Odd tales about the Boston Harbor Islands, true and legendary, abound: Pirates! Hermits! Ghosts! For “34” at Boston Sculptors Gallery, an on-shore component of this summer’s Isles Arts Initiative, curator Elizabeth Devlin has gathered historical and environmental information about the 34 islands, and divvied up the islands among artists.
It’s a juicy idea for a show, deeply rooted in sandy local soil, and the artists run with it. Many take the facts and conjure dreams. Others use them to point out how things have changed — islands have eroded and shrunk, artifacts have been cleaned up or erased.
Sisters Caitlin & Nicole Duennebier belong in the first camp. They took on Sarah, Ragged, Langlee, and Button islands, owned in the late 1600s by innkeeper and boatyard owner John Langley. His daughter, Sarah, for whom one of the islands might be named, went on to endow Derby Academy, a private, coed school in Hingham.
In their three-panel painting, the Duennebiers mix that history with that of Melville Garden, an amusement park of sorts, in late-19th-century Hingham. Caitlin and Nicole have drastically different painting styles; Nicole paints ornate, sometimes grotesque, environments and forms, and Caitlin’s sparse, oddball narrative paintings have flat, simplified figures.
In “Swims at Hingham Islands,” Caitlin’s figures cavort in Nicole’s smoky blue waters and lounge on fiery red land as fireworks explode overhead. Bemused spirits in Colonial dress watch the scene. Nicole’s murky, occasionally luminous landscape feels like history itself: hard to see through, yet with clear, magnetic stretches, while Caitlin’s men, women, ghosts, and even the mermaids, feel familiar, as ordinary and magical as any of us.
“The Greening of Fort Andrews, Coast Artillery,” Steve Hollinger’s enchanting lament about Peddocks Island, also evokes a sense of peering through history. Hollinger places a solar-powered video at the end of an earthy tunnel housed in a glass cube. The tunnel echoes those of the island’s Fort Andrews, an abandoned, World War I-era fort. Lately, the old fort has been cleaned up, its character — and perhaps its ghosts — tamped down. The video, composed of black-and-white photos that might depict the fort in its heyday, whispers from the past.
Allison Cekala comes at Snake Island, site of a nesting project for American oystercatchers, from an environmental standpoint. Oysters are all but gone from Boston Harbor, so the migratory bird feeds on clams and mussels. Efforts might be made to reintroduce oysters on the island. Cekala charmingly blends the two breeding grounds in a bird’s nest filled with plaster oysters.
A green lawn was as cherished in the 19th century as it is today, or so suggests an 1890s ad for Bradley Fertilizer Co.: “A rusty, uneven, faded out lawn is a disgrace to any true American.” Christina Zwart’s incisive “True American,” made of Astro Turf and the ingredients for grass fertilizer in the pattern of an American flag, is a cheeky tribute to the company, which in 1861 set up shop on the Weymouth peninsula that now houses Webb Memorial Park.
Every work here, from Steven Pestana’s sculptural portrait of a hermit made of turned wood, a clamming rake, and a steel beam, to Mags Harries’s video projected on sheepskin of a shrinking Sheep Island, anchors the islands in tangible detail and lifts them with lyrical metaphor, reminding us of the rich habitats and stories that still live in Boston Harbor.
“Boston Young Contemporaries 2015,” the annual juried show of close to 50 masters of fine arts candidates from around New England, is always a place to scout for new talent. It’s also a bit of a slush pile. You can see in some of the work how young artists lean hard into ideas that aren’t quite formed. That’s part of the process, of course; it just doesn’t usually make it into the gallery.
Still, jurors Lucy Kim, Michelle Samour, and Matt Phillips, all artists themselves, have tapped several sharp, thoughtful artists. This year, the 3-D artists stand out. I love Chris Papa’s “No Title,” an upside-down, still fragrant Christmas tree bound, wrapped, and runny with house paint. Papa has drained the sentimentality from the tree, but left the sentiment, and turned it into a monster with a beating heart.
On the other end of the sculptural spectrum, Evan Morse’s “Bow” looks elegantly functional — a thick wooden frame with two rope crossbars houses an arcing slice of steel — but Morse leaves its use to our imagination.
Christy Chow’s raucously joyful, yet bordering on offensive “2908.82 kcal” is a lineup of candy-colored casts of rotund women doing headstands. Casey Ausman’s “Sick Lips,” a big, yellow horn with orange and fur rimming its swollen pink lips, follows that aesthetic of giddy and off-putting.
Plus, a couple of painters to keep an eye on: Sable Matula, whose “I do not own comfortable shoes,” painted on vinyl, warps off its frame in frantic patterns and streams of color; James Lambert, who builds and paints onto long planks as if they were game boards; and Rachel Sevanich, whose crisp “Royal Ass” might depict a donkey in a wild headdress, but wavers in tangy, electric tones like a hallucination toward abstraction.
At: Boston Sculptors Gallery,
486 Harrison Ave., through Aug. 16. 617-482-7781, www.bostonsculptors.com
BOSTON YOUNG CONTEMPORARIES 2015
At: 808 Gallery, Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through Aug. 21. 617-353-3371, www.bostonyoung contemporaries.net