At Mass Art, opening eyes to potential of living spaces

David Henderson’s ‘‘A History of Aviation—Part 2.” (DAVID HENDERSON )

Many of the environments we pass through every day are numbing. Office cubicles lit by fluorescent lights, big box stores, strip malls - they’re all utilitarian, if not ugly. They strangle the spirit. Art museums and universities have been in the forefront of audacious design, inviting forward-thinking architects to create environments that refresh the eye and reawaken our relationship to space.

Paula Hayes’s ‘‘Grouping of Terrariums’’ in ‘‘Verdant.”

The Fenway has been abuzz with such activity lately, first with Norman Foster’s Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, then with Renzo Piano’s transparent new building at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Massachusetts College of Art and Design, too, has recently raised a distinctive new structure, a towering pencil box of a dormitory designed by ADD, Inc. It shakes up the cityscape.

Mass Art now has a vivifying exhibit, “Edifice Amiss: Constructing New Perspectives,’’ in the Stephen D. Paine Gallery, which aims to reinvent the way we experience space. It’s a sharp show curated by gallery director Lisa Tung - small, with only three works, but capacious. Each is engulfing.

The exhibit follows on the heels of last fall’s “Temporary Structures: Performing Architecture in Contemporary Art’’ at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. That show highlighted artists using performance to transform environments. This one focuses on the drama of the structures themselves.

In Verdant Artist, “Grouping of Terrariums” by Paula Hayes.

David Henderson’s installation “A History of Aviation - Part 2,’’ for instance, seems to billow through the spacious gallery like angels’ wings. He borrows - and topples - the interior fan vaulting of Bath Abbey, a medieval church. The elegant ribs and spandrels, here fashioned from white sailcloth, don’t soar toward the heavens. They beckon you in and surround you. The overturned architecture fits elegantly beneath the high, arched windows of the Paine Gallery, which echo the lines of the work.

The gallery has an odd little balcony, which must constantly pose challenges and possibilities to Tung and her team. This time around, they’ve filled it with Esther Stocker’s untitled minimalist installation. Stocker has painted floor and walls dun, and affixed black-painted pine slats - all straight lines and right angles - everywhere.

They rise like big, dark croquet wickets, they jut off the wall, they make Ls on the floor. It’s a wonderfully understated counterpoint to Henderson’s piece, but no less rigorous. I had the sensation of being trapped within a binary code, in a dwarf forest of distilled data. It’s unsettling.

Lead Pencil Studio’s quirky “City Surface’’ falls somewhere between Stocker’s minimalism and Henderson’s extravagance. The artist duo of Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo have built a span to wander down from the balcony that replicates the sidewalks of an urban neighborhood, all in wood. There’s a newsstand, a mailbox, a newspaper box, storefronts with grates pulled in front of them, a signpost, air conditioners - but no asphalt, concrete or metal, no signage, no color but bare wood, mostly plywood. They have pared the visual bustle of the city down to its minutely detailed essential forms, like a blank canvas waiting for paint.

There’s little color in “Edifice Amiss,’’ but you can find that downstairs, in “Verdant,’’ a show spotlighting artists who utilize living plants. Some of these pieces, too, consider how to reawaken us to our environments.

Paula Hayes’s “Grouping of Terrariums’’ would do any office setting good. They’re also intricate and absorbing works of art, set in hand-blown glass containers. These miniature worlds hold a particular fascination; when I was there, visitors spent several minutes peering into just one or two of the burgeoning micro-gardens, the way you might gaze at the tiny, detailed world of a model train set.

Less impressive is Workingman Collective’s “Swing,’’ a double porch swing surrounded by houseplants, selected because they’ve been proven to be effective at cleaning the air. Put something like this outside a strip mall and it might begin to infringe on the drudgery. In an art gallery, its mild pleasance isn’t enough.

British artist Tim Knowles came to Boston last fall to make several works for his “Tree Drawing’’ series. They’re impish, but they also challenge us to consider what constitutes art. On windy days, Knowles fastens markers to branches and sets up easels. Here, he pairs the resulting drawings with photos and videos of the botanical artists. Anthropomorphizing the situation is irresistible. The jittery drawings merit critique and suggest intention. The bowing branch evokes an artist’s hand.

Most of these works are playful, with a cajoling undertone about caring for the environment. Binh Danh’s remarkable and pointed “Military Foliage’’ doesn’t fit that rubric. Danh, a Vietnamese-born artist, uses techniques to print negatives directly onto leaves. It takes several weeks and a lot of sunlight.

Here, he prints camouflage patterns over tropical leaves, framing each and filling a gallery wall. The installation references the US military’s defoliation campaign in Vietnam, and the devastation wrought by Agent Orange. It’s a layered evocation of the land itself, and the echo of the land in camouflage gear, and how war inevitably leaves a wretched imprint.

EDIFICE AMISS: Constructing New Perspectives

Through March 3


Through March 10

At: Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., 617-879-7333,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at