Memory and the emotional charge of personal history are the focus of two wildly different exhibitions up now. Jennifer Caine, who has a show at Soprafina Gallery, is an abstract painter whose flecked, gouged, and swirling canvases attempt to capture potent but intangible preverbal memories. Lydia Kann Nettler’s “Embedded Legacies,” an installation at Kniznick Gallery at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, presents the past as a ghostly forest, murmuring with verbiage.
Nettler’s woods, fashioned from papier-mache trees and charcoal drawings, embody two landscapes: What’s left of Gurs, a French internment camp for Jews during World War II, much of which has since been reforested; and her home in New England. She investigates her mother’s story, which, according to family lore, includes imprisonment at Gurs. But Nettler discovered working papers in her mother’s name, dated 1940-1945, offering different evidence. The mystery thickens like a fog around her mother, who, Nettler says in a statement, “succumbed to disabling mental illness.”
This is rich material, and Nettler handles it adroitly with her sculptures and drawings, which are sparely black and white, but feel as if they can engulf you. She adds pillars mimicking those at the memorial at Gurs, reading “Femmes Indésirables” and “Juifs Étrangers,” which were how some of the internees were categorized. Either might apply to her mother. Little doorways in the wall drawings open to reveal images of activities in the camp, and plastic sheets hung over the drawings suggest phantoms of structures that have since disappeared, crumbled and overgrown by the forest. The past is gone, but somehow — as the title says — embedded here.
Fragments of text interrupt this haunted dream. “I have always envied my mother’s suffering.” “The Poles hated the Jews.” The words natter; they trip up the mythic and deeply metaphoric message of the forest with needless explanation and occasional whining, as if Nettler can’t risk leaving the viewer alone with his or her own experience. The artist is also a writer and a therapist, so her push for words and for sorting out the story is native to her — but it clutters up the art.
Caine, meanwhile, comes at memory without words or narrative in her show “Retrieval Cues — New Paintings.’’ She applies obsessive technique, intricately painting and scraping away. Maybe this is what we do to memory — adding and subtracting, making it into a simulacrum of what really happened, something that suits our needs.
Up close, these paintings recall excavations — the careful removal of earth to find something hidden beneath. Yet the accumulation of small gestures has none of that weight — each work looks, in some ways, like the downy aftermath of a pillow fight. In the larger canvases, Caine’s handling of color and mark create the sense of a deep space, perhaps a landscape dense with vines and cobwebs, draped in gossamer.
In “Anaphora,” she befogs the borders with white, and the center space recedes in a flurry of earth tones. The whole seems alive and jittery. “The Other One Dreams” is a cascade of gestures, both chiseled and prancing, from the upper right down the center, with either side spackled over in grays. It resembles clouds parting to a reveal a chasm filled with flocks of birds. Motion is a constant in these paintings — even the parts that look covered cannot be stilled. They are hallucinatory shimmers, like the preverbal memories Caine seeks to convey.
Shadows and light
Katina Huston has a fascination with shadows. For her show at Chase Young Gallery, the artist placed drinking glasses on translucent mylar, according to the musical notation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She shined lights and used ink to capture the glass’s shadows. The Goldberg Variations comprise an aria and 30 variations upon it. Huston’s process has a parallel: The form was a given; she shined lights across it according to her own pleasure.
Some of the works are too crowded with watery shadows seeping into one another; the effect is clamorous. The sparer works have more emotional velocity. In “Goldberg Variations 8, Not Glenn Gould,” made after a friend told her that Gould’s version was all about color, and Bach’s original all about meter, Huston’s approach is more conservative.
The forms here are more discrete, each translucent and faceted, but as shadows somehow pulpier, filled with the longing associated with absence, than depictions of the glasses themselves might be. And the tones! The artist infuses dark outlines with smatterings of sapphire, emerald, and amethyst, as if stray jewels had been left in the glasses, tossing out phantasms of light.
The smaller works represent a bar of music, the larger ones up to five or six. The notation is hard to parse, but there’s something stately and evocative about the large-scale “Goldberg Variations 4, Aria,” a scroll written over only in dark and white ink, with the white carrying all the sparks of light. The whole leans toward an S curve. It’s hard to draw music, but the undertones, highlights, and fluidity of movement here come close.
Lydia Kann Nettler: Embedded Legacies
At: Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham, through Dec. 18. 781-736-8102, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc
Jennifer Caine: Retrieval Cues – New Paintings
At: Soprafina Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 27. 617-728-0770, www.soprafina.com
Katina Huston: Goldberg Variations
At: Chase Young Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 28. 617-859-7222, www.chaseyounggallery.com