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At BU, a Boston art scene transformed by subversion

Cobi Moules’s “Untitled (Christmas Morning)”
Cobi Moules’s “Untitled (Christmas Morning)”(BU Art Gallery)

“Under a Dismal Boston Skyline” sounds bleak, but the exhibition, at Boston University’s Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, celebrates art that grew like a flower from under a rock.

The show takes its name from a photograph by Mark Morrisroe, who died in 1989, at 30, from AIDS-related complications. He was a leading light of a group in the 1970s and ’80s, now known as the Boston School, which rejected two things: institutional parameters about art, and the city’s cultural conservatism.

They chronicled their lives in intimate, frank photos and videos, setting a searingly personal tone for an era shaped by AIDS. Many (Nan Goldin, Doug and Mike Starn) went on to art-world success.

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The show traces a thread from the Boston School to the present, highlighting artists who explore sexual and gender identity and build communities in the face of establishment disapproval. The exhibition notes the lively performance art underground here, spearheaded for more than 40 years by Mobius Artists Group, and nods to alternative spaces such as 11th Hour Gallery and Oni Gallery.

It’s a bruised and melancholy slice of art history, and still affecting. Goldin’s fuzzy black-and-white photograph of a strutting drag queen, made in 1973, anticipates her achingly personal series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” The Starn twins’ gut-wrenching photo of Morrisroe, big, distressed, and taped together, shows him in silhouette, presaging his early death.

A Boston underground continues to spotlight edgier work, but art schools, commercial galleries, and museums now embrace the raw, confessional style the Boston School championed. Recent works in this show include Cobi Moules’s drawings re-creating family snapshots to correct his gender identity, Candice Camille Jackson’s charged black-and-white photographs of friends and family in Dorchester, and Steve Locke’s drawings mapping the porous social terrain of male desire.

In art, conventions are made to be broken, often in the face of rejection and derision. Boston’s cold shoulder prompted many of these artists to make better work. Even when it hurt.

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UNDER A DISMAL BOSTON SKYLINE

At Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Oct. 28. 617-353-3329, www.bu.edu/art


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