"Caleb Cole: Blue Boys & Histories" and "Judy Haberl: Flight," at Gallery Kayafas, share an often blue palette and have roots in World War II, but longing is the theme that ties them together. (The gallery is closed Wednesday and reopens Friday.)
Cole utilizes old photos to examine norms of masculinity, and to decode what might be obscured or repressed. In many works, that's homosexuality. The series "Blue Boys" features old portraits of men that Cole has printed as cyanotypes on personal ads pages from the 1970s. The heartfelt "Pansies" features cyanotypes of men on pansy-shaped stickpins.
The cyanotypes have intent: In the first half of the 20th century, homosexuals were removed from the US military with what was known as a blue discharge. So were African-Americans. It was neither honorable nor dishonorable. Veterans with a blue discharge received no benefits.
The more compelling works are less overt. They suggest tenderness, and leave the rest to our imaginations. Cole enlarges an old photo of a black sailor in "Open the Door," and at the top of the snapshot, someone has scrawled "Open the Door, R." This young man, in his era, might be trapped behind any number of metaphorical doors.
As a pilot flying from Burma to India during World War II, Haberl's father photographed Mt. Everest. Aerial photography captures a sublime breadth of landscape, reminding us of our own small size. Her spotty installation sometimes captures that, and then pushes it away.
On commercial flights between Boston and Colorado, Haberl took pictures out the windows. She printed those images in soft blues and browns on blankets and pillow shams, and created a landscape on the gallery floor. The bed is an apt metaphor for the earth.
The perspective is perfect: looking down re-creates a bird's eye view, with crisply gridded acreage and mountain crests stretching on both sides. But the installation has a path cleared for viewers to walk down the middle, and that disrupts the illusion Haberl seeks to create. Likewise, the floor strewn with bedding jarringly sets us in the middle of a slumber party, and it's hard to maintain a sense of expansiveness. A more sophisticated installation — a platform for the viewer? Better lighting? — would have benefitted the project.
Flood’s city views
The city is ephemeral in Sean Flood's ambitious paintings at Childs Gallery (reopening Jan. 2). In "Construction Chaos" you see what was there, what's new, and even what's to come. The building at the center is ghostly, a metal skeleton shrouded in breaths of white, through which we glimpse other structures. A traffic light blinks near the center — the green is unmistakable — but even it, on spindly stalks, seems on the verge of vanishing.
Flood used to work construction, and he brings that framework to the way he constructs his paintings and to his understanding of the life of a city. He's nimble with his brush; in "Hospital Windows" the cars on streets below are mere suggestions, and the chockablock city revolving around a crane at the very center seems a fluid whirl of grids patched with vivid greens, auburns, and blues.
Even more straightforward paintings, such as "Spring Day in Kenmore," feel hallucinatory. The street shimmers as a crosswalk stretches before us in aqua and mauve. Hard light and long shadows define the hazy scene; people are shadowy silhouettes, edged with golden light. To Flood, concrete and brick are whimsies — the city is more fleeting and capricious than it is solid.
Mills Gallery showcase
More than 40 artists have studios at the Boston Center for the Arts, and each year the Mills Gallery there stages a show of their work. "The Triggering Town: Details of Subtle Significance," this year's offering curated by Randi Hopkins and Zelana Davis, pales in comparison to other exhibitions at the Mills this past year (it reopens Jan. 3). There are Christmas tree ornaments, landscapes, animal paintings. All of a pretty good caliber, as such things go, but the show feels like a catchall.
A handful of works shine. Robert Rovenolt's small, mostly abstract mixed-media assemblages are crisp and elegantly composed, with great attention to edges, color, and texture. Rebecca Rose Greene's two avian sculptures mounted on the wall like hunting trophies, "Viridis (Swan)" and "Sanguis (Crow)," are made of paper and cardboard bristling in sharp feathers. They're two-headed birds, fierce and commanding.
Gisela Griffith's painting "Parkopedia," depicting a parking meter against a lovely, mottled ground, turns the utilitarian iconic. David Addison Small has long been painting burly, bearish, sensual angels — gruff, but appealing. Here, "Loomino" has us gazing up at the orb of an angel's belly as he lights up a cigar.
Leika Akiyama's "Calyx Series" of small encaustics punctuate a salon-style installation. These quiet paintings of horizontal bands made with pigment and wax feel like places to rest, breathe, and be. Akiyama's "Pink Mold Morphology," in contrast, is a party on the ceiling, made of deconstructed pink pompoms that read like bright vapor, highlighted with snarls of yellow cellophane, and festooned with invisible nylon strings with tiny paper flags.
CALEB COLE: Blue Boys & Histories
JUDY HABERL: Flight
At: Gallery Kayafas,
450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 10. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
SEAN FLOOD: Urban Outlook
At: Childs Gallery,
169 Newbury St., through Jan. 10. 617-266-1108, www.childsgallery.com
THE TRIGGERING TOWN: Details of Subtle Significance
At: Mills Gallery,
Boston Center for the Arts, through Jan. 11.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.