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Liliana Porter's deceptively charming paintings and assemblages at Barbara Krakow Gallery are populated with her trademark tiny figurines, which bring whimsy and a certain emotional fortitude to the worlds she creates for them.

Those worlds unfailingly represent art and art theory — questions about surface, gesture, and object. A 1-inch-tall figure, swept up in paint (or sometimes sweeping up paint) becomes a stand-in for the artist and the viewer confronting the world of form and color. Porter deflates art’s high-mindedness, but honors its grammar and purpose.

In “To Go There III,” a small Mickey Mouse in a little car scoots over an oval canvas. Mickey’s slathered in black paint, and he leaves swirling black gestures in his wake, as Porter twists the concept of the artist’s hand, made especially sacrosanct by Abstract Expressionism. In “Axe Man (With green shirt),” a little guy stands on a white cube of a shelf. For him, it’s a pedestal, which in art-think has its own host of conceptual tropes. He holds a wee ax above his head, and below, aggressive cuts splinter the white cube.

Ilya Bolotowsky’s “Untitled Tondo’’ at Beth Urdang Gallery.
Ilya Bolotowsky’s “Untitled Tondo’’ at Beth Urdang Gallery.

In this show, unlike others she has had in recent years at Barbara Krakow and at the Boston Center for the Arts, Porter uses large-scale works to explore issues of war and violence. For “Situation With Levitating Rabbit II’’ she has drawn a smallish supine cartoon rabbit on an expansive canvas. Swipes of white paint drip down to a shelf at the bottom, where a kneeling toy soldier appears to have shot a fallen Mickey Mouse — both covered in white paint. The shelf is otherwise studded with rubble, also sodden with paint. The only thing that’s not white along the shelf is the tiny figure of a cleaning woman pushing a broom, corralling the mess.

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There is so much at work in this piece. The purity of the white-on-white canvas, save for that eerie bunny rising like a full moon, argues with the implication that paint here becomes a substitute for blood. But then maybe not, because the cleaning woman belongs in a hallway, not on a battlefield, and these are playthings. Except in an art gallery, they’re not. The more realms that collide like this in Porter’s work, the more provocative it is.

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Dimensions of color

Ilya Bolotowsky, a Russian-born (in 1907) American Modernist who died in 1981, found his way as a young painter from naturalism to a branch of abstraction called Suprematism, which eschewed painting objects altogether in favor of exploring the forces of form. Bolotowsky reached maturity with an approach to painting that echoed Piet Mondrian’s hard-edged, flat, jazzy, geometric abstractions.

Most of the works in “Ilya Bolotowsky: Paintings, Columns, Prints’’ now up at Beth Urdang Gallery were made by the artist in the 1960s and ’70s, when he was well established in his style. An untitled biomorphic abstraction drawn with mouthy forms on spikes (1937), and “Suprematist Abstraction’’ (1945), which features rectangles built out of triangles and stripes of bold color, show Bolotowsky working out the kinks.

His later paintings and prints on view are lucid, crisp, and inviting. Bolotowsky relied heavily on primary colors, but he judiciously mixed up his hues. “Multi-Colored Tondo” (1950) is luscious with plummy purple and royal blue. Rectangular panes of color shift over the circular canvas, seeming to set the wheel rolling.

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Late in his career, the artist moved into 3-D, painting columns such as “Vertical Movement Trylon” (1977), a triangular one striped with red, blue, and yellow and softened with a sky-blue patch. Although these works are technically sculptures, they read like paintings. Surface and pattern trump their three-dimensionality. For Bolotowsky, the column seems to have been an opportunity to add yet another dimension of flat planes of color.

Nuance and desire

Painters Ariel Freiberg and Helena Wurzel delve into the perennially freighted realm of women as subjects of the artist’s (and viewer’s) gaze in their show at Laconia Gallery. Feminist theory brought this to the


fore a few decades ago as an issue of objectification of women throughout art history. But artists today — particularly women artists — make the power dynamic much more nuanced.

Freiberg elevates her subjects. We gaze up at them, and they are set godlike against operatic skies. In “Big Dream” a scantily clad woman in glossy gold sandals perches atop a billowing pile of shoes that rides a cloud of hot pink smoke. “Song of Songs” positions another heroine above us, raising her smartphone above a sturdy ram. These works, with their mouthwatering colors and forms, are about desire. But as alluring as the women in them may be, they are also commanding and preoccupied.

Wurzel paints smaller, more intimate works. Paintings arrayed on one wall narrate in flattened tones a relationship between a woman and a man, and convey disconnection and betrayal. In some, the raven-haired woman is nude, but these works are fraught with a psychological realism that makes it hard to objectify her. She may be nude, and even trying to seduce, but what comes across is frailty.

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LILIANA PORTER

At: Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St.,

through April 24.

617-262-4490, www.barbarakrakowgallery.com

ILYA BOLOTOWSKY: Paintings, Columns, Prints

At: Beth Urdang Gallery,

129 Newbury St.,

through May 12.

781-264-1121, www.bethurdanggallery.com

ARIEL FREIBERG,

HELENA WURZEL:

One Is Always Forgotten

At: Laconia Gallery,

433 Harrison Ave.,

through April 22. www.laconiagallery.com


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.