The Foster Prize, launched at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1999, is a vital biennial showcase of contemporary work made in the city and its immediate orbit. That might seem like a no-brainer for the ICA, but really, not so. Contemporary art has always been a notoriously exclusive global enterprise, dominated by the industry’s nerve centers in New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and a handful of others. The cabal of dealers and institutions that cluster there vet and stamp their approval first before distributing judgment to the provinces as though it were some act of charitable grandiloquence.
As donors and patrons push the financial stakes ever higher, the system reinforces the falsehood that important art can only come from the world’s biggest, wealthiest centers. That’s wrong, but try telling the investor class its money is well spent on artists in Portland or Cincinnati — or, for that matter, Boston — and see how far you get.
That makes endeavors like the Foster Prize all the more crucial. This year, curator Ruth Erickson visited 50 artists in their studios and chose four: Rashin Fahandej, Josephine Halvorson, Lavaughan Jenkins, and Helga Roht Poznanski. Each has a distinct take. Halvorson’s paintings at the ICA are of the ground at her feet, closely observed. Jenkins paints portraits in three dimensions, mounding up squibs of oil paint into 8-inch-high, sculpturally rough human form. Poznanski, approaching her 90s, has spent a lifetime painting spare, beautiful abstract watercolors, making her the most senior of any emerging artist I know of.
I was entranced by the subversive slyness of Jenkins, who is black, and what his work seemed to say about representation more broadly: That conventional portraiture was a trapping of privilege he didn’t have, leaving him to remake the form itself. But the sample-size display for each artist — one small room apiece — works very much in favor of one: Fahandej, whose immersive multichannel video is a show-stealing tour de force.
The piece is raw but gentle, urgent but somehow timeless, a magnum opus propelled by parallel narratives with a binding theme. “A Father’s Lullaby” centers on the homecomings of dozens of incarcerated men. Each one is a thread woven into a deeply affecting emotional whole. There’s no particular story here, which is a strength. “A Father’s Lullaby” is atmospheric, not linear, pieced together in a fluid patchwork of image and sound, longing and loss, mirroring the bleakly disconnected lives of families left without fathers and sons.
The hard work of a piece like “A Father’s Lullaby” is transcending its inherent bluntness. Tales of woe, told straight, lose dimension. They make for solidly overwrought documentary, but fail the test of art. It’s not enough to serve up cross-fades and weepy music. The piece has to cut through, move from specific to universal, from immediate to enduring. It has to conjure the strange magic of the ineffable.
A good measure for me, often, is how a work can leave me without words. I don’t know why it works, exactly, only that it does. “A Father’s Lullaby” is one of those works. It’s wholly absorbing without being cloying or sentimental. It moves easily from personal trauma to broader, systemic social failings without preaching or scolding. Its voices haunt, its images linger. It gets under your skin because you want it to. Judging from the packed crowd in the gallery — on a recent Wednesday afternoon, no less — I’d say I’m hardly alone.
The work’s power lies in its balance of immediacy and distance. Men are shot square on, from the shoulders up, with a simple black background. They are black, Hispanic, Asian, white (though, like the prison population itself, disproportionately black). They stare right at you but reveal little. Fahandej’s subjects speak about what it means to be absent as fathers. Or they sing, a cappella, phrases from familiar songs (when one sang “Turn around and you’re two/Turn around and you’re four/Turn around and you’re a young man walking out of my door,” I felt my own parental heart tighten and drop). At one point, several dozen appear as a grid, speaking and singing at intervals, often over each other. Together, there’s a strange camaraderie but no coherence — a tableau of unresolvable loss. (The artist, knowing certain viewers would crave something solid, obliges with three listening stations where you can hear some of the men describe their specific circumstances.)
Fahandej is rarely explicit, but she sets her scene with an opening sequence of a man — who appears head to toe as an undulating visual swirl, unrecognizable — speaking frankly about his life, past to present. He tells the story of a man knocking on the door when he was 12, and learning, in that moment, that this stranger was his father, returned from prison. His brief story ends almost offhandedly with his adult experience of going to jail when his own children are 7 and 3, not to be released until they’ve reached their 20s. “The main question from all of them is, ‘Why did you leave?’ ” he says, before his quivering form disperses like sand in a stiff wind. “A Father’s Lullaby” has no answer, because no answer is enough.
THE FOSTER PRIZE
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Dec. 31. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org