“Action Kits,” is less an exhibition to see than it is an exhibition to do. Curator Matt Rich organized the show, at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery, which queries five professionals about their working methods, then pairs each with an artist who converts those methods into a toolbox for viewers to play with. The exhibition asks, can we translate experience to metaphor and convey some truth of that experience?
“Action Kits” works like a game of telephone. A professional — a doctor, a community activist — whispers some essence about his or her job to an artist, who in turn whispers it to us. At the end of that short chain, the message can garble. But the show isn’t merely about effective translation. It’s about the transmission of an idea, and how it changes from one link to the next.
Artist Marcus Civin’s piece “Break Glass” keenly embodies a single, clear image articulated by photographer Stewart Clements in the questionnaire about his methodology, which is available to read. “This process is like a thunderstorm,” says Clements of any given project. “You know it is coming. It develops in its own sweet time. The storm hits, you experience its power and it recedes.”
Civin built sturdy wooden boxes on castors, with stovepipe caps. He invites you to take a glass — several are on shelves along the wall — and hurl it down the stovepipe. The glass breaks with an alarming clatter. There it is: The anticipation, the terror and exhilaration of the thunderclap, and the quiet that follows.
Susan Metrican’s installation of three untitled works takes on the larger principles of her subject, Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter. Metrican invites viewers to open doors in her paintings and place swatches of fabric inside, creating a feeling of tucked-in safety. Other artists use workbooks to prompt imaginative and perceptual exercises that echo the broader ideas of their subjects.
Jamilah Sabur’s sculptures and video respond to the methods of Jennifer Siegel, an assistant professor at the Boston University Medical Center. It’s the most ambitious work in the show, with gobs of intestinal-shaped clay, rows of color-coded medicine bottles, a metaphysical video, and more. It’s also the most jumbled. Sabur appears to layer her own ideas about healing on top of her subject’s, rather than sticking to a clean interpretation, as Civin and Metrican do. “Action Kits” works best when translations honor the original material, rather than leave it behind.
Rich leads a panel discussion on participatory art on Wednesday night at 6 p.m.
What can provoke consciousness
If art about war or climate change is too earnest or hectoring, it loses its punch. Textile artist Clara Wainwright brings social consciousness to her work, now up at Gallery Kayafas. Occasionally, she falls into that trap.
“Children of Syria — Exile and Survival,” a quilt made with the assistance of local Arab collaborators, depicts a grid of children’s faces. It’s a latter-day “We Are the World,” aimed with too much ease at the heartstrings.
Most of the quilts here, though, are powered by Wainwright’s fierce and mythic imagination. Activism is an undercurrent, but the imagery is textured, fractured, or surreal — anything but pat.
She names “Black Elephant” for storms created by warming oceans. In it, a wild-eyed, blue-black elephant, with iridescent silver tusks and a tornado exploding from his head, looms over small buildings. “New Muse/New Pupil” unfolds over a sparkly, night-sky ground. A winged horse does a back flip; a blue bear curls, nearly sleeping; in the foreground a ferocious duck confronts us like a mystical sentry.
Wainwright’s deep and graceful stitched and painted quilts can open up surging streams in her viewers’ own imaginations. That’s art’s job — far more effective than telling us what to feel or think.
Sculptures with dynamism
In Julia Shepley’s eloquent sculptures at Boston Sculptors Gallery, the shadows hold equal weight with the art itself. She builds layered, translucent mobiles with fiber sheets and boning; she draws and stitches over them; she cuts into them.
The “Tethering Home” and “Locus” series conjure memory’s glimpses of a house left behind long ago. Windows, stairways, and bits of furniture appear; then the mobile catches a breeze and they move away. What looks like a bench on one panel casts a shadow that morphs into a piano or a bed. Shepley’s many layers, in drawings and in sculptures, depict the beautiful murk of our imaginations, casting gems to the surface and pulling them back into the deep.
Susan Lyman’s comic wooden sculptures, also at Boston Sculptors, often play on the wobbly lines drawn by lengths of knotty, unfinished wood — which Lyman sometimes adorns with paint, dyes, varnish, and ink. “Yoga for Sculptors” bends into a tricky posture indeed, with strips of wood making U-turns over and around the egg-like form that anchors the piece.
The skinny linear elements catalyze Lyman’s works, imbuing them with hints of gawky, twisted figures. Sculptures without them lack that dynamic energy. Hanging straight or tied up in knots, those lines speak to the awkward in us in sweet, forgiving tones.
At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through April 5.cq 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org
Clara Wainwright: Learning from Animals
At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through April 4. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
Julia Shepley: Locus
Susan Lyman: The Body of Nature
At: Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., through March 29.cq 617-482-7781, www.bostonsculptors.comCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.