Paul Sattler's narrative paintings riffle through history and mythology; he populates them with gods and oafs, teachers and tricksters. Deploying a host of painterly techniques, he draws upon some of his favorite art works, conjuring ghosts with touch as well as image.
Sattler's new show is the last at Alpha Gallery's Newbury Street location. The gallery has already opened its new space on Harrison Avenue with an inaugural group exhibition.
The centerpiece of Sattler's show, "Letters to Cross (Henri Matisse to Henri Edmond Cross)," imagines the experience of the painter Cross, who helped usher in post-impressionism. Here, aging and blind, he is read a letter from his protégé, Matisse. Cross sits on a sunny balcony, in a Fauvist fever of sunny tones; Sattler scatters light in speckled, pointillist sprays, and a yellow disk of a cloud directly quotes Matisse. Behind Cross, an apparition of Matisse perches on a ladder.
The painting lovingly blends Cross's physical reality with what he might see in his mind's eye. It's an allegory for painting itself, which springs from a stew of influences, visions, and methods.
Sattler revisits his old favorite, the Dutch Mannerist Joachim Wtewael, in a couple of reprises of Wtewael's "Wedding of Peleus & Thetis," a jam-packed soap opera of a wedding scene, which nearly has the all-over quality of a Pollock painting, with frolicking and fractious Greek gods instead of painterly drips.
He takes a more intimate view of the myth in "Peleus & Thetis," via images of their romance depicted on ancient Greek urns. Thetis was a sea goddess; Peleus, poor sod, was mortal. Here, Peleus grabs his beloved around the hips as she levitates at the water's edge; her arms morph into animals that attack him; a brilliant light obscures her face. You know it can't last (although they did stay together a while, and spawned Achilles).
Allegorical narrative can seem fusty in this age of irony and anti-heroes, but Sattler makes it work with his nimble technique; his brushwork fleetly moves us from physical reality into the ether — that equally potent world of spirit, memory, and imagination.
Married artists Betsy and Ron Weis, in their solo shows at Rafius Fane Gallery, take two distinct routes into landscape. Betsy uses the nuanced palette of black-and-white photography to beckon us into places where we can't quite orient ourselves. Ron paints images from vintage postcards, stitching glorious idylls together into surreal montages with hyped-up color and happy tourists.
Ron stokes his postcard-size images with yearning for the impossible paradises he portrays. "Wish You Were Here (two men in a boat)" positions the fishermen on sapphire-blue water, with a sun-soaked castle in the middle ground, and above that, a snowy mountain range. There's irony here, balanced with an outright fondness for the saturated tones and over-the-top scenery, as if the painter achieves his own sweet lark as he paints.
Lately, Ron has blown the small paintings up into fascinating wall-size prints on vinyl. They hang on to their sense of impossible illusion, even as it's easier to spot the oddities of his juxtapositions. "Wish You Were Here (boardwalk)" places a carefree water skier at such an angle that the boat towing him must be crashing into the boardwalk. If you were there, you might drown.
Betsy's contemplative photos use perspective, weather, and tonality to present landscape as mystery. "Glacial Sky" has us looking down at rock formations swept with snow, but the snow is so alive in the air, it's not clear where the horizon lies: Despite the solidity of the peaked rocks, this is a frigid, majestic picture of uncertainty.
The lovely, desolate "Trees in Rows" depicts leafless trees planted with military precision, with dark, straight gullies of earth running between them. It's winter; their perfect order, which we might overlook were they cloaked in leaves, is naked. Despite its agrarian purposefulness, that order looks amiss — tamed and vulnerable — in a way that a woods grown wild never would.
Bromfield Gallery annually awards solo shows to two artists. This year's winners, tapped by Ruth Erickson, assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, are strong photographers.
Camilo Ramirez photographed the Gulf coast after the 2010 BP oil spill, and again in 2014. In his stark, lush, and oddly comic images, love for nature tenses against the commodification of nature. In "Rainbow Trout," a leering, gape-mouthed statue of a trout juts into the sky, framed by utility wires and poles in the distance, a monster on the rampage. (Ramirez is exhibiting work from the same series at Joan Resnikoff Gallery, Roxbury Community College, through Feb. 26.)
Andrea Star Greitzer gets up close to marble statuary in museums, capturing moments of touch that deliver these pale forms from idealized figuration to something more urgent and intimate. In a second body of work, she photographs spaces in museums not used for exhibitions, cleverly examining architectural design and emptiness as if it were negative space in a painting — the absence that gives form to a presence.
Paul Sattler: New Paintings
At Alpha Gallery, 37 Newbury St., through Feb. 24. 617-536-4465, www.alphagallery.com
Betsy Weis: Landscape Is a Verb
Ron Weis: Wish You Were Here
At Rafius Fane Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 24. 508-843-2184, www.rafiusfanegallery.com
Camilo Ramirez: The Gulf
Andrea Star Greitzer: In the Museum
At Bromfield Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 31.617-451-3605, www.bromfieldgallery.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.