Painters Jane Smaldone and Tabitha Vevers swim in surrealistic waters in their shows at Clark Gallery. Their dreamlike and moodily bizarre imagery is underscored by art historical references that reach further back than the 20th-century movement that spawned Salvador Dalí and Man Ray.
In Vevers’s work, the gold leaf and stylized figuration of pre-Renaissance painting collides with Japanese erotic prints from the early 19th century. Throw in a 20th-century comic book turn and a 21st-century alarm about environmental conditions, and you’ve got her cocktail - seductive, but with teeth.
Maybe claws would be the better metaphor, because Vevers regularly populates her paintings with giant lobsters who couple with women, like the octopus in Hokusai’s 1814 woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.’’ In “Shiva (Exodus)’’ a woman wearing only a bra emblazoned with fish faces rides the crustacean away from an iceberg studded with smokestacks. The gold-leaf sky gives the painting a jewel-like quality, but also makes it eerie and threatening.
That gold sky appears in many of Vevers’s works, which blend playful erotic metaphors with dark intimations of mutation and disaster. “Bananaman (To the Rescue)’’ shows a hero hurtling like Superman through just such a sky. The lower half of his body is a banana past its prime, and the hero’s face, under his blue hair, is filled with sadness. These scenes appear hopeless, but for their erotic charge and a current of tenderness in the characters.
Smaldone’s recipe includes folk art and Chinese landscape painting. Her weighty floral still lifes stand before backdrops of willowy Asian landscapes and shimmering, lacy patterns. Some of the flowers have human eyes, staring out placidly. This animates them; what would have been a demure but exquisite flower arrangement, as in “Still Life With Compassionate Flower,’’ now seems to regard you thoughtfully - and that’s unnerving.
For years, Smaldone has been painting her daughter, Isabel, now in her mid-teens. Where Isabel appears here, she looks away from the viewer. “Portrait of a Girl With Lace Curtains and Butterflies’’ has her seated against a smoldering red background of what looks like stenciled lace, full of texture and femininity and suggesting obscuring veils. Isabel looks to the right, but the radiant flowers in the vase beside her gaze out at us. They are the girl’s guardians. Flowers have always had the power to seduce, but Smaldone gives them the power to apprise.
There’s no sculpture in Mary Sherman’s “Waiting for Yves’’ installation at Boston Sculptors Gallery. It is instead a witty and contemplative melding of the ideas and techniques of Yves Klein, Richard Serra, and Samuel Beckett. It’s part of the artist’s “Mechanical Universe Series’’ in which she attempts to remove painting from the wall and reinvent it in the realm of space, time, and sound.
The piece, which features wall scrolls scrubbed over in blue oil stick, recalls Klein’s 1958 installation “The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State Into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void’’: a gallery empty except for a cabinet. Klein strived for immateriality in this work and in his paintings. He is best known for his lapis-lazuli blue works; the color became known as International Klein Blue. I expect that’s what Sherman used to coat her wall-coverings, but with the fierce buildup of oil stick that Serra uses in his deeply textured drawings that feel almost sculptural. Here, immateriality miraculously works hand in hand with materiality.
There’s a small ticket dispenser on one wall, spewing deli-counter stubs that quote Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot’’: “I can’t go on,’’ one reads. The next one says “I will go on.’’ Finally, Sherman has a transporting soundtrack, composed by Yannick Franck, full of moaning horns, the rush of planes and traffic, and grinding and scraping sounds. Despite its canny conceptualism, “Waiting for Yves’’ ultimately coalesces into a lush, sensual experience that makes you want to go on.
Michelle Lougee crochets plastic bags into abstracted versions of sea creatures in her show at Boston Sculptors. Works such as “Inplastibrate’’ are bright and cheery, covered with knobs and puckers and spikes, until you read her artist’s statement. The works, she says, are inspired by a giant patch of tangled plastic in the North Pacific. She points out how plastic pieces outnumber the phytoplankton there. Then the sculptures become monstrous, despite their coy playfulness.
William Scott Gallery is mounting its third show in a row of figurative works, “National Figures,’’ curated by Damon Lehrer and Rick Berry. Figure drawing isn’t taught much in art school anymore, which is a pity, but it’s been years since abstraction dominated and figuration was thought of as passé. This show has some pieces that buzz with smart composition and emotional truth, and it has some trite pieces. With 44 works, it could have used editing.
Look out for Paul Goodnight’s electric “Movement,’’ a drawing that conveys swinging, gyrating dance as much as it does the dancer. Anne Harris’s pieces are always pristine and creepy, like her “Untitled Blonde,’’ a woman with golden, teary eyes beneath a spray of blunt-cut curls. Isaac White’s “Woman in Room’’ is made with brusque slashes of paint that splinter into one another. Figure works like White’s and Harris’s remind us of how hard it can be to be human.