Motifs, contradictions, changed orientations in gallery shows
Yu-Wen Wu’s exhibition at Miller Yezerski Gallery reads like a poem. Motifs recur: gold, tea, themes of accrual and flight. They come at you from different angles, coded with shades of meaning, playing off each other and building to a deeply felt and complete, yet ethereal, whole.
Wu, a first-generation Chinese-American, examines Chinese immigration to the United States. She approaches it most concretely in “Arrival — American Dream 1,” a painterly aerial view of the New Jersey neighborhood in which she grew up. Amid white lines demarcating roadways, and inky black passages suggesting business or industry, square flecks of gold indicate houses. Home ownership is one kind of American dream; arriving in America and having a place to live is another.
In other works, gold spells out data. “Gold Mountain Prayer (Boston 300)” charts census numbers of Chinese living in Boston, with each lotus-flower symbol counting 300 people. If you view the drawing as a picture rather than a chart, you see, in recent decades, a steeply rising mountain. With gold, the artist implies worth beyond numbers.
Wu is at her most lyrical when she steps away from maps, charts, and information and lets her materials speak for themselves. Her video installation “The Accumulation of Dreams” features a projection on the wall behind small heaps of tea leaves, some gilded — representations of cultural and monetary value, and of the early trade between Europe and Asia.
In the video, tea leaves drop from the sky, quietly and steadily accumulating in piles, until a great gust blows them away. Tea signifies appropriation and perhaps wealth, but those loose leaves also stand in for immigrants, and the rootlessness that comes with being in a strange, new place.
Gilded tea leaves set in a grid make up “Not All Alike,” a reference to xenophobic reactions to immigrants. Indeed, they’re not alike: In this format, the twisting, crumpled, glowing leaves read almost alphabetically, like Chinese pictograms, or like figures in postures of exultation and despair. With these, Wu evokes the individual passions, quests, and failures that accumulate into the larger story of Chinese coming to America.
Byers, Ainslie at Gallery NAGA
Studio furniture artist John Eric Byers marries streamlined, modernist forms with intensive handwork in his new show at Gallery NAGA. He gouges his maple surfaces so that they dimple with thousands of divots, a process that conveys the artist’s obsessiveness and the wood’s give. These, in turn, butt up against his restrained palette (usually black, white, and wood veneer) and his lean geometries.
Such contradictions add up to tables, cabinets, and benches that you want to look at, touch, and consider. In “Luna Coffee Table,” the delicately gouged black surface circles around a disc of travertine in the center. It looks like a full moon, surrounded by a black sky rippling with energy.
Also at NAGA, Sophia Ainslie’s abstract paintings on paper have the whizzbang crispness, tangy hues, and brio of comic book graphics, although they’re made with tiny, almost imperceptible brushstrokes.
Ainslie uses an X-ray of her late mother’s abdomen, taken to better see her cancer, as a starting point. She’s been using the X-ray as source material for years, and early on it was easy to read grief and grappling into her works. Now they feel playful. The flat blocks of color reprise the X-ray’s solid forms, but from there the artist paints elastic rivers of black and white.
Some paintings resemble white-water landscapes, as in the downward, arcing rush in “In Person — Highrise.” But much depends on format, orientation, and the gestures Ainslie chooses. In “In Person — 3.3.2,” the swirl of black-and-white dancing with the shards of color hint at a figure in the middle of it all: a head, outstretched arms or majestic wings, bold as an archangel making an annunciation.
Practice makes a fanboy
Jorge Mujica’s basketball-centric show at Steven Zevitas Gallery doesn’t reach enough beyond fanboy idolatry to have much meat on its bones. Mujica lives in Los Angeles; Zevitas just opened a new art space, Zevitas Marcus, there, where the first show celebrates some of Boston’s best, so perhaps he sees this as a cultural exchange.
Mujica takes epic moments from Celtics-Lakers games, pares them down to negative and positive space, and cuts the scenes out of painted aluminum panels or wood veneer. The works have a simple sexiness; they move and glow. “Magic Johnson/Larry Bird 1984 NBA Finals” one of several aluminum pieces hanging from the ceiling like a championship banner, is spray painted in gold, purple, teal, and white.
The spray paint and the cutout’s echo of a stencil hint at graffiti’s edge, but what’s safer, what’s more indicative of being a tribal insider, than making fan art?
The negative of “Johnson/Bird” — the part Mujica sliced out — is another piece with the same title, sitting on the table below. He has five templates repeated in variations. His paint handling changes, but the repetition wears. One of these works, in any medium, carries the rhythm, speed, and grace of basketball. The more than 30 here feels like a closeout sale in the TD Garden souvenir shop.
Yu-Wen Wu: The Accumulation of Dreams
At Miller Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 13. 617-262-0550, www.milleryezerskigallery.com
John Eric Byers: Form Is Function
SOPHIA AINSLIE: Pata Pata
At Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Oct. 3. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com
Jorge Mujica: Double Dribble
At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 17. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com