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What’s up at Boston-area art galleries

John Gonzalez painted the same square, transitioning it through 50 hues of gray. As part of the exhibit “Seven,” Montserrat Gallery made a video of his process. Claudia M. Friedel/Photo Credit: Claudia M. Friedel

Pared to its essence, drawing is the act of making a mark. “Seven: A Performative Drawing Project,” at Montserrat College of Art, puts as much emphasis on the action as it does on the result.

The fizzy, occasionally daring exhibition gives each of the seven walls of Montserrat Gallery to an artist for a week. Visitors can witness the artist at work; that’s what makes each drawing a performance. Up this week: David Teng Olsen, known for his fabulously detailed, cartoony works that insert figures into bustling abstractions.

When I visited last week, Autumn Ahn had recently finished her mural (they’re all untitled) via video chat from Paris. Ahn directed collaborator Amanda Antunes in a performance, painting a gestural
altarpiece akin to black stage curtains around a video projection of a performance by Ahn dipping her hands in pigment and painting. The mural expertly explores the immediacy of mark-making over distance, and communication through, as Ahn put it in a video chat with me, a physical avatar.

John Gonzalez painted a simple square on the wall in white, and then in nearly 50 layers, went through shades of gray until he had a black square. His mural and Ahn’s read more like relics of a performance than paintings you want to spend time with. The gallery has cleverly recorded the creation of each work in revelatory stop-motion short videos, an especially necessary step for these two artists, but eye-opening for the others, as well.


Alexa Guariglia’s ambitious beast of a painting writhes with tangled calligraphic swoops and loops that end in hands. The video of her at work surprised me: She painted what I took to be the first step, a red ground, last. Percy
Fortini-Wright’s cheeky mural straddles street art and fine art; made with spray paint and structures the artist brought in, it was a quicker process than Guariglia’s.


Andy Bablo, a graphic artist, and illustrator Allison Cole started with sketches on the computer, which have manifested boldly in vinyl and paint. Bablo fashions the numeral seven in shards of color. It spills onto the floor in tiny black squares, which reflect Gonzalez’s big black square, made weeks later. Cole’s portrait of a diamond-eyed girl with black hair filled with flowers is wonderfully confrontational at such a large scale, yet still sweet.

With such different styles, “Seven” feels refreshingly democratic, and holds together aesthetically with everyone’s dramatic use of black. That’s sheer coincidence. But its sense of immediacy and spontaneity is no coincidence, nor the frisson of not knowing what will happen when that next mark is made.

“Gran Exito y la obra de Sobrevivir” (detail) by Raul Gonzalez III, at Essex Art Center.

Mix of cultures

Raul Gonzalez III adds another installment to his sprawling, dystopian “Tranquilandia” project, which combines elements of pop culture and Mexican iconography to lament violence and poverty, with an installation at the Essex Art Center. This exhibition, “Gran Exito y la Obra de Sobrevivir” (loosely translated, “great success and the work of survival”) centers on an installation Gonzalez created with Elaine Bay, “Every step you take is forever.” It’s a stark drawing of a girl, in the embrace of a skeleton, kneeling on a raft. A red bird obscures her features, but she holds a cracked mirror up, and we see one of her eyes. With its heavy brow, it looks like Frida Kahlo’s eye. Kahlo’s own work, of course, was a testament to the power of reverie and creativity in the face of great pain and loss.


Gonzalez’s lush, startling drawings on stained paper can feel like recovered antiquities, but his line always has a Warner Brothers-cartoon verve that perks up often dark scenes. He mounts this one over an actual raft on an inner tube, made to look like an altar with candles, dried ears of corn, and bottles painted with angry roosters. Staticky audio plays at a low, disruptive hum.

Despite the desperate imagery, a force of life usually pushes through in Gonzalez’s work. Sometimes, that force lashes out violently. Sometimes it’s filled with humor. Here, it seems to hold out hope.

Ann Strassman’s painting “Singularities XI” at Endicott College.

Faces of the famous and ordinary

Painter Ann Strassman’s loose, gestural portraits, now up at Endicott College’s Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, set up a tension between how icons endure while the rest of us come and go. She does this painting on cardboard from appliance boxes, emphasizing disposability, and juxtaposing images of famous and ordinary people.

Historic figures and celebrities can have such familiar mugs that their faces become masklike; it’s hard to read their humanity. Strassman’s portraits of rock stars such as Mick Jagger, consequently, are simply dull. But her Ted Kennedy, in “Dryer III,” captures something lively and real about the man — he appears to be listening to someone he disagrees with.

The paintings of regular folk invite more speculation. Who is the unkempt fellow in “Singularities XI,” standing exhausted in front of a trash can and a bench, hands deep in his pockets? In the paintings on cardboard and a couple on canvas, such as “Disconnections II,” Strassman contemplates waiting and the anonymity of urban life with a loaded brush, nimbly catching skin tone and expressions with notably broad strokes.


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