Caleb Charland, a Mr. Wizard for the photography set, has an exhibit documenting some of his science experiments up at Gallery Kayafas. How many potatoes does it take to power a lamp? What does the life cycle of a lima bean look like? What happens when you drip hot candle wax on photographic paper?
Unlike Mr. Wizard, who had a science show for kids in the early days of television, Charland’s endpoint isn’t knowledge. It’s beauty. To light up that lamp, he didn’t merely plug it into dozens of potatoes. He found a potato field. The lamp in the uncanny “Potato Power, La Joie Growers LLC, Van Buren, Maine” takes on an eerie glow in a dusky blue light thanks not only to the spuds, but to a long exposure that gathered what light there was on film, and made a sparkling canopy of stars arcing overhead.
Some of Charland’s exploits are more like Zen riddles than science. He set his camera and tripod in the bow of a canoe for “Attempting to Paddle Straight at the Moon.” Who can paddle a canoe in a straight line? Again, a long exposure plays a crucial role. The canoe’s prow points like an arrow at a boulevard of light, the moon’s reflection on the water. But the moon itself is a horizontal squiggle in the night sky, galumphing back and forth with the boat’s inevitable motion.
CALEB CHARLAND: Backscatter. MAGGIE STARK: Still/Time
In the end, Charland’s experiments are more explorations with camera, film, and photographic paper than they are investigations of the natural world. Maybe that’s why the results are more like magic than science.
Maggie Stark, also at Kayafas, took inspiration from the 2009 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall for her videos and photographs. She uses playground motifs to explore division and duality in crisp, understated, strictly choreographed works freighted with menace.
The “Still/Time” video and photos feature barely illuminated seesaws as people walk back and forth across them. Stark abstracts the scene; most of what we see is the rise and fall of the seesaws in a metronomic tick-tock. The performers are in the dark, but they wear headlamps that trace paths of light through the dimness. One photo from this series, with the sharp angles of the seesaw below and the wavering lights above, makes a stunning match to Charland’s “Attempting to Paddle,” but the moods, and the contexts, differ substantially. Stark uses play to delineate how fear and safety jockey in the human psyche. Charland simply plays.
Gorgeous and creepy
Nicole Duennebier’s gorgeous and creepy paintings at the Lilypad attract and repel. She calls her show “Bright Beast,” an apt description for the fanciful, burgeoning organic forms she depicts. In a painting such as “Scintillating Red Organism,” she pulls you in with hundreds of strands of delectable tiny spheres, tangling and cascading, glistening like the grapes in a Dutch still life.
Many Dutch still life paintings addressed imminent death and decay, and that’s in the mix here, too. Ghostly silver folds make a woozy nest for the organism; the surrounding light is murky. Amid all the care for detail, veils of pigment drift, suggesting the beads exude a stench, and shadows of drips hint that they’re giving way to rot.
Duennebier goes straight for the stomach-churning in “Andrew’s Dermoid Cyst,” a lusciously painted mass of white fur, quivering red fibers, pink berries, and — ick — rows of teeth. This painter’s combination of pearlescent sheen and lurking horror recalls a similar approach in Anne Harris’s sweetly ghoulish portraits. In both cases, technical mastery gives the artist what she needs to seduce the viewer; the content lowers the boom.
The mess before
Jemison Faust is a personal organizer, so “The Before Part of What I Do,” her show at Bromfield Gallery, examines the mess before organization occurs. Her mixed-media paintings and three-dimensional collages wryly capture the emotional fog that can accompany clutter.
In “The Before Part of What I Do #17,” an expertly composed painting, the foreground brims with brightly colored plastic items and snarled wires and cables; Faust knows the eye-popping appeal of colored plastic. But the scene recedes into a smoggy miasma, like the funk exuding from a landfill.
She makes her collages from the stuff she excavates. “The Before Part of What I Do #25” features a tiny list: “Heat/Lie flat/No pillow/Get rid of car.” There’s a toy ambulance bound up in elastics, a jewelry box with a fingertip-sized dome inside, and a puddle of resin. These surrealist associations add up to a small narrative of desperation that is still, somehow, lit up by playfulness.
Lesley Cohen’s abstract drawings in charcoal and chalk pastel, also at Bromfield, are elemental. Marks seem to seep out of the paper’s grain, like lichen growing in the folds of tree bark. “Loosened Junctures” recalls a section of a spiny tree trunk, dying and invaded by vines. “Open Question” comes unveiled in the center, with floating whispers of gray surrounded by shudders of encroaching darkness. These drawings feel deeply private and raw, the essence of mark-making.
At: The Lilypad, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge, through June 16.
The Before Part of What I Do
At: Bromfield Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through June 29. 617-451-3605, www.bromfieldgallery.com