. A slapstick bit follows, in which he attempts to play a suave romantic, and keeps knocking into things. This, too, feels more didactic than organic.
But his third scene, in which he strips down, wordlessly passes through a portal, and covers himself in white bone ash, is spare and powerful. Here, Koetsch doesn’t distract us, or himself, with the voices in his head. He confronts mortality, and brings us right along with him.
Jeff Huckleberry: Things About Rainbows
At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through
Aug. 24. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org
Geoffrey Koetsch: A Retrospective
At: The Quarry, Contemporary Arts International, 68 Quarry Road, Acton, through
July 31. 617-699-6401, www.quarryfestivals.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.