Curator Elizabeth Devlin has made a savvy choice of theme with her new exhibition at the New Art Center, “Pedigree.” The title pointedly suggests class, that pressure-point topic in American life. But it’s also broad: The show looks at pedigree in art, in the animal world, and in what we hold dear from the past. All of which carry emotional freight.
“Pedigree” sets art rooted in Old World (and old New England) aesthetics side by side with art inspired by less haughty sources: the street, engineering, sign-painting.
Here’s one cluster: Shelley Reed’s painting “Cat Fight (after Snyders)” depicts, in velvety shades of gray, a ferocious encounter between domestic cats borrowed from a painting by 17th-century Flemish artist Frans Snyders. Elizabeth Alexander’s extravagant cut-paper installation “Keeping Up Appearances” re-creates a Victorian dining room, with paper feathering off the walls and a chandelier crashed on the floor. Liz Shepherd’s “I Don’t Know the Details” spookily chops up an antique dining set, fracturing table, chairs, and plates, which jarringly remain upright and in place.
Each pins its vision on the past, but insinuates the center can’t hold. Old structures are breaking down. These pieces circle a fresh, kinetic sculpture that makes no reference to our vaunt- ed past — Chris Fitch’s “Spring,” a large, mechanical version of a fiddlehead fern. A foot pedal sets the piece unfurling. It takes time, but you won’t want to walk away until it’s done.
The curator sets up one area of the gallery like a Victorian parlor. Caleb Cole’s “The Widows” hangs above the divan, featuring 19th-century cartes de visite depicting older women, mounted on vintage hankies. Cole has applied liquid eyeliner and collected tears to each, making the stern visages weepy, breaking down societal propriety with emotional expressiveness. Nearby, Thomas Buildmore uses spray paint, a graffiti artist’s medium, to paint a gorgeous and gaudy floral still life.
Devlin herself is not pedigreed, in that she doesn’t hold a master’s degree. Her blog, FLUX. Boston, follows art in these parts, and she put together a breezy, less substantial group show, “Elsewhere,” last fall at the Distillery Gallery. She has a light touch. She’s attuned to, but not bogged down by, art-world paradigms. Her delight in the work, and her sense of fun, makes “Pedigree” shine.
Wrestling with the ideal
The giant plywood wrestlers at the center of Aaron Stephan’s show at Samson may look familiar. They’re modeled after “The Uffizi Wrestlers,” a Roman marble statue that was itself a copy of a Greek sculpture. Indeed, the taut scene of two young men in a clinch has been reproduced and copied many times, and Stephan, who also has a show up now at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, here delves into how a single image can echo through time, accumulating meaning.
His vaguely cubist version, “The Possible Inevitable,” with its flat planes and angles, is made out of packing crate material for transporting art. “The Uffizi Wrestlers” is itself a kind of packing crate for ideas about beauty, masculinity, and composition that have carried through the centuries. At the same time, Stephan explodes those treasured ideals into a giant-size cartoon that you might not even recognize, at first glance, as depicting figures.
His other sculptures cleverly needle a cherished rubric of painting: the brush stroke and its supports, the stretched canvas and frame. In “Stroke and Stretcher,” a length of red rubber — the stroke — hangs like a towel on the bottom edge of a frame. It looks like a painting sticking out its tongue. Stephan brings the glorified gesture of abstract expressionism down a peg, but with the wry eye for the ready-made — in this case, a stretcher — that goes back to Duchamp. And he does it in up-to-the-minute terms that mash up painting and sculpture.
Sweeping views, in parallel
Photographer Bruce Myren spent 14 years traveling the country along the 40th latitudinal parallel, stopping every 53 miles at each whole degree of longitude to take panoramic triptychs with his large format camera. The 52 prints, now up at Gallery Kayafas, have the eye-widening feeling of a cross-country road trip.
The project encompasses sweeping ideas as well as vistas. Are the maps we impose on the landscape meaningful or arbitrary? Timothy O’Sullivan photographed portions of the 40th parallel in the 1860s, when the Kansas and Nebraska territories were surveyed. We are increasingly dependent on GPS technology. Myren used it to get where he needed to be, lugging 40 pounds of equipment.
Yet his photographs convey a landscape unto itself, independent of our systems and our scurrying. In Fallon, Nev., we look out over scrubby brush toward a mountain range. The slanting light, the rugged textures, the mountain ridges against the sky are liberating to see. Myren appears in this one only, or his shadow does, jagged behind his boxy camera and tripod. Along the way, he nimbly juggles perspectives. In Webber, Kan., he has us down amid rusty, dry wildflowers, with bare trees out of focus in the distance.
These prints are smallish, but the spaciousness and rugged beauty Myren conveys would make any American proud.
At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 19.
The Fortieth Parallel
At: Gallery Kayafas,
450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 12. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.