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When the quill is mightier than the sword

“Por-Cu-Pic” from “Jeannie Weissglass: The Secret Life of Porcupines.”
“Por-Cu-Pic” from “Jeannie Weissglass: The Secret Life of Porcupines.”

Kabinett, a jewel-box of a gallery in the South End, opened last month with an exhibition of modernist art suited to its small size.

Owner Gabriel Boyers encounters modernists in his work as a rare book dealer. He also has a taste for contemporary art. “Jeannie Weissglass: The Secret Life of Porcupines,” a cheeky exhibition of paintings and drawings that toy with historical stereotypes, is Kabinett’s first foray into the 21st century.

Some of the work is funny, but one-note. There’s mooning and masturbating. In the drawing “George,” a Washingtonian figure in uniform and tricorn hat does the latter. I laughed out loud, then reflected that a sixth grader might scribble this in his notebook during a lesson about Valley Forge. Easy laugh, no new insight about, say, American puritanism. The erotic scenes, some with looming skulls (and some quite lusciously painted) have the same effect, as if they’re aiming to be subversive, but miss the mark.

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Weissglass’s porcupines, however, are provocative. “Por-Cu-Pic,” the best work in the show, depicts a medieval knight on a horse floating above a giant porcupine with quills flying like flames. A vaporous red border erupts from the knight’s sword, and gives the peculiar image a heraldic shape that begs for a symbolic reading. In “Lady and Porcupine” a dominatrix hovers amid the animal’s raised quills.

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A porcupine’s quills are sharp, barbed, and hollow, which makes them buoyant, and brings to mind the old test for a witch: Does she float? Perhaps the animal has powers we cannot imagine.

The woman is pixie-like in “Lady and Porcupine,” and the animal dominates. The knight in “Por-Cu-Pic,” in contrast, is in full control, despite the animal’s ire.

The mild, instinctual, ferociously defensive rodent plays against power and pageantry in these works. It signifies something more intimate and knotty than Weissglass’s depictions of sex. The porcupine isn’t simply about exposing; it’s about finding what’s inside.

JEANNIE WEISSGLASS: THE SECRET LIFE OF PORCUPINES

At Kabinett, 467 Shawmut Ave., through June 14. 617-308-4019, www.kabinettgallery.com

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