In the early days of the pandemic, Eben Haines was just one of many artists in Boston cut adrift by the sudden closure of everything. What would happen to showing art, to say nothing of the convivial gathering and community building it generated, with everything locked up tight?
Unlike his peers, Haines had a fallback plan: In 2019, he’d built a pint-size art gallery on the kitchen table of his apartment in Jamaica Plain to address the more workaday challenges of being an artist in a city where merciless real estate pressure made space in which to work and show a rare and expensive commodity.
The little gallery — with its walls of mini faux brick and black-paned windows lending an air of post-industrial dollhouse chic — had a simple role. Haines would work in miniature (scale: 1 inch to 1 foot) and photograph his pieces in situ for online viewing. But along with a lack of space, another fact of being an artist in Boston, which almost inevitably requires a day job, is lack of time; so the little gallery ended up on the shelf for, as Haines recently recalled, a “rainy day.”
Then, in March of 2020, it poured: With widespread lockdowns leaving whole cities-full of artists with nowhere to show, Haines was ready. By April, he and his then-fiancee, Delaney Dameron, had made an open call to local artists for exhibition ideas for the tiny space. For a suddenly socially distanced world, it was a perfect stopgap: Artists could submit an entire exhibition in a shoebox, and Haines and Dameron could install it to be photographed for virtual viewing on Instagram. (Instagram also tells me that, as of last month, the pair are now married.)
They called it the Shelter in Place Gallery, a literal reflection of its moment. But it’s been far more than a moment, both for the pandemic and the project. More than a year later, Shelter in Place is no longer a stopgap; the little space has hosted more than 100 exhibitions, most by local artists, making it quite likely the most vital and timely showcase of artistic activity in the city over this long, strange span.
It’s also landed in “New Light,” a showcase of new acquisitions at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Not to worry: While the gallery sits under glass in the museum, Haines and Dameron had a backup ready to go, and exhibitions on Instagram march ever on.) The museum, in its description, calls Shelter in Place “an historical marker of a moment of crisis as well as an innovative artistic response to it.” While that’s true, it only captures the start of a story very much in progress. Museums and galleries reopened, by and large, either in summer or fall 2020, but Shelter in Place has kept making shows for its ever-growing following, which is now at nearly 12,000.
That’s because the ultimate genius of Shelter in Place is more durable and expansive than a crisis response. Haines’s initial impulse still holds true: Pandemic or not, affordable space to make or show art outside the big footprints of the city’s museums is scarce, indeed (this, of course, is not just a Boston problem, and exhibitions have expanded recently to welcome artists from all over).
Shelter in Place may be a marker of a crisis, but the pandemic flashpoint only illuminates a larger, longer, and ultimately more damaging concern: a rapid and ballooning affordability crisis in the city’s core that threatens to displace not just creative activity but a whole breadth of dynamic and diverse commerce and culture. With Shelter in Place, Haines and Dameron represent just one branch of that dynamism; they also remind us, with so much bursting forth from their little Instagram window, how much there is to lose — and how much has been lost already.
So it’s with more than a little irony, I think, that Haines finds himself inside two of the city’s major museums this fall. As well as “New Light,” Haines is also one of three artists to receive the 2021 Foster Prize, given every two years by the Institute of Contemporary Art to Boston-area artists. At the award exhibition, each artist — Haines, Dell Marie Hamilton, and Marlon Forrester — are shown discretely and apart, in mini solo show fashion.
Hamilton, whose work as a curator — notably, the recent, brilliant “Nine Moments for Now” at Harvard’s Cooper Gallery in 2018 — draws from her incisive view of the exclusions of history, transforms the gallery into a personal archive of the art historian Susan Denker, a legendary long-term professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts who specialized in African American art and culture. Forrester, currently an artist in residence at Northeastern’s African American Master Artists-in-Residence Program, is showing five paintings from his 2021 series “If Black Saints Could Fly 23: si volare posset nigra XXIII sanctorum,” which integrate white devotional motifs with well-known Black figures from Barack Obama to George Floyd and Trayvon Martin.
Haines, for his part, creates a thoroughly immersive world: the product, perhaps, of a year and a half of pent-up big thinking being funneled into something so small. He calls it “Facades,” and it has the collective sense of a séance: big paintings with deep crease marks hung loose like tapestries over walls of painted beadboard; chairs and tables partly swallowed by walls.
There’s something painfully New England about it all, from the Shaker-style furniture to the undertones of occultism and blue-blooded secret societies (need I remind you, this very region is replete with spiritual utopian schemes that bled easily into experimental psychology, psychic metaphysics, telepathy). It’s to be taken as a whole, but you can pause to be impressed at Haines’s skill as a painter: In one canvas, a prone figure draped in a red shroud hovers above the ground; in another, a brittle autumnal landscape quivers beneath the flame of a burning candle and a fireball arcing across an ashen sky.
A sense of threat pervades; something is about to go badly wrong. Or maybe it already has? “Facades” is the literal point: Throughout the installation, Haines has peeled back the surface to reveal his own illusion. Walls are sliced at knee height, exposing crisp aluminum wall studs; slip behind a pointy gable and you’ll find that landscape tacked in front of the bland brown-paper backing of Home Depot-standard drywall.
Get the point? In his reckoning, the veneer of genteel power New England is slim, indeed — another illusion, like Shelter in Place’s projection of a capacious, democratic urban space open to broad expressions of culture. In one, power is losing its grip, and the veneer is showing its cracks; while in the other, the illusion may be all that’s left, once power is done with it. Haines’s illusions, ultimately, are not illusions at all, but visions of reality through a clarifying lens.
NEW LIGHT: ENCOUNTERS AND CONNECTIONS
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 6. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
THE FOSTER PRIZE
At Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Jan. 30. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org