Christopher Adams has made close to 5,000 ceramic pieces using one template: limbs radiating from an internal frame. Same number of limbs, same frame structure. You might think this could get dull.
Not at all. Adams’s installation “Life, or Something Like It,” at Gallery 224 at the Ceramics Program at the Office for the Arts at Harvard, captivates with its immense variety. Monumental, vibrant, and odd, the installation, culled down to more than 1,000 works, mimics adaptive radiation — the tendency of a species, when moved to a new, hospitable environment, to diversify wildly.
Adams’s critters could be starfish or octopi, roses or heads of lettuce. Most of them spin, squiggle, and bloom over one large, sultry yellow wall. There are also two smaller grids of organisms, a single big work alone like a wreath, and a gray one on the floor, languidly reaching its many arms up the wall and around the corner.
The smaller grids might be exhibits in a natural history museum, but on the yellow wall, Adams abandons the grid, and the organisms proliferate. The big ones dominate and the small ones squeeze in where they can — a suggestion of survival of the fittest.
Keeping to his basic structure, Adams experiments with different types of clay (terra cotta, porcelain, stoneware), a range of sizes, a sliding scale of firing temperatures, and what he calls in his artist’s statement “a promiscuous approach to glazing.”
The variety is breathtaking. Among those that caught my eye: a fist-sized pile of pillowy knobs in yellow underscored with smoky black, looking like fruit ripe for picking; a large, leafy piece in gray, fringed and drizzled with glistening black, its leaves thin as paper; a veined, tentacled, fleshy creature in silver pink, dangling down the wall.
“Life, or Something Like It” impresses with its sheer scale, intimate detail, and technical bravado. Ideally, Adams will find somewhere he can install all 5,000 organisms, and they’ll expand onto ceiling and floor, surrounding viewers with a rampant evocation of evolutionary biology.
The untrained eye
Gateway Arts has been around for more than 40 years, offering disabled populations outlets for creative expression. “Happy Meeting,” curated by Beth Kantrowitz at the Gateway Gallery, mixes work by artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities with pieces by trained artists. Work by such untrained artists, who may not even think of it as art, can be visionary. The late Judith Scott, a deaf woman with Down syndrome, just had an acclaimed exhibition of wrapped sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum.
There are a few electric works in “Happy Meeting,” and there are pieces by untrained artists that should have been edited out. Obsessive scribbling can be a tense, witty investigation of compulsion and composition. But a few obsessively scribbled pieces here reveal only obsession.
Trained artists Rebecca Doughty and David Curcio make intentionally naive art. Doughty’s grave paintings of forlorn figures and Curcio’s odd print of an insectival human in “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns” are unsettling and funny. They have terrific Gateway counterparts in Bohill Wong and Amy Caliri.
Wong, who died in 2004, has figures here made from fruits and vegetables. In one beautifully bizarre untitled piece that broadcasts a strange balance of threat and warmth, a carrot-limbed woman lies on the ground as people-sized insects look on. Caliri’s untitled fiber piece depicting a landscape with a propeller-like sun, rabbit-eared shrubs, and a jelly-bean tree also conveys cheer with subterranean darkness.
As in the real world, not everyone who creates art at Gateway makes original, daring work. “Happy Meeting” is a spotty show, but its standouts deserve attention.
“I Love Your Space,” the playfully installed group show at 555 Gallery, invites viewers to look up, look down, and use a mirror to see the works. Simply changing orientation refreshes the viewing experience.
Neal Rantoul’s three-level installation of aerial photos gives us the dizzying bird’s-eye-view he had when he shot the images. The triptych plays up the formal elements, and connects three different landscapes with their confluences of line and shape.
Gazing down at a mirror to view Nadine Boughton’s photos “Parents” and “Dad Reclining,” mounted on the ceiling, implicates the viewer as a voyeur, and similarly seeing Brenda Bancel’s four underwater-blue photos of a diver gives it the strong feeling of a cycle, endlessly repeated.
In “Nowhere and Everywhere,” video artist Mary Ellen Strom turns a reedy water’s edge on its side. On adjoining vertical monitors, she runs the video in mirror images. Never losing the earthy sense of landscape, she abstracts it into something vital and strange.
Finally, Jeffrey Heyne’s installation “Know Ledge” features vertical transparencies too large for the gallery; they curl over and under, almost engulfing the viewer, and the images waffle along the sides. One depicts a stairway in the Boston Public Library; the other, a cathedral of pines, with a blueprint of the library crumpled on the ground. Heyne surrounds these images with pinecones and books: Forest and library as kin.
Life or Something Like It
At: Gallery 224, Ceramics Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard,
224 Western Ave., Allston, through April 24.
At: Gateway Gallery, Gateway Arts, 62 Harvard St., Brookline, through April 18. 617-734-1577, www.gatewayarts.org
I LOVE YOUR SPACE
At: 555 Gallery, 555 East 2nd St., South Boston, through April 18.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.