Painter James Aponovich is a throwback in some ways. The subject of his paintings, most of which are still lifes, is ideal beauty. He paints flowers at the peak of blossoming. His strawberries glisten delectably. They are so exquisite in color and form, painted with such delicate precision, you may catch your breath looking at them.
While depicting perfection is an honorable still-life tradition, it's also a bit fusty in its allegiance to sheer beauty. Contemporary painting tends to be a messier endeavor, thriving on clashes and contradictions. But Aponovich, in his new show at Clark Gallery, steps gamely into the 21st century.
“Aponovich 52’’ is the fruit of the artist’s drive to make one painting each week for a year. Hung here sequentially and documented in a weekly blog (www
.aponovich52.blogspot.com), the exhibit pulls back the curtain on the artist’s process. Painting became a ritualized performance. The blog reveals the sweat, anxiety, and thought that went into his work.
Early on, he paints “Chinese Fortune Cookies, Week #6,’’ remarking in a blog post how difficult cellophane is to render, and two weeks later, he cooks up a stir-fry for “Take-Out Box With Noodles, Shrimp, and Peas, Week #8.’’ Both are studies for a larger painting not in this exhibit (perhaps it took more than a week to paint). Aponovich puts a sketch for that still life in the blog and explains how he mathematically proportions the forms. His take-out box is elongated, which gives it a more regal presence.
In between came the spectacular “Bowl of Fruit With Flame Orange Tissue, Week #7,’’ a nest of paper in a box open toward us, cradling a bowl of spilling berries and a clementine bursting from its peel. This, too, is plotted out mathematically. The colors are tart; the composition spirals inward.
Clark Gallery owner Dana Salvo says Aponovich hit a wall around week 23 — that canvas, “Appledore: Still Life With Peaches,’’ was a painting the artist had begun 15 years before. Then, friends brought over some chocolates (“Still Life With Chocolate Truffles, Week #24’’) and the painter's resistance gave way. Indeed, he gets more playful with pieces such as “Four Maple Leaves Taped to a Wall, Week #30.’’
The exhibit includes three larger, more ambitious pieces. A lovely coda to the show, “Still Life With Amaryllis, Evening,’' gives us the fantastically ruffled white blossoms against hushed light, and shelves filled with items we've seen in the “Aponovich 52’’ series, set quietly back like a Greek chorus, ready to step forward and speak.
‘Artist’ was gallery creation
Printmaker David Curcio, who runs the print studio and gallery Ningyo Editions, sent out notice in the spring of an upcoming show, “(I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann.’’ The artist, it said, lived in Concord and died in 1905. It went on:
“With no extant birth certificate, ignored in her own lifetime and unknown in contemporary outsider art circles, there is little to confirm that Norma Hoffmann actually existed save for a small but remarkable trove of graphite drawings.’’
When I e-mailed Curcio that I planned to stop by, he wrote back that in fact, Hoffmann didn’t exist. He had found old, anonymous drawings in an antique store, and thrown himself into creating the artist, writing about her life. The drawings were probably made by at least three different people.
I was miffed. I had singled out the exhibit for a Globe listing of gallery-show recommendations based on Curcio’s elaborate story, which cites town records and delves into the history of Danvers State Hospital, where he said Hoffmann had been a patient — without knowing it was all fiction.
In the art world, taking on aliases and shifting identities is trendy, and Curcio has essentially made a contemporary conceptual art piece from a handful of amateur drawings. As he arranges them, they tell the story of a student artist who gains skill. There’s a comical piece called “Cavalier” that has a man on horseback crossing a bridge. He is awkwardly drawn, and oddly, he looks straight at the viewer. The drawing shows an avid attention to detail, but whether that’s because the artist had a keen eye or was dutifully copying a lithograph from some novel, we can’t know.
Then, after “Hoffmann” returns from the hospital, the drawings go awry. There are sketches of dinosaur skeletons, a sea lion, animals the artist would likely never have seen (had she existed), and tree stumps. The works, handsomely mounted against dark gray walls, are unaccomplished but poignant.
“The more I wrote, the essay took on a life of its own, and I came to believe in this person and her struggles,’’ Curcio told me. He then decided, he added, “to present the show as a mock documentary.’’
At the show’s opening, Curcio says he told viewers the true back story of his work, and he says he has been forthcoming with people who have called inquiring whether a new outsider artist — someone with little formal training, or previous connection to the art world — has been discovered. The work is not good enough for that classification, even if Hoffmann had been real. But the tale is thorough, effective, and sad.
On Monday, the gallery added a disclaimer to the exhibit description online, noting that Hoffmann’s story is “completely fabricated.”
James Aponovich: Aponovich 52
At: Clark Gallery, 145 Lincoln Road, Lincoln, through July 29. 781-259-8303, www.clarkgallery.com
(I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann
At: Ningyo Editions,
81-83 Spring St., Watertown, through July 28.
Cate McQaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.