Arts

Galleries

Works that hang in the balance

“Light My Fire 84,” by Robert Chamberlin at Miller Yezerski Gallery.
“Light My Fire 84,” by Robert Chamberlin at Miller Yezerski Gallery.

The first, glancing impression I had walking into “Karl Baden: Rising” at Miller Yezerski Gallery was of stained glass. Yet it’s a street photography show.

Baden’s extraordinary color prints, catching commuters as they exit the escalator out of the Harvard Square MBTA station, pit the sun’s glow against the T’s deep, underground shadows. He captures people at the cusp, emerging into daylight. Sunshine sops bright shirts and jackets, but darkness, in these photos, doesn’t simply give way. It appears to grab on with ghostly tentacles.

This exit from the underworld offers mythic metaphors. Then, the jumble of people as they rise single-file and flee the subway, is rich with narrative and formal possibility.

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In “Untitled, May 3, 2015,” a boy in a lime green jacket turns his back to us, facing a woman in red who seems to stand still, arms rigid at her sides. We cannot see the boy’s face. It’s a checkerboard of black and color: The boy’s dark hair, his bright sleeves. The woman’s face and shoulders are in deep shadow; that and her authoritarian posture fill the image with foreboding.

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The photos that reminded me of stained glass are the most abstract, as if people are the canvas upon which some other beauty is painted. In “Untitled, July 13, 2015,” a woman’s silky garment — shimmery burnt orange, darkening to mauve — stripes with shadows. It’s an apparition, like sunset’s last reflection flickering against black water. Yet there, too is the woman’s neck, her hair, another woman behind her, placing us back on the street.

The great street photographers — Winogrand, Friedlander — snapped found moments, humanizing the city. Baden does something else here. His people are obscured, hurrying, escaping. He photographs an upward-rushing current of humanity breaking into daylight, and finds magic in slivers of the torrent.

Ceramicist Robert Chamberlin has a saucy show, “Light My Fire,” in Miller Yezerski’s back room. He pushes porcelain, a substance we historically associate with finery and propriety, into another realm: gaudy, fleshly, overdone, exploring the links between opulence and debauchery.

He stacks some vessels before he fires them, and they slump and teeter under their own weight. In the candelabra “Light My Fire 84,” three stacked vases lean like a drunken noble at a fete, wildly adorned with porcelain ribbons and heaps of rosettes.

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The artist, who is gay, lampoons anonymous gay sex with a cheeky installation on one wall. Several works, each titled “Light My Fire (Glory Hole),” are baroquely decorated porcelain plaques, each with a hole in it; they hang amid a grid of delicate ceramic roses, which look — how to put this in a family newspaper? — welcoming.

Ceramicists refer to the earthy mixture they work with as the “clay body.” For Chamberlin, clay stands in for the human body as a vessel for desire, and his work raises apt, unnerving parallels between sexual desire and the lust for beautiful, expensive things.

Animal tracks

Two fun though spotty exhibits position animals as avatars for human traits. A street artist who goes by the name of Wolftits, and whose tag is a cartoony pink she-wolf in full lactation mode, has a show at Lot F Gallery. Fiber artist Jodi Colella makes her own bestiary from stuffed animals at Maud Morgan Arts’s Chandler Gallery.

Wolftits’s tags, charmingly goofy if simplistic, laud the instincts and maternal generosity of the wolf.

The artist is also a metal worker. He renders sculptures, such as “Wolf Head Bust,” from long rods of steel bent with heat. It’s big, and fiercer than the drawings, and if you look closely you’ll see the shape of a human skull (in steel) inside the wolf’s head. The message is more satisfyingly complicated than the sweetness of the pink tag. The cleverest piece in the show, “Chandelier,” a running wolf wrought from steel rods, has light bulbs for teats.

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The artist has repurposed old arcade games around his theme; a claw machine that grabs stuffed animals has the perky pink she-wolf painted on the back, inviting you to play. The message seems to be that life is chancy, but like the tag, the games steer us away from the wolf’s power, opting for humor instead. She needs to bare her teeth more.

Colella’s show could have used editing. Some of her reconstructed beasts convey vivid, comic, and even shocking messages. Others are not fully realized, and the exhibit begins to look forlorn, like the Island of Misfit Toys.

“All You Can Eat,” for instance, a big serpentine piece, must be a snake that has eaten a small bear, but it hangs down from the ceiling, quilted and lumpy, without much personality.

On the other hand, “Man-eater 2” is part leathery anteater, part over-the-top flirt, with hands fluttering and head tilting just so. “Feeler,” with a large, huggable, furry white body sprouting leaves, has no head. Instead, a big, round hole tunnels into its body. Is it turning itself inside out? Will it suck us up in the process? Either way, this cuddly critter has a dark side.

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