Ambreen Butt has always made political art. Early in her career, the Pakistani-born artist now based in the Boston area investigated the tug of two cultures in mixed-media paintings and drawings. These led Butt to make larger pieces, often painstakingly crafted from many tiny parts, exploring themes such as free speech and violence.
Her current installation at Carroll and Sons, “I Am All What Is Left of Me,” was inspired by a commission from the State Department’s Art in Embassies program for the new US Embassy in Islamabad. This work won’t go to Islamabad but it prompted a similar project that will.
Butt’s previous art has been challenging, but diplomatic: It asks questions rather than taking sides. Still, creating work for an embassy may compel her to be especially politic. This is less gritty than her usual efforts.
This installation comprises three mural-size pieces, each based on Multani tile patterns: lovely, symmetrical ceramic designs found in public buildings and mosques in South Asia, featuring saturated hues and botanical motifs.
From a distance, the works are crisp, bright, and pleasant; punchy colors and dancing patterns activate the gallery space. Indeed, this installation folds playfully around corners. In an American art gallery, the works don’t fade into the background; in a public building in Islamabad, where Multani tiles proliferate, they might.
Up close, Butt introduces a new, mildly subversive motif. Over the paint she has affixed an intricate design in small cast resin pieces — keys, padlocks, and combination locks. They make up the vines and flowers spinning over the surface, quietly noting that embassies are gateways, murmuring about freedom and repression, about trust and safety, about mysteries yet unlocked.
Rather than keys and locks, the works that will go to Islamabad have designs dominated by abstractions of the Urdu and Arabic alphabets (a small version is on view now, although it hadn’t arrived when I visited the gallery). More versatile visually, and honoring the languages and the written word, Butt’s new approach should better convey the fragmentation of meaning that’s rich in much of her art, if in a more subdued approach than we’re used to.
Sheinkman’s tangled elegance
Mark Sheinkman, who has a show up at Steven Zevitas Gallery, is technically a painter, but erasure is his main gambit. He covers his linen ground in a mixture of white oil paint and alkyd, a resin medium. Then he adds a layer of graphite, which he removes with various tools.
Many of the paintings on view have an all-over quality reminiscent of a Pollock; there’s no beginning or end, no background or foreground, just an impossibly dense tangle of lines. They’re not as beguilingly varied as a good Pollock painting, and consequently look overwrought.
A compelling exception among Sheinkman’s denser paintings, “Sumner” sets countless ethereal ribbons undulating. There’s respiration and pulse to all the movement, a constant, soothing rhythm that makes the piece as restful as it is lively.
The sparer paintings, though, have calligraphic elegance. Despite all the labor you can see went into them, these pieces read like X-rays or black-and-white film negatives — a flash of an image, not a constructed one. “Barnell” could be a gracefully choreographed flashlight dance caught on camera — great, pale loops wisp and curl. At the junctures, they twinkle.
The artist has explored erasure and the expressive potential of lines for years. In several slightly earlier small works on paper, he plays with grids and other structures. The terrific “Sheriff” is a woozy, white-on-gray grid, winking out of sight like a reflection on water. On a larger scale, with its buckling lines and near disappearance, it might make you feel faint.
Michael David’s fluid ‘Miscellanies’
Local artist Michael David’s mini-retrospective at Laconia Gallery makes a fruitful companion to Sheinkman’s show. David, too, works mostly in monochromes, distilling scenes in blue, gray, or green. The monochrome and the soft, fluid way David often handles paint or ink imbue his works with distance and solitude.
David often looks through veils and clouds. In a charcoal drawing, “Evacuation,” a diptych from 1995, the top drawing depicts the shadowy form of a helicopter overhead in a smoky sky. The bottom drawing has us gazing down at a building; smoke billows from the windows, people have gathered on the roof. The piece conveys the chaos and blur of the scene without sacrificing the emotional immediacy.
There are some wonderful paintings here, such as 1997’s “32 Windows,” depicting an office building at night, light pouring through the scrims of blinds. We’re outside looking in, as with a Hopper painting, but here David offers the merest hints of narratives inside.
In recent years, he’s made portraits of grass, such as “Longfield” (2000) and “Large Field III (Virginia)” (2011). There’s no horizon in these landscapes, just flat expanses of green growth. Here, David is an exacting realist. Every grass blade, every dandelion puff, appears delicately carved in the paint. These are up close, yet that monochrome — even the flowers are green — distances us again, offering a dream of summer, not summer itself.