'Inscape/Instress," at Wellesley College's Jewett Art Gallery, might appear to be an unassuming show at an unassuming venue if you breezed right through it — which is easy to do, since it's hung in a hallway gallery. The art, unexamined, looks pretty: pink, expressionistic, intimate, flowery. Linger, though, and your skin may prickle with dread.
The title comes from romantic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who described "inscape" as a thing's uniqueness and "instress" as that thing's communicative spark. Here, it refers to artists exploring a single theme in depth. We could as easily say that this show is about clouds, cumulus clouds, mushroom clouds, clouds of soot and smog: atmospheres that settle in to burn or drown you.
It spotlights the work of three stellar Boston-area artists: painter Eva Lundsager, conceptual artist Deb Todd Wheeler, and multimedia artist Sheila Gallagher.
Gallagher's audacious drawing "Gleam darkling of affluvial flowandflow," a big, 8-by-14-foot work, is named for a passage in James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake." The title aptly describes the scene: Smoky masses, like mountains in Chinese landscapes, rise beneath great, chunky swipes of clouds, amid rushing, bubbly dark washes. It's part landscape and part abstraction, with tiny, lyrical details accruing into an epic saga.
It hangs beside Gallagher's smaller reworkings of animation stills made from her own drawings of bombed-out cities, and across from Lundsager's "Every There" series in watercolors and ink.
Lundsager's warm colors pull you in: Each piece features a febrile yellow orb in a blue sky over a gray horizon. That might be a sun, but a drippy tether between orb and land suggests something else: A voluptuous yet vaporous blossom, or — could it be? — the blinding explosion of an atom bomb.
Wheeler's "Pink Clouds" installation is a selection of aluminum-mounted prints of clouds in flagrant fuchsia, starting with tiny fragments hanging near an old metal fan, and expanding over the wall. They billow and gasp as they grow; the color, so fresh in a petal, here has a toxic glare. Wheeler asks: Do you know what you're breathing?
Her deadpan video "Instructions for Living (Underwater)" pulls us in with dizzy splashes and submerged shots, but the sardonic narration implies that humans may have to adapt in outrageous ways when the seas rise.
"Inscape/Instress" has weighty messages, clad in frothy tones and exuberant gestures, yet it sugarcoats nothing. It succeeds because these artists vibrantly convey darkness without succumbing to it.
Lundsager and painter Wendy Edwards make a stirring pair in their two-person show at Drive-By Projects. Lundsager's abstracted, oil-on-canvas landscapes have a nightmarish quality.
"Never Been Seen" sets quavering yellow petals on a salmon-pink ground that drips upward, seeping into an acrid beige sky, where a single pocket
of blue has been violently squiggled over with black.
In many of these paintings offending colors, such as a sickly yellow tinged with green, and angrily knotted forms where the sun should be imply disaster has occurred and the dust has not yet settled. Lundsager cites the heated and foreboding landscapes of Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield as inspiration, but her paintings are less specifically scenic; she employs abstract expressionist techniques to evoke, rather than depict, places laden with pain.
Edwards's vibrant, edgy paintings are direct responses to van Gogh's depictions of irises and roses. More than 120 years on, she pushes further into abstraction than he dared. Her fleshy blossoms float, free-form, against grounds painted with generous swirls that energize space.
In "You Too," the rose petals wag open, painted in loose, loaded strokes of rosy red, orange, and white over a green-on-blue ground. They are at once motion and pendant, sensual flesh.
Big, looping green strokes make space twist backward behind the iris blooms in "Like Lower." The languid petals, like those of van Gogh's irises, snake, crumple, and coil, and the urgently blue and periwinkle petals pop right off the surface as Edwards roughs up her paint handling. These are not irises; they are, perhaps, the distilled, vital essence of the flower.
"Animal Animist," a puckish group show at Room 83 Spring, gets its goof on with Philip Knoll's tart and loony paintings that look like patterned wallpaper but don't in fact repeat. They feature humanlike critters in floating webs, grabbing onto each other's snouts or eyeballs: Disney meets the Three Stooges in a never-ending format.
Then there's Zehra Khan and Tim Winn's whimsical video "Hello Stranger," in which they wear rabbit costumes and prance around the deserted grounds of an artists' retreat — until one becomes a werewolf and preys on the other. Khan's animal masks festoon the gallery's windows; they have the air of "Where the Wild Things Are" made flesh.
Rebecca Doughty’s paintings don’t lean on pop culture or fairytale tropes. Her large black-on-white silhouettes of floating, rabbit-eared figures with lumpy bodies and skinny, knobby extremities have a quality of searing despair. That fellow with his butt up in the air in the silhouette “Five-foot-ten” is not doing a joyful back flip. Life has turned him upside down and threatens to shake his stuffing out.
At Jewett Art Gallery, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through Dec. 18. 781-283-2077, www.jewettgallery.wordpress.com
Wendy Edwards, Eva Lundsager
At Drive-By Projects, 81 Spring St., Watertown, through Dec. 19. 617-835-8255, www.drive-byprojects.com
At Room 83 Spring, 83 Spring St., Watertown, through Dec. 20. www.room83spring.com