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“Block 1” is among the works in “Wendy Richmond: Like the Back of My Hand.”
“Block 1” is among the works in “Wendy Richmond: Like the Back of My Hand.”Courtesy of Carroll and Sons

Wendy Richmond’s affecting new sculptures at Carroll and Sons are more concrete than her earlier work. They’re also more tragic, soul-searching, and redemptive.

In the past, her videos have dug into territory between public and private with the cool eyes of a sociologist. Then she recorded herself kicking over cairns she found in parks, revealing a sly iconoclasm.

In 2014, Richmond’s brother was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2017. Confronted with mortality and loss, the artist pondered the body’s miracles and horrors, and thought of her own hands: She is double-jointed, and she has an unusual autoimmune disease that causes her fingers to swell until her fingerprints vanish. When the swelling goes down, her fingers look deflated.

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“They’re grotesque,” she says of her hands in a video that accompanies the exhibition, “but also they’re extremely graceful.”

They make things, too. They communicate.

Richmond cast them in hydrostone, a smooth cement. She broke some stony hands at their weak points and used fragments; others are whole. She embedded them in darker blocks and set to digging them out, uncovering them with delicate tools, like an archeologist. Her pale gray hands and their blocks form a tense figure-ground relationship, signaling struggle, connection, and hope.

The hand in “Block 12” is open, outward facing. Its encasement falls away in front of the palm, but obscures the fingers. The degrading block suggests ancient earth, the hand a living message from the past, the gesture a greeting and a marker of identity.

These half-buried bodily fragments are at once earthy and unearthly. Fingers in “Block 1” emerge from the top of a block as if finding their way out of a grave, or as the last plea from a drowning swimmer. And in “Block 8,” the knuckles bend freakishly back and the thumb juts forward. Both pieces trigger a chill, like scenes in a horror movie.

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Richmond’s stone hands evoke the perils of the flesh, her blocks the myriad way life hobbles us, the trials and despairs, the great weight of mortality. Yet in her work, flesh keeps peaking through, communication continues. We soldier on. We survive. Until we don’t.

WENDY RICHMOND: LIKE THE BACK OF MY HAND

At Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through April 13. 617-482-2477, www.carrollandsons.net


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