SALLY MOORE: human/nature At: Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St., through Oct. 15. 617-262-4490, www.barbarakrakowgallery.com
GABRIEL MARTINEZ At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 15. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
JOE JOHNSON: Local Weather At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 15. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
“Our feet rarely touch soil anymore,’’ sculptor Sally Moore says in her artist’s statement. “We eat parts of creatures wrapped in cellophane, disguised, without even remembering that what we are eating once breathed and felt pain.’’
Moore’s show, “human/nature’’ at Barbara Krakow Gallery, examines the gulf between our civilized lives and nature’s unpredictable force. The work suggests we’re living in a dream world, but there’s a double meaning there. On the one hand, we’re willfully blind to nature’s power, caught up in the illusion of a safely manicured world. On the other, our dreams are a conduit to our wild roots, if only we would pay attention.
Precariousness has always been this artist’s central theme, and past work has branched off the wall, seemingly ever growing and ever more threatened. Here, she introduces freestanding sculptures, in which scale captures the delicacy of human order cast against the vastness of natural chaos.
In “Denial,’’ she plants a lovely little house with trees and a fence five feet in the air, perched on bowing, fragile lengths of bamboo. A breeze might take it down. The people who would live here are the type, I found myself thinking, who build beach houses in the paths of hurricanes. Or who build McMansions. Then I felt a knot of dread in my stomach: Maybe it’s all of us.
The most visceral piece in the show, “No Ark,’’ depicts animals dashing up the wall. It’s a familiar scene from nature shows: an aerial shot of wildebeests, say, sprinting across the Serengeti. Moore’s assortment comprises a range of critters, all casting fantastic shadows. The godlike vantage point enables the viewer to recognize the panic and remain distant from it - until the presence of a woman in the group brings the scene uncomfortably close to home.
Moore still makes wall sculptures. “Trophy’’ is a witty one-liner: a little room with a Persian carpet and straight-backed chairs, with a moose’s head hanging above them. The moose’s brawny body stands on the other side of the wall. The image is surreal, as if from a dream. The natural world becomes a metaphor for the unconscious, and the room a metaphor for how we order our lives. Only a thin barrier lies between, and here, it’s been ruptured. All these works carry the same warning: The wild unknown is closer than you think.
Gabriel Martinez has been exposing and deconstructing gay male identity for 20 years. His work is reliably provocative, coursing with sexual references. His multimedia exhibit at samson is at times too jokey, at times exquisitely gorgeous.
“Self-Portrait (Henna, Mumbai),’’ a captivating photo of Martinez covered in spiraling henna designs, belongs in the latter category. His eyes are closed, but pupils have been tattooed on his eyelids. His artist’s statement about the piece notes that the Delhi High Court decriminalized gay sex in 2009, so this can be taken as a celebration. But it’s so much more: Martinez is naked, yet he’s veiled in ink. He’s presented almost monumentally, yet he’s hidden.
Less effective is “Group Configuration (Triangle),’’ a human pyramid of men wearing only jockstraps, photographed from the rear. The artist is asking questions here about the need to humiliate, but he hardly raises the bar. The sexually explicit “Group Configuration (Circle),’’ however, addresses the same theme beautifully. The circular format of the photo and its formal strictures make it into a mandala, and express the circular, back-and-forth nature of certain power relationships.
Martinez returns to an old theme, AIDS, with “Anthology,’’ a grid of fluid, swoony abstract paintings on old Donna Summer records from the 1970s, and an untitled series of inkjet close-ups of those paintings. They swim with red and white, suggesting bodily fluids mixing, and flesh experienced from within. These confrontational, lush works are steeped in nostalgia for a time before AIDS, and they chide a younger generation to remember.
Photographer Joe Johnson shoots the atmosphere in the Midwest in near monochromes - the curtain of night, the whiteout of snowfall - with a view camera that takes in enormous expanses. His show, “Local Weather,’’ at Gallery Kayafas, feels hushed by the vast sky. The land appears to be at the mercy of the atmosphere, which might swallow it up.
In “Frozen Crop, Near MacDowell, KS,’’ the flat, white-gray of the sky seeps down to the very bottom of the frame, where water mirroring the sky has melted around a devastated cornfield. In between, the yellowing shards of cornstalks break and fold, defeated. The field stretches back until it is lost in the misty horizon.
Johnson makes nuanced, spare use of light in the nighttime shots. In “One House, Manhattan, KS,’’ the land the home sits on is black, the sky on the horizon an inky gray, darkening as it rises. Winter saplings in spiny silhouette add edge to the scene. The small house is completely dark; perhaps it’s empty. But a reflection puddles in the front window. It’s the most elusive of lights, likely to vanish in an instant, and it doesn’t interrupt the forlorn quality of a home shrouded in darkness. Maybe it makes it even more forlorn. And it clinches the image.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.