The myth of the Wild West, and its murky construction
History is what we make of it, malleable and suitable to our own needs. “Wild and Woolly” at the New Art Center examines our romance with the American West.
The mythologizing of the West began with westward expansion in the 19th century. Manifest destiny sounded God-given, but it was an empire-building political platform aiming to conquer the continent, by force if necessary. Still, it had a terrific catchphrase. Curator Ryan Arthurs has pulled together a smart show, with trap doors that drop us from the gleaming myth into its murky construction.
The stark, gorgeous, painterly works by Deborah Oropallo involve photography, digital manipulation, and airbrushed paint. For “Kernel,” she photographed Holstein cows, digitally erased their spots, and layered them into one jarring bovine. It’s smeary and blocky; in places, it looks flayed. Cattle are a central motif of the West, and this one, overblown and tattered, suggests a dream turned to a nightmare.
Olivier Laude’s elaborately staged color photographs play on our willingness to read photos as documents of reality. In “Holzfallers,” from the “Lifestyles” series, an older man with wild hair and a beard wears garb fashioned from burlap and twine. He stands beside a dying pine tree, with a stack of cut wood fastened to his back and a skull at his feet. He’s a caricature of an old settler, tenacious and grizzled, the type who might appear in an old tintype, but he’s blown up in startling color here, almost Disneyfied, except that he’s a tad creepy to land in a theme park.
The West is distilled down to one iconic material, cut wood, in David Lefkowitz’s paintings and sculptures of stumps, logs, and tree rings. He conjures the felling of trees and the building of log cabins with plastic, paint, and reconstituted wood products.
Sean Downey’s beautifully composed paintings infuse scenes that might be populated with pioneers or present-day hikers with suspicion, confusion, and recrimination. Finally Robin Myers takes the idea of expansion to the skies, with Polaroids of old archival photographs of the moon and space.
In many of the works here, artistic process chews up and reforms imagery and material into a new version, reminiscent of what came before, but with new layers of meaning, and new veneers. They mirror history’s own process.
Looking at lineage
Photographer Sarah Pollman also examines the fluid, ghostly nature of history in her show at the Howard Art Project, although her interest is personal, intergenerational history. This is Pollman’s thesis show; she is finishing up her masters at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, and she’s off to a fast start, with exhibitions now at Emerson College and Essex Art Center, and one coming up at Khaki Gallery.
There are no pictures in “Our Family Pictures.” It’s a slide show of texts, each narrating a childhood photo or encounter with a photo, getting at some of the emotional undercurrents behind the poses. The “Mother/Father” series depicts gravestones marked only with those words, and not with names. Identities are washed away in the tides of time, leaving just the potent tug of the parental bond.
In the most ambitious, and in some ways naked, series, Pollman’s photos connect her to artists she admires, such as Sophie Calle and Sherrie Levine, and to a photographic lineage: Her teacher Jim Dow worked for Walker Evans. Pollman appends text to each detailing how each artist shaped her.
Levine famously photographed reproductions of Evans’s Depression-era images; Pollman cheekily shoots a reproduction of one of Levine’s. It would be easy to write these off as derivative student work, but Pollman exercises keen self-awareness as she shuttles from one model to the next, appreciating the shoulders upon which she stands. It’s hard to resist her passions and her wit.
A landscape in fragments
Clint Baclawski’s eye-popping installation “Chromogenic” at the Hallway Gallery boldly unpacks a single landscape photograph. Baclawski shot the image on Beecher Street in Jamaica Plain. It depicts trees, a chain link fence, and an overturned lawn chair.
The photo starts with spring green colors, a spray of leaves. In the middle, the artist fades it to black and white, and then on the right changes the palette so the leaves appear purple. He sliced the image vertically into 44 transparent slivers, which he mounted on vertical fluorescent light fixtures against black Plexiglas.
Stand at either end of the narrow gallery, and you begin to make out the rippling landscape, which reflects against the Plexiglas. But aglow in fragments, with a shifting palette, and laid long against the wall, it swirls into abstraction, looking more like a luminous Impressionist painting than a Jamaica Plain street scene.
It’s irresistible to prowl along in front of the installation, seeking out representational markers: the bar of the fence, or the chair, which break up upon closer inspection. Leaves are small enough to maintain their form, but the changing palette only fuels curiosity about what’s underfoot: grainy pollen? Gritty concrete? In the end, Baclawski’s scope feels both intimate and epic; he wraps you up in a world by breaking it down into slices.
Sarah Pollman: Notations
At: Howard Art Project,
1486 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, through Jan. 31
Clint Baclawski: Chromogenic
At: The Hallway Gallery,
66a South St., Jamaica Plain, through Feb. 22.