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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

New shows question identity, embrace earthy contemplation

Hannah Barrett’s figures fall anywhere on the spectrum between male and female, and often volley between the two. In her paintings, Barrett plays off and pokes fun at traditional portraiture’s tendency to stroke its subjects’ egos. She takes odds and ends from different sources to make composite figures that, in her sure hand, look at once regal, clownish, and sweetly vulnerable.

“Hannah Barrett’s Imaginarium,” in a waggish installation now up at Childs Gallery, offers an enlightening survey of paintings of the last 10 years. “Lord Wagstaff,” a small, black-and-white portrait made in 2006 of an earnest, balding figure with long ringlets and drop earrings, hangs beside the debauched and woozy “Der grosse Bargarozy,” made in 2012.

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Painted with a looser hand on a bigger canvas in color, Bargarozy sports a blond mane and grips a cigarette in a mouth surrounded by five-o’clock shadow. The primly Victorian Wagstaff would surely shudder in horror if Bargarozy stumbled into the room.

As much as these pieces tear apart notions of gender, they mine the history of visual culture of the last 150 years, and what trends in fashion and presentation tell us about status and taste. Two paintings, “The English Tourist” and “The English Servant,” mash up characters from “Downton Abbey,” blending upstairs with downstairs. Several cartoony still lifes, such as “Bologna Shrub,” riff on 1950s-era cookbooks with odd recipes that turn food into sculpture.

Delightfully, the most outrageous works are the most recent. “Fall Hunters” depicts a figure seated in gray and green bloomers and a pink blouse, smoking a pipe. Beneath a hunting cap, the face is gray tweed. A fluffy pink dog, tongue lolling, sits to the side. Space and volume flatten cubistically. Using early-20th-century painting tropes that perfectly fit her slice-and-dice approach to portraiture, Barrett depicts early-20th-century gentry,

As always, Barrett imbues her subject with a blend of smug entitlement and fear of exposure. Here, though, the forces surrounding the figure — the garish colors, the contracting space — raise the stakes. Still, the hunter puts his or her best face forward. It just happens to be tweed.

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Albright’s meanings, metaphors

Sculptor Terry Albright has cleaned out her studio to mount a benefit exhibition up through Aug. 14 at Skinner Boston Gallery, with proceeds going to Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Artists for Humanity.

Albright works with natural materials. At a time when so many exhibitions focus on humanity pitted against nature, this artist reminds us to collaborate with it. Her sculptures have a mystical quality; they appear to have sprung from the earth into full-blown meaning and metaphor.

Yet Albright’s conceptual touch is light. She concerns herself with line, texture, and rhythm. The pieces she makes out of homegrown gourds, sliced and pieced back together and covered with leather dye or paint, might be traces that dancers leave in their wake. The elegant “Bloom” curls, swells, and bends around itself in thick tendrils the color of cherry wood.

Lately, the artist has been piecing the gourds together into more solid structures. “Screech,” painted black with red speckles, looks part insect, part mammal, with its back slumped and three straight legs stretched before it. Albright has installed many of her works on antique furniture to deepen context. “Screech” sits on a scuffed tabletop like a cat settling into the sun.

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For “Twirl” she shaped rugged bark into a 3-D figure eight, opening and eddying outward — graceful motion again, here wrought from material we associate with stillness. “Whisk” binds dried grass in a triangular form, like a giant, shaggy broom strung on a nail with twine. Pieces such as these, outsize yet humble, have the quality of a Zen garden, cultivating grace with nature. Sit among them, and be.

A collective provocation of power

The artist collective Sweety’s has a show in Samson’s project space, Subsamson, where the group is in residence for several months. Sweety’s frame their work, as they put it in an artists’ statement, as “not catering to whiteness, nondiplomacy, self-centering, telling the truth,” and more.

It’s an exciting agenda, and there’s some provocative work here; for instance, Bryan Rodriguez explores the fraught power relationship between rapper Lil Wayne and his erstwhile mentor Birdman, in a photo of them kissing printed on a toddler’s T-shirt. The piece is pointedly titled “Birth of a Nation,” referencing D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking — and racist — 1915 film.

Eduardo Restrepo Castaño plays every character in his captivating fairy-tale-like video, “The Whistle.” A man runs through the woods, encounters figures like himself, but in drag, and flees from them. He also has a romantic, atmospheric photo, “tiempo,” of a church clock tower, with a white Jesus on the cross in stark profile against the sky.

Rodriguez and Ximena Izquierdo Ugáz found mannequins wearing indigenous garb marketed to white tourists in Lima. They made a postcard and sent them “to white friends / look-alikes of the given mannequin,” they say in a statement, to confront them with the pervasiveness of white culture. Proposing an avatar of white culture is a brilliant idea; mannequins are an imperfect but reasonable suggestion.

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It’s a scrappy show — a beginning.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@
gmail.com
. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.