FRAMINGHAM - Back in 2006, painter Morgan Bulkeley had a party at his house in the Berkshires. He and several old friends were celebrating the opening of an exhibition of their work at a Great Barrington gallery. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bulkeley and artists such as Scott Prior, Mark Cooper, and Gerry Bergstein shared a studio building in Cambridge, and at the time called themselves the Boston Ten.
On Bulkeley’s porch that day, Cooper shared paper and paints, and the group started passing one partially drawn work from one artist to the next. Later that year, Bulkeley developed glaucoma and for a time couldn’t work at his usual large scale, so he began making small drawings and shipping them off to his friends, who added their own touches. In time, the network expanded to 24 artists. The fruit of their play, “Boston Ten and Beyond: Collaborations’’ is on view at the Danforth Museum.
The roster of contributors reads like a who’s who of Massachusetts artists, many with wildly varying styles. Prior is a realist; Bergstein is an expressionist. Cooper dabbles in almost everything and makes burgeoning collages and sculptures. Bulkeley’s paintings have a graphic novel sensibility. Then there’s whimsical colorist Todd McKie, sculptor Taylor Davis, and Anne Neely, who paints layered, abstracted landscapes. Also involved: pop-assemblage artist Jarvis Rockwell, who is Norman Rockwell’s son; mixed-media artist Nanny Vonnegut, married to Prior and who is Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter; and painter and sculptor Maggie Mailer, offspring of Norman Mailer.
The exhibit features 49 of their 113 resulting works, which the artists have donated to the Danforth. They are light-hearted, often goofy, and distinctly surreal. The group’s process is loosely based on the Surrealist practice known as “exquisite corpse,’’ which started in Paris in the 1920s. Groups of poets would share authorship by writing a line, folding the page to hide the words, and passing it to the next writer. In drawings, pages were also folded and parts hidden from the artists.
The Boston Ten and their buddies don’t fold the paper. They work off what they’re given, so the results aren’t quite as wacky or dissonant as that of the Surrealists. But they’re often joyfully comic, and shifting styles within one drawing shake up the viewing experience.
Some pieces come together brilliantly. Bulkeley, Rockwell, Prior, and Miroslav Antic (who contributes lush, sometimes iconic, watercolor figures) put together “Untitled #44.’’ Bulkeley started with a pen-and-ink critter with feathers on its head, a spiraling snout, and a hand emerging from its mouth. The hand touches a curving line that can be read as a breast - it’s Rockwell’s contribution, and the line slides up an arched neck and over the face of an open-mouthed woman blowing smoke rings.
But in the arc below her chin nestles an oval, like a balloon, so that line Bulkeley’s figure grasps could be a string. In the oval, Prior draws a portrait of a stern, mustachioed man. Rockwell’s smoke rings hover over Antic’s shimmering cowboy on horseback. The piece, with all its disparate parts, hangs neatly along the spine of Rockwell’s drawing, and becomes a meditation on desire.
I’m familiar with many of the artists, and that put me at a disadvantage to seeing the works whole. I found myself parsing each of them: which gesture was whose handiwork. Sometimes, as in “Untitled #2,’’ it’s evident and the piece is punchy and precise, with the three styles of Bulkeley, Prior, and McKie in harmony: Bulkeley’s giant fly pauses menacingly over Prior’s oblivious man in a business suit, who balances one of McKie’s simple square-heads on his finger like a die he’s about to toss.
Mostly, each artist takes his or her own space on the page, but in a handful of works Bulkeley created with Cooper and Davis, everything collides. “Untitled #108’’ has loosely drawn geometric forms which I’m guessing are Bulkeley’s, with Cooper’s messy, big, exploding head on a tiny stick-figure body layered over them. Davis adds stencil letters: “ta ta’’ at the top, “Boys’’ and “Mens’’ on either side, as if she’s ready to exit the sandbox. Pieces like this are nervier - but Bulkeley’s part feels lost in the mash-up.
In the best works, the artists have neatly tied the elements together. In “Untitled #1,’’ Bulkeley, Jessica Hess, Bergstein, and his wife, painter Gail Boyajian, together draw a scene of a bird investigating a giant cricket, which stands on a rubble of ancient statuary and body parts. A water tower rises in the distance. Icons of Western culture appear to be crumbling under the feet of an outsized insect, although the water tower suggests that human life and a modicum of industry press on.
None of these make perfect sense, nor should they. There’s anxiety about the environment and corporate culture. But what comes across most strongly is what a blast the artists had. Maybe collaborating on mixed-media pieces of a relatively small scale lightens the pressure to make serious art. “Boston Ten and Beyond: Collaborations’’ is not serious. But when this many good artists come together to doodle, it’s worth seeing.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.