Jameson Johnson, curator of “Contours of Meaning,” the annual exhibition of resident artists at the Boston Center for the Arts, tapped seven artists who were in nascent, experimental, or otherwise uncertain phases with their work when she met them. Johnson, 23 and the editor in chief of Boston Art Review, jumped into that unsteady place with them, so the works — all installations — evolved as the show did.
The result is more nimble than deep, rooted in memory and personal constructs of meaning. Johnson hopscotches from intricate, systematized works to expansive pieces with open narratives. Often, meaning springs as much from spanning the gaps between objects as from the objects themselves. Prodding us to leap, Johnson activates viewers to step into the invigorating place in which she found her artists.
Among the more delicate works, Leika Akiyama’s “Memory Tubs,” tiny pink resin bathtubs mounted in a careful grid, is at once nostalgic and fantastical. Georgina Lewis’s small paper-pulp sculptures in “we make a mark and live in it” appear as if sorted during an archeological dig. The vestiges might represent memories — some keen, some resonant but vague. In Sandrine Schaefer’s “Displaced/Display (No. 2),” relics from her performance art works (shattered piggy banks, a splayed jumpsuit in a wheelbarrow) are as implicitly linked as Lewis’s gnarly little sculptures.
Several such twisty installations lead a viewer to “In the Presence of Absence,” Allison Maria Rodriguez’s show-stopping multichannel video in the back gallery. Rodriguez, a Cuban-American, also explores gulfs — between cultures and between generations, and the widening one between humanity and our ecosphere.
The darkened room swirls with patterns of projected light. In her videos, Rodriguez layers images of her long-gone family in Cuba with pictures of extinct animals. Ominous weather systems gyre. Along the edges, the artist herself appears in supplication, clad in a tourist shop’s version of a Cuban dress as if trying and failing to fit into her ancestors’ world.
Rodriguez doesn’t span gaps. She drops right into them. “In the Presence of Absence” aches with the sumptuousness of what is gone, and wrenchingly ties personal loss to current and impending ecological disaster. It’s the most fully realized work in a light-footed show, and it’s a gut punch.
CONTOURS OF MEANING At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St, through Oct. 6. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.