Writer and activist James Baldwin likened an artist’s role to a lover’s. “If I love you,” he told an interviewer, “I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
Good art, like intimacy, involves revelation and awakening. Curator Chanel Thervil, takes that quickening as the theme of “The 26th Drawing Show: Field Notes: Lovers, Teachers, and the Consciousness in Between” at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery. She asked artists how the past arises in their art, who has shaped their identities, and how they work to raise consciousness.
The exhibition is less an ode to past influences than it is abuzz with present encounters. Thervil invited three artists who had never met — Kate Holcomb Hale, Soyoung L. Kim, and Stephen Hamilton — to collaborate on a mural. Hale’s abstract protrusions, Hamilton’s heroic figuration, and Kim’s seething landscape spill into one another. It’s an agitated yet hopeful work.
Elsewhere, Thervil elegantly brings unexpected pieces into conversation. Jessica Liggero’s drawing of a reclining man, “Good Morning,” rhymes in color and thrust with “In the Woods,” Ellen Rich’s shiny, irregularly shaped abstraction across the wall.
The past is felt, if not cited, in works about rupture and repair. Molly Kaderka’s “Not Undone” and Marsha Nouritza Odabashian’s epic “21’ Drawing” are crumpled, torn, and resurrected. Kaderka’s ghostly image of a pair of inky heads leaning together in exhaustion echoes the paper’s wear and tear, which she consecrates with gold stitching. Odabashian stains paper with boiled onion skin, then elaborates on its creases and smudges, rendering epic birds, figures, and goofy critters. The whole thing unfolds like creation itself: haphazard, savaged, and funny.
While there’s an orchestral effect to Thervil’s groupings, one work makes a strong solo in a darkened gallery. Young Joo Lee’s “Black Snow,” a stunning animation made with paper dolls, grieves the vulnerability of the Marshall Islands, poisoned by mid-20th-century nuclear testing and threatened by rising seas.
We frail humans often flinch from damage and pain. An artist stands fast and witnesses. That, too, is an act of love.
THE 26th DRAWING SHOW: FIELD NOTES: LOVERS, TEACHERS, AND THE CONSCIOUSNESS IN BETWEEN
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Dec. 22. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org