Sculptor Alison Saar has worked with plenty of materials laden with metaphorical possibilities, but until she did a stint in 2011 as artist-in-residence at Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle, she had never worked with glass. The experience laid the groundwork for “Alison Saar: Still . . .” at the Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
The artist has for decades made searing pieces that reveal stinging biases based on race and sex. At Pilchuk, her work echoed the look of laboratory glass and moonshine stills. These make up the center of this show organized by the Otis College of Art and Design. It takes on horrible clarity as it distills some of the muck of prejudice and historical injustice.
For instance, “Still Run Dry” looks like discarded, half-finished lab experiments, or abandoned still equipment, only the glass receptacles are modeled after body parts: lungs, breasts, a sliced-open womb with thorny sticks and charcoal inside. Again and again, Saar returns to the flagrant use of African-Americans as commodities, as bodies rather than people. “Still Run Dry” pointedly evokes medical research’s role in that commodification — think of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men, or the appropriation of Henrietta Lacks’s cells.
Several of Saar’s stills actually drip or squirt fluid. “Mammy Machine” features a cluster of pendulous brown glass breasts that drip water into an old washtub. With works such as this, the sculptor embodies discomforting stereotypes that sometimes feel like throwbacks. Although there’s no denying the power of her imagery, these would be more effective if they captured the subtler manifestations of those ways of thinking as they pervade American society today.
Not all the pieces here are glass. Saar’s haunting, large-scale figural works often tackle the same theme. “Weight” sets a fiberglass girl on what looks like a swing, until you see it’s actually a scale, of the type once used to weigh cotton. Several tools counterbalance her, as if she’s worth her weight in work.
More open-ended sculptures leaven the show. The magical realism in “Rouse” feels elementally hopeful: A dark woman with antlers cradles in those antlers a golden woman, who appears bound up in an umbilical cord. Time is passing — shed antlers litter the ground around the dark woman’s hoofed feet — but something new and infused with light is coming to be.
The comical “Hankerin’ Heart” series features three cast bronze hearts supported by long, root-like legs — they resemble scurrying spiders, and recall Louise Bourgeois’s monstrous spider sculptures. They’re ugly, skulking things. Yet, maybe because they’re hearts, you can’t help but cheer them on.
History leaves a ton of baggage for us to carry and sort (Saar makes that literal in “Vestige,” in which a figure sits atop a mountain of trunks). The work in this stirring exhibit cracks open some painful packages, but it also unpacks some sweetness.
Surfaces from above, below
“Surface,” upstairs in MassArt’s Stephen D. Paine Gallery, tackles one of the essential building blocks of painting, and takes it well beyond pigment and canvas. Curators Lisa Tung and Darci Hanna come at surface from above and below. They have chosen works that provide retinal zing, whether with texture, pattern, or reflectivity. Then they have added pieces that peel off the surface or look beneath it.
In the first group, Lauren Fensterstock’s “Colorless Field (Marsh)” sprawls over the gallery floor, all made of cut black paper, charcoal, and Plexiglas. Thousands of long blades of paper grass surround a still, reflective pool of Plexi; the charcoal dust and pebbles fill in as earth. It’s flourishing but scorched black, quiet but obsessively detailed and textured.
Nearby hang Nicole Chesney’s paintings on acid-etched and mirrored glass — which gives them reflectivity and mysterious depth. “Violet Nocturne,” fluttering with gestures, might depict a murmuration of starlings in a night sky.
Surface is often about seduction. Beth Lipman’s gleaming glass works (and photos of glass), based on still life paintings and their historic emphasis on how fleeting life is, represent lush objects of desire that cannot be had. Then there’s Marilyn Minter’s outrageously seductive (and ubiquitous) video “Green Pink Caviar,” in which she seems to press her mouth against the surface of the screen, moving wildly colored gels and globules around with her bright pink lips and tongue.
Those works that go under the surface, while exploring what surface means, are trickier. Environmental Services, the art company run by Doug Weathersby (with consultant James Hull), put up vinyl murals, creating false doorways and a window, some of which peer into the gallery’s storage areas. These go beneath the gallery’s veneer to expose machinations behind the scenes, but try to walk into one and you’ll bash your nose.
Kristina Estell, for a pair of works titled “As You Were,” made silicone rubber molds of the gallery’s historical friezes. The molds now drape loosely on pegs or hooks in the gallery wall. Figures from the friezes crumple and fold. The negative space their impressions leave looks like the interiors of masks, and suggests something inside.
Any show on this topic could run on dazzle alone. Digging beneath, Tung and Hanna raise juicy questions about why surface has such power.
At: Stephen D. Paine Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design,
through March 1.