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‘Stateless’ photographs timely and timeless

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An untitled work by Gohar Dashti, part of her “Stateless” series.
An untitled work by Gohar Dashti, part of her “Stateless” series.

"Gohar Dashti: Stateless," photographs on view at Robert Klein Gallery @ Ars Libri, is a timely exhibition, given the Syrian refugee crisis. It's also achingly timeless.

Dashti, an Iranian artist, stages scenes that blend humble detail with mythic implication. She grew up during the Iran-Iraq War; it prompted her family to move from southern Iran to the far north. Displacement was rampant. Her photos depict enigmatic tales rooted in her own experience.

She shot these photos on Qeshm, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf with a dramatic, rocky landscape. Bone-dry straits and jutting mesas function as more than mere backdrops. These massive landforms witness the comings and goings of people as we might gaze upon the activities in an ant colony. Dashti makes large prints; the rocks so often dwarf the figures, we need all that real estate to see the story.

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In one image (the works from the "Stateless" series are all untitled), a woman and a girl carry suitcases up a path into a cluster of pale, jagged rock formations. They have stopped to look back, but the woman covers the girl's eyes with her hand. We see a mother who doesn't want her daughter to suffer over what's left behind, yet who cannot herself bear to leave without a parting glance.

Another photo echoes Michelangelo's "The Pietà." A woman clad in black cradles the body of a man across her lap. She sits at the bottom of a canyon, engulfed by its walls; we cannot see the sky. The canyon's dark caves resemble a skull's eye sockets. The landscape seems a metaphor for the woman's grief, a parched hell from which she cannot escape.

Another work by Gohar Dashti in the “Stateless” series.
Another work by Gohar Dashti in the “Stateless” series.

Everything in these images looks parched. In one, many people stand in the distance at the foot of a pair of mesas, bearing buckets. In the foreground, a blanket covers some spent beast. Iran has been in a water crisis for several years, a situation that threatens to provoke more upheaval. Dashti's photos ground in a love of place, and they mourn losses that seem to never end.

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Contrasting styles

Gallery NAGA has mounted shows of two longtime Boston painters whose work couldn't be more different. Louis Risoli's dizzying abstractions – thick with paint and razzle-dazzle – wink, joke, and dance off the walls. Robert Ferrandini's moody, glimmering watercolors pull you in and under like a narcotic.

Risoli glories in the possibilities of painting. He plays with surface, color, pattern, material, and perception. "Quantum Communication," a large-scale piece, looks like two completely different paintings splintering together in a serpentine vortex.

One is vaporous orange and turquoise, seeping and dripping across the canvas. The other, with dense, slick paint, features spirals and loops in yellow, red, and touches of black. For fun, Risoli throws in more motifs: checkerboards in party tones, a flourish of royal blue. It's a thrill-ride for the eyes.

Ferrandini suffered a stroke in 2001, losing use of his painting hand. He taught himself to paint with his left hand, and abandoned the more complicated studio tasks oil painting presents, switching to watercolors.

He has continued to paint his signature imaginary landscapes, mossy and dense – quite a feat in watercolor, which is so much less discrete than oil paint (touches of gouache help). And although they are layered — in real life, you might need a machete to hike through these landscapes — the watercolors feel airier and dreamier than the oils did, perhaps populated by ghosts or wood sprites.

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Ferrandini's "untitled (12.18.14)" features a crawling network of branches and green leaves on one side, while the other side is almost pearlescent, with a sturdy, spiny bush rising from a rosy little hill like a genie from a bottle. In "untitled (7.5.15)," a lipstick-kiss of a blossom hangs from a delicate spray of leaves, and a passage of sky blue glows between dense blankets of mauve and gold. These landscapes open in unexpected places, and gentle light shines through.

Totemic ceramics

Kelley Donahue's painted, large-scale ceramic pieces at T + H Gallery aren't shaped like totems, but they have a totemic quality, layering and knotting images rather than stacking them. Donahue fleetly shifts from 2-D to 3-D, which imbues her figures with an oddly magical quality. She alternates between ancient and contemporary in a similar way.

"Yes to the Serpent" features an image of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet, with a snakelike body and magnificent wings, rising from a tree of life in pastel tones contoured in black. On Wadjet's opposite side, Donahue portrays a friend as if she were a goddess.

The works are dense with imagery, and Donahue's technique is strong, but they try too hard to express transcendence, and ignore the roles grit and darkness play in achieving it.

A more abstract piece offers more possibility. "Wading Through the Depths of What We Always Thought We Knew (thank you for collecting shells with me)," a round carpet of mussel-shell-like bits of clay, appears to shift as you walk around: It's smooth and fluid at your feet, spiky on the opposite side. Here mystery arises straightforwardly from texture, while the other works explain mystery too much, and don't trust it enough.

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Gohar Dashti: Stateless

At Robert Klein Gallery @ Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 20. 617-267-7997, www.robertkleingallery.com

Louis Risoli: New Paintings

Robert Ferrandini:

New Watercolors

At Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Jan. 30.617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com

Kelley Donahue:

Cosmic Cosmetologist

At T + H Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 20.401-390-1033, www.tandhgallery.com


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