Ceramic artist Jessica Brandl has capped off her residency at the Ceramics Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard University, with a vigorous exhibition that investigates how we shape history.
Her ideas ricochet around Gallery 224, not always making contact with one another. A fragile connection can be found in the artist’s effort to take museums’ scholarly, sometimes clinical approach to human and natural history and infuse it with sentiment. It’s a risky gambit: Sentiment can so easily seep toward sentimentality. But Brandl usually pulls it off.
“Buttons: An account of the last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) shot in the wild,” a playful yet mournful piece, explores natural history, archiving, and collecting. It’s a ceramic pigeon and a selection of magnetized buttons that can be placed over the bird’s eyes.
In 1900, an Ohio boy shot a passenger pigeon in his barnyard. He passed it on to a local taxidermist, who stuffed it and used buttons for eyes. Only years later, when the stuffed bird found its way to a local museum, did an ornithologist identify it as the last recorded wild passenger pigeon — a once abundant species, eradicated by hunting and deforestation.
The work suggests avarice has many faces, some more noble than others: hunting, collecting, making your quarry into a doll with button eyes.
The bird appears again in “Collect,” one of a series of terra cotta platters written over with narrative imagery: Dead, tagged pigeons hang inside a gutted shelter, suggesting that their capture came at considerable cost. This one tugs too eagerly at the heartstrings.
For “Plate Reconstruction Studies 1 through 3,” Brandl and partner Bryan Czibesz made 3-D prints of pottery shards unearthed in Pompeii, and Brandl fashioned plates that the shards fit into like puzzle pieces. The gulf in technology is huge, yet you can sense Brandl reaching through millennia, almost working hand in hand with the original potter.
The artist’s time spent in the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture launched several inquiries into history: the ramifications of classification and collection; how present and past can converse. She was clearly electrified by her research. This exhibit doesn’t succeed in synthesizing it all into a coherent whole, but the individual parts stand out rather brilliantly.
“Women in Clothes: 20th-Century Fashion Photographers,” the sprightly and elegant summer show at Robert Klein Gallery (open this week by appointment), trumpets the superb formalism of mid-century fashion photographers.
Irving Penn’s “Woman With Cheek Jewelry, ca. 1949” glides along the lines of his model’s profile: the long slope of her neck, the forward lean of her shoulders, her open mouth and jutting bun. Her features fall in shadow, at the edge of which sparkles a diamond-studded flower on her cheekbone. Most of Penn’s photos feature his wife, magnificent in “Woman in Chicken Hat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, ca. 1949” with her crystal-clear profile cutting a line against the black halo of the hat. Not everybody can carry off a chicken hat, but the insouciant Fonssagrives-Penn can.
William Klein’s theatrically composed “Simone & Marines, Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France, 1960” sets the backlit model in a gauzy white dress and gloves, hands up, as Marines rush at her from front and back. Is she falling? Surrendering? And yet she commands the image.
Gordon Parks, meanwhile, photographs his model through an aperture in “Skin-tight Suit, Malibu, California, 1958.” She’s in a sunny bathhouse, blue tiles nearly blending with her blue suit, and Parks has us peeping at her through a hole: viewer as voyeur.
The Yousuf Karsh photos here are more portraits of fashion icons than they are fashion photos. The expected beauty of Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace in Karsh’s works pales beside the crisply sensual, modernist-influenced photographs of his peers.
Snow Yunxue Fu’s swooping, burbling abstract videos at Yellow Peril Gallery are less intrinsically engaging than what she does with them, bringing architecture and sculpture into the picture.
She goes out on a limb with “Solid4,” setting the projected video inside a dark cranny, which we can only glimpse through two vertical openings. It’s impossible to see the thing whole: radiant blue, red, and yellow, showers of icy gray.
Part of the intrigue is in what we can’t see; there’s a feeling of something miraculous happening just out of reach. Stills from the video give us hints, with their cascades of color, but they’re humdrum, like comic book explosions, compared to the morsels we see through the cracks.
Similarly, “Ma” sets the video in a white casing on the wall, with a horizontal opening across the middle only about 2 inches high. Subdued passages of color seethe with flitting lights and shadow. It might be the ether of imagination burning in a box — again, not quite accessible — but the sheer horizontality of it conjures landscapes, horizon lines, the fog over the sea at dusk.
In the unobscured video “Obsolete,” a luminous, silver mass moves like a swell of mercury. It’s pretty, but “Obsolete (Mask),” in which Fu projects the same video on a biomorphic wall sculpture, adds dimension and accentuates the slippery motion. The video comes alive in 3-D.
At Gallery 224, 224 Western Ave., Allston, through Oct. 16. 617-495-8680, www.ofa.fas
WOMEN IN CLOTHES:
20th-Century Fashion Photographers
At Robert Klein Gallery,
38 Newbury St., through
Sept. 12. 617-267-7997, www.robertkleingallery.com
SNOW YUNXUE FU: Still
At Yellow Peril Gallery,
60 Valley St., Providence, through Sept. 6. 401-861-1535, www.yellowperilgallery.com