Artists have a way of investing what they make with meaning, but painter Michael Krueger, in his show at Steven Zevitas Gallery, has as much to say about meaninglessness, and the dualism between the two.
In the past, he painted hallucinatory narratives extruded from iconic American touchstones such as the Wild West, in which vulnerable little figures — neither white hats nor black hats — confronted seething and patterned landscapes.
Here, Krueger leaves history and society behind for the irrational utterances of his own mind. He paints images that arise while he's meditating, which is like giving form to the absurd and loopy thoughts that surface as you fall asleep. Such phantasms might be keys to unlocking great mysteries. Then again, they might just be senseless chatter.
He packs these works with humor and earnest attentiveness. He doesn't use a brush, but with stencils, airbrush, screenprinting, and more, makes very unpainterly paintings that stand in a tenuous realm between image and object — thrusting us into another dichotomous gulf.
"Flame," for instance, piles three flame-shaped blocks, one protruding from the next in gray, orange, and aqua, atop a linen canvas with a slinking, shadowy ground of black and purple. The electric colors play with the eye, while the 3-D flame flies in the face of our expectations of fire's intangible essence.
It's clumsy, yet clever. Krueger's paintings riddle us in ways similar to Zen koans, which seek to upend meaning and strip down our habits of thinking to reveal the world anew.
"Rose" sets two canvases back to back, each paint-stamped with wood grain. Krueger tops the freestanding piece with a handle; it looks like a briefcase. A tattoo-like rose floats on one face. What is it? A painting, a carry-on, a sentimental token?
It's an artwork — we expect it to signify something. Yet perhaps it's just a figment made flesh. Krueger invites us to step into the space between meaning and meaninglessness, and it's hard to be there. We so want to pass judgment, rather than linger in frightening, dynamic uncertainty.
Watercolorist John Kirk's agenda is less high-concept than Krueger's, but his effect, in his exhibit at Ars Libri, also leaves the viewer awakened by uncertainty. Mario Diacono, the beloved former Boston art dealer, organized the show.
With nothing but a few vertical lines drawn on each page, Kirk investigates perceptions of space and light. Sometimes crisp as a knife's edge, sometimes softened, seeping, or blotted over, the lines can read with immediacy or distant dreaminess. "Untitled 2.16.15" features three blue lines, each bleeding slightly into the paper and brushed over with the palest coral. This suggests shallow space, as if the paper is sharply creased and dipping along the blue, then wafting up toward us.
Of the four red stripes in "Untitled 7.20.14," one is glaring and scarlike, and Kirk veils the others in varied layers of white. Two adjacent lines suggest a narrow doorway, with the stronger color signaling the edge nearest to the viewer; the more obscured lines, then, hint at farther off thresholds.
With nothing other than these lines and the quietest layers of watercolor, Kirk leaves us to sense our way through his pieces as if in a fog. They are invitingly serene — reminiscent of Agnes Martin's softly luminous stripes and murmuring grids — unassuming, yet with much to reveal.
When I first heard of photographer Blake Fitch's portraits of princess-obsessed little girls in their glittery satin gowns, I thought of tykes decked out on Halloween, posing for the camera. I did not expect the utter seriousness with which Fitch portrays her subjects in her show "Dress Rehearsal" at Miller Yezerski Gallery.
Of course, it's we adults who tend to project cuteness on little kids; the children themselves solemnly commit to their roles. Fitch sees that — in the fierce "Amia," who stands on the blacktop in her high tops and a glowing pink gown, looking as if she's facing struggle; in "Robin," seated in a blue gown in the grass, regarding us with big, inquiring eyes.
In these photos Fitch reveals not simply what these girls want to be — smart, heroic, and yes, beautiful, too — but what they already have of that inside. It's terrifically heartening.
Candice Smith Corby's fantasy-and-fairy-tale show, in the back room at Miller Yezerski, makes a lovely counterpoint to Fitch's photos. Corby stirs dreams of centuries past with her materials alone — gold leaf, cochineal ink, and more on parchment. Her surreal, dreamlike imagery often takes on domesticity and feminine identity in ways that blend courage and desire.
In "On the Edge," she draws the seated, mundane bottom half of a woman's body on a green chair; from the waist up, she's a golden castle on a hill. "She Bears the Night With Dreams" turns the tale of Goldilocks on its head, and places a bear cuddled on a star-strewn blue blanket. Or perhaps this is Ursa of the heavens. Either way, beware of waking her up. She might bite.
Meditation Is Not What You Think
At Steven Zevitas Gallery,
450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 31. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com
Shaping Light, Performing Space
At Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 31. 617-357-5212, www.arslibri.com
BLAKE FITCH: Dress Rehearsal
Candice Smith Corby: Forever and Forever and Forever Is a Long Time
At Miller Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 22. 617-262-0550, www.milleryezerskigallery.com