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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Skulls, and other things, beneath the skin in ‘Killers & Thrillers’

Roy Lichtenstein’s “As I Opened Fire” is part of “Killers & Thrillers” at Kabinett.
Roy Lichtenstein’s “As I Opened Fire” is part of “Killers & Thrillers” at Kabinett.(Kabinett)

The sheer, giddy scope of works in “Killers & Thrillers” at Kabinett reveals a curator unleashed in the gallery’s owner, Gabriel Boyers. The themes — death and sex — are broad and occasionally overlapping. More than 80 ghoulish, kitschy, and raunchy pieces from all eras mingle with sublime and pointedly political art.

Three Roy Lichtenstein lithographs set the tone with roaring air artillery in the brash “As I Opened Fire.” Then there’s Robert Longo’s stark, expressionistic “You Kill Me” screenprint of a loaded gun magazine. There’s no shortage of leering skulls; most are memento mori, but one is a parlor trick.

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Ashtrays appear twice. One small selection is crafted from US Army practice bombs, circa World War II. Then, a bronze sculpture of a vulva made around 1940, the catalogue tells us, was “apparently used as a night stand ash tray at a Vichy brothel.”

The tonal shifts can cause whiplash. An etching of Vincent van Gogh on his deathbed made by Paul Gachet, his doctor, veers from the show’s often lurid evocations of death and violence to something more personal: an intimate portrait of a man who has taken his life.

It hangs near a news photo of Elvis Presley lying in state.

The link couldn’t be clearer, but the medium and the subject yanked me right out of my sober reflection. The image of Van Gogh, originally sketched in charcoal by his friend, is fond and forlorn. The ogling image of Elvis is emblematic of his fame.

The pairing might be a needle scratch, but it’s also a brilliant contrast. “Killers & Thrillers” soars in part because of its broad inventory, and in part because of the daring and droll connections it makes. Here’s another: Stationed near the bronze vulva is the skull of a bird with an enormous, phallic beak. Together with a sixth- or seventh-century “Persian Demon Bowl,” the two form a cheeky group.

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That kind of cheek, and these kinds of leaps, may not work in a scholarly museum show, but in a gallery, they’re a gas.

KILLERS & THRILLERS

At Kabinett, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 30. 617-826-9377, www.kabinettgallery.com


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