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At MassArt, a painter’s feminist homage and a DJ’s sonic installation invite the public in

Born decades apart in Boston, both May Stevens and Jace Clayton grew up in the area and make art with an activist edge

May Stevens's “Alice in the Garden,” 1988. Acrylic on canvas. © May Stevens. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.Mel Taing/RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

Activist artists come in all stripes, and two are now on view at MassArt Art Museum. Feminist artist May Stevens’s large-hearted paintings make a fiery contrast to Jace Clayton’s clever sonic installation art, which invites the community in to play. Born decades apart in Boston, the artists both grew up in the area. The shows were organized by the museum’s artistic director Lisa Tung with curatorial fellow Michaela Blanc.

“May Stevens: My Mothers” spotlights monumental paintings from the 1980s Stevens made of her own mother, Alice Dick Stevens, and Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), whom the artist considered her “spiritual mother.” Stevens, who died in 2019 at 95, was a founding member of the art activist group the Guerrilla Girls, who are coming to speak at MassArt on April 26.


May Stevens's "Forming the Fifth International,” 1985. Acrylic on canvas. © May Stevens. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York. Mel Taing/RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

A double portrait of Stevens’s two mothers, “Forming the Fifth International,” takes center stage. One is “an isolated Massachusetts housewife who did not finish elementary school,” writes critic and associate editor at Art in America magazine Emily Watlington in the show’s brochure. The other is an activist and social philosopher who critiqued capitalism, imperialist power structures, and the exploitation of workers.

Luxemburg is in black and white, as if lifted from an old photograph, looking directly at the viewer. The elderly Alice, painted in color, shares the lush green painting field with Luxemburg. She doesn’t meet our gaze. Stevens puts the two on equal footing, making a woman largely forgotten to history as monumental as one whose ideas reverberate a century after her death — an equation Luxemburg would no doubt approve of.

Stevens depicts Alice often two, three, or four times in one work. Many images are set outside her mother’s Framingham nursing home. Alice lived a hard life; her son, Stevens’s younger brother Stacey, died of pneumonia as a teenager, and Alice was later committed to a state mental hospital. The painter portrayed her father, Alice’s husband, Ralph, a pipefitter, as a phallic-headed symbol of patriarchy in her “Big Daddy” series. (There’s one small silkscreen here — cartoonish and in sync with Philip Guston’s figures also made starting in the late 1960s.)


At the time of these portraits, Alice suffered from dementia — a fate Stevens, who died of Alzheimer’s, also met. It’s stunning to see the older woman, disconnected and not meeting our eyes but still insistently present, tenderly painted in suffragette white. The painter gives particular attention to her mother’s hands, symbols of tender touch and hard work. As a cognitively impaired older woman, Alice was a member of a forsaken class. Presenting her again and again on a large scale grants her the honor society did not.

May Stevens's “Fore River,” 1983. Acrylic on canvas. © May Stevens. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York. Mel Taing/RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

The show concludes with “Fore River,” in which two portraits of Alice bracket a shimmery image that emerged from studies of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, where Rosa Luxemburg’s body was tossed after her assassination. Stevens often wove together unlikely pieces of history. Fore River is a Weymouth estuary; her father worked at the Fore River Shipyard. This painting’s composition invites us in; Alice’s open hands echo the open waterway. But the history is dark for these mothers. Open yourself up to the river of life, and get thrown in.

Stevens used her expressive paintings to critique societal power structures; Clayton is a social practice artist. His playful interactive work brings people — and musical cultures — together. The artist, who started out as a DJ as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1990s, uses algorithms to take apart and reconstruct familiar sounds, moving them through space.


Installation view of Jace Clayton's “40 Part Part,” 2022. Forty speakers on stands, wooden benches and plinth, electronics, custom software. On view at the MassArt Art Museum, Boston. Courtesy of the artist. Mel Taing

His exhibition, “They Are Part,” revolves around a visually minimal, sonically rich installation. “40 Part Part” features black speakers on wooden stands in a circle, a direct quotation of Janet Cardiff’s 2001 “The Forty Part Motet.” Cardiff used the speakers to separate out the voices of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a 16th-century Thomas Tallis piece. Viewers could wander the installation as if surrounded by the choir itself, listening from different vantage points.

Clayton’s update invites visitors to play audio stored on their own devices, which he scrambles algorithmically. That twist — my own soundtrack driving the art — makes the experience viscerally personal. The sound unfolds, or chitters and stutters, bouncing and chasing itself around the circle. For me, hearing Clayton’s riff on “Pachelbel’s Canon” was at once upsetting and enticing; it was like a familiar picture breaking up kaleidoscopically. Then, an audio of a conversation I’d had with friends took on rhythm and consonance that turned it into music.

The artist uses digital means to examine and shake up cultural tropes. He crafted “Sufi Plug Ins” after realizing that computer programs generally use Western musical scales and tones. The software is on instruments available for playing, including synthesizers tuned to Arabic scales. Play, listen, and learn.


Continuing the community engagement, Clayton composes music based on the repertoires of local music groups, and stages concerts. On April 20, the Boston Community Choir will perform their own program of gospel music, and a piece Clayton has written for them.

Clayton and Stevens have little in common, but both apply their ingenuity and craft to inviting the unseen in and making the world more welcoming. In the free museum of a public art school, that’s especially apt.



At MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave., through July 30.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at