Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, photographers, storytellers, and sculptors, make substantive, sprawling narratives leavened with magic and oddity.
Kahn and Selesnick’s latest project, “Truppe Fledermaus,” now up at Carroll and Sons, revolves around a troupe of traveling entertainers coping with present-day environmental disasters in an era that aesthetically recalls Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic and into the Third Reich. It’s an installation of extraordinary ambition and detail, featuring more than 60 staged photographs, a wall jammed with posters and costume designs, and an array of gothic, fey, and imposing sculptures.
These artists always leave the through-line of their narratives to the viewer’s imagination, while providing a wealth of backdrop, foreboding, and innuendo. One of the many threads here involves white-nose syndrome, the mysterious disease that has killed millions of bats in the United States. (Fledermaus is German for bat). A poster worthy of a horror movie blows up the dark, pinched face of a bat, and reads (in German, with a translation provided): “The Plague Doctor: Please save us Doctor Beak, from the sleep of reason, from the white nose fungus!”
In the photograph “Bat Procession,” performers in bat masks and capes line up to jump off a cliff. The sculptural installation “Feast of Fools” comprises a broken black table festooned with black busts: two bats, one bat/man hybrid, and a man with licks of fire exploding from his head and body. In the center stands the creepy, mystical “Butterfly Man,” with blue eyes eerily peering through blue-green iridescent butterflies that are part swarm, part costume.
Other catastrophes, such as floods and drought, loom. While Kahn and Selesnick paint a dire scene, the crux of their story lies in this batty troupe’s efforts to engage with the environment. As if in a frantic effort to mediate with the spirits of nature, they make costumes from feathers, petals, and trees; they perform outlandish stunts with rickety props.
But the language and graphic nods to Bauhaus and Art Nouveau that set “Truppe Fledermaus” in a place like 1930s Germany inevitably shroud the entertainers’ bursts of shamanistic creative energy with doom. Many saw what was coming then and took no action. We know what’s happening now. If only we would do something about it.
Paint, plaster, and craft
Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz has made several series of paintings about the aftermath of war, combining sharp pictorial narrative with a cracking, crumbling surface. In recent years, she has left the picture behind to more deeply explore the painterly potential of rubble. Violence is implied rather than spelled out. The power in her show at Miller Yezerski Gallery is twofold: Loss and degradation are undeniable, but so is this artist’s ability to push painting’s limits.
The works, made with plasticized Hydrocal (a kind of plaster) and paint, teeter between representation and abstraction. It’s easy to see them as broken ground, littered with rocks. But look again, and they’re roughed-up surface and canny facture. Shadows, crimps, and seams read as painterly gestures. The rocks aren’t rocks; the dirt is not dirt. It’s just paint, plaster, and craft.
In “The Ground Never Speaks (3) (with grass and twig),” Spatz-Rabinowitz lightens her pigment in an upper corner, suggesting a shaft of light. The ground beneath it buckles. Look from the side and you’ll see she got behind her Hydrocal plate and poked it forward — the painting pushed toward sculpture. A reddish twig meanders in from the left. Grass, a sprig of hope, sprouts from the bottom.
In “Arctic Dream (sketch),” rust makes straight cuts into the bluish surface, which we can read as ice or snow. Again, there’s a story here — human detritus mars a ground many tend to think of as pristine. Then there’s the rugged abstraction: slashes of rusty brown, crumbling blue gray, a faint woven texture below. The works here succeed because they’re not one or the other, but both.
Images in translation
Visual mediums, like languages, each have their own syntax. A digital image is constructed differently from one on a boxy old television, or an analog film photo, or a painting. David Barnes, a fluid painter, makes works based on online news sources, amateur cellphone images, and videos. His show at Hess Gallery at Pine Manor College translates digital images to paint.
Many of Barnes’s paintings obscure or truncate faces. In “Shadow,” a man holds his hand up and it casts a shadow over his face — he looks like a politician waving off the press, in a glare of popping flashbulbs.
In “Boots,” the booted feet of shadowy soldiers crowd the top of the canvas. Below, Barnes swipes loose, luxuriant strokes, conveying wet pavement or glistening sand, which he litters with shards or rocks. Does this depict fallout from an explosion or riot? Or is it just rocks on a beach? The tension between the two possibilities imbues the painting with taut mystery.
In “Tehran,” a street scene that conveys the spotty way a digital picture breaks down also looks giddily impressionistic. The grammar here between digital and painted images is oddly similar — only the first is coming apart, and the other is coming to be.
Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz: Locations Unknown
At: Miller Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 4. 617-262-0550, www.milleryezerskigallery.com
David Barnes: New Paintings
At: Hess Gallery, Pine Manor College, 400 Heath St., Chestnut Hill, through Jan. 29. 617-731-7157, www.pmc.edu/hess-galleryCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.