Maybe you’ve heard of Jon Sarkin. A former chiropractor, he had a brain hemorrhage back in the late 1980s, followed by a stroke that nearly killed him, and he came through the ordeal an artist with an antic need to create. He has received a lot of media attention, not so much for his art as for his story, and last year a biography of Sarkin came out, “Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey From Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph,’’ by Amy Ellis Nutt.
But what about his art? Sarkin, who works out of a studio in Gloucester, has an exhibit up at VSA Massachusetts Open Door Gallery. VSA Massachusetts is a state-funded agency supporting disabled artists. Independent curator Lorri Berenberg put the exhibit together; she specializes in fostering the work of outsider artists - that is, artists who are self-taught, and sometimes disabled. They break into the art establishment from outside.
“Jon Sarkin: Line by Line,’’ features two distinct bodies of work, one quite captivating, the other muddy and unrealized. The first reads like a wild, internal architecture of lists, patterns, and nervy characters. Text perseverates over most of these pieces.
In “They That Go Down,’’ the phrase “They that go down to the sea in ships’’ hovers at the top, above a wide-jawed cartoon figure with one big, round eye and a blue Mohawk. Sarkin scrawls “Utah’’ repeatedly over this one, and he name checks Keith Moon, Vermeer, and “Crumb Crumb Crumb Crumb.’’
These works are crisp, wacky, and unnerving. All the stray parts, the obsessive lines and patterns, the occasional dirty washes of color that recall cotton candy or scorched earth, coalesce into a muttering, demanding whole. There’s a vision here, one that gnaws at you and pokes at your sleeve.
For “Clinched Teeth,’’ Sarkin leaves the text out, and populates his page with an oddball gallery of his figures, who merge into an overall scene that is part city, part machine. They recall the nervous energy and defiance of R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman. The result is muscular and demanding.
What a disappointment, then, is the second group: portraits, all scrawled with wild, frantic lines, very few with readable features or suggesting distinct subjects. There’s a self-portrait, and “Spider Man’’ is identifiable. I found myself wondering if Sarkin chose the superhero because he has virtually no features, just a mask with big blank eyes. “The Painter’’ sports a white Van Dyke, and reads like a stereotype of an artiste. These have none of the smarts, originality, or skill of Sarkin’s patterns and lists, nor do they seem to have any purpose. They’re just another opportunity for manic scribbling.
“Boston Does Boston V,’’ Proof Gallery’s annual celebration of local artists, is a group show that has the potential to be all too random. Proof tapped three artists, and each of those chose another. The six artists, all women, have put together a surprisingly cohesive and thoughtful show.
The installation work particularly stands out. Two of these small installations served as the basis for performances. Often, with performance art, the installation left over in the gallery amounts to an array of inscrutable relics. Not here. Alice Vogler’s “Center of the Human Color Sphere,’’ all in shades of gray, has strings and ribbons and yarn spilling in single strands out of beautiful glass jars off a shelf and into a great tangle on the floor. The title ironically suggests that the human color sphere, whatever that might be, is colorless and unraveling, yet frail and beautiful. Jennifer Moses’s paintings, such as “Over-Under,’’ coiling with lines, make an apt echo.
Maria Molteni’s “There is space for us’’ features a vintage dress, navy with white polka dots, hanging in a corner also painted navy with white dots - a lovely melding of domestic with cosmic. Beneath the dress, a shelf holds a smooth gray stone with a circle of white and a beautifully patterned wooden egg, which seems to cast a shadow of an apple. These read like pebbles left on a grave marker, acknowledging something large and mysterious. Here, too, another artist’s works reverberate: Susan Scott’s painting-like objects, which are swaddled in fabric.
Upstairs, Andrea Sherrill Evans pairs her silverpoint drawing of a spindly birch tree, “Marker #1,’’ a quiet, humble, fastidious work which she has rather violently splattered with a single spray of orange paint, with the installation “Reparations.’’ In it, she has tied and bandaged together previously split birch logs, as if she’s trying to rebuild a forest.
You have to take off your shoes to experience Faith Johnson’s “Vortex.’’ She has carved a contemplative space out of the gallery with crisscrossing strings. Visitors can go in on hands and knees and meditate. Johnson has placed some crystals on a mirror inside, unfortunately trite as objects of meditation. Like the late minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback, this artist builds a delicate, transparent architecture out of string. I’d be curious to see her grow this kind of work to a larger scale, one that doesn’t require crawling to enter.
JON SARKIN: Line by Line
At: VSA Massachusetts Open Door Gallery, 89 South St., through March 9.
BOSTON DOES BOSTON V
At: Proof Gallery, 516 E. 2nd St., South Boston, through Feb.
25. 617-702-2761, www.proof-gallery.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.