Toying with our tendency to trust photographs
“MADE,” an exhibition about visual trickery at Montserrat Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, carries water for familiar contemporary art tropes about fractured identity, photographic fiction versus reality, and the like. But gallery director and curator Leonie Bradbury focuses on fun. All the works will drop jaws, to one degree or another.
Alexa Meade, the canniest artist of uncanny work here, inverts the usual approach to trompe l’oeil painting, which makes you think you’re looking not at an image, but at something real.
Meade paints people so their bodies look flat, like drawings, and photographs them on the street. In “Come Down,” a model, painted silver, black, and white, jumps in front of a wall tagged with graffiti. He looks, at first glance, like part of the street mural. But glimpse unpainted flesh beneath the cuffs of his jeans! Tiny giveaways add to the thrill; they make you look more closely, and admire Meade’s weird artistry.
Meade, Patrick Jacobs, and Kelli Connell all toy with our tendency to trust photography as a document of reality. Connell’s seamless color photographs might be portraits of identical twins. That would be disconcerting enough, given the sometimes romantic and flirtatious nature of the images — in “Valley,” one woman leans over her supine partner. In fact, Connell layers multiple negatives of a single model. The intimacy of the two selves is more unnerving than if Connell had layered in several.
Peer into a small porthole in the wall, and you’ll see Jacobs’s woodsy scenes, which resemble photographs. They’re not. They’re intricately constructed tiny dioramas. Once you recognize that, the effect is similar to catching on to the tell in Meade’s works; you’ll marvel at the craftsmanship.
The artistic duo Alexi Antoniadis and Nico Stone offer their trademark sculptural trompe l’oeil. They craft crumbling architecture out of unexpected materials. “Promised Land” looks as if a grid of glass and steel has dropped from a high rise and landed, folded over and in shards, in the gallery. Though it looks weighty, suggesting the rotting of corporate power symbolized by such architecture, gallery staffers say the artists carried it in on their shoulders.
What you see is not what you get in this show — until you get it. Contemporary as it seems, “MADE” grounds itself deep in tradition. Hasn’t art always been about fashioning believable fiction out of the tools at hand?
Activism, social science, art
Social practice art, a significant trend so far in the 21st century, utilizes activism, social science, and art to call attention to social issues. It generally happens out in the world, not in the gallery. “Living as Form (The Nomadic Version),” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, brings in a traveling show of such work put together by Creative Time and Independent Curators International.
Guest curator Claire Grace adds local artists, and that’s the juiciest part, not because their projects are better realized than those from around the world, but because they look like art, rather than like traces of art that happened elsewhere.
Some of those distant projects, many seen here on video, are wonderfully inspired. Ai Weiwei, in “Fairytale: 1,001 Chinese Visitors,” brought those visitors with him to Documenta 12, an art fair in Kassel, Germany. The subjects of his art doubled as tourists and viewers.
Women on Waves sent abortion providers to the seas in a boat that anchored in international waters outside countries where the procedure is illegal. They didn’t, in the end, provide surgical abortions, but they stirred up attention, and that was the point.
In these parts, John Hulsey teamed with City Life/Vida Urbana, an agency that helps homeowners and tenants stay in their homes, for “Letters to Bank of America.” His video looks like art, rather than mere documentation of a public art project.
He videotaped letters being handwritten, pleading to avoid foreclosure, and projected them in glowing light on buildings such as the Bank of America near South Station. The voices of the writers narrate as the letters unfurl, two or three words at a time, dramatically at night. It’s heart-rending, making the small missives of ordinary people monumental.
Like Hulsey, Caitlin Berrigan addresses financial anxieties with her performance piece and installation “Lessons in Capitalism.” A financial adviser in the gallery solicits questions. She sends them through a tube to an unseen group of children, who write and draw answers. “How can I become more liquid?” is solved in a drawing with an arrow pointing to a soup bowl and an “X” through a stalk of broccoli.
New Craft Artists in Action replaces missing basketball nets on city playgrounds here and around the world with colorful hand-knitted and crocheted ones. They take traditionally feminine crafts to a traditionally masculine arena. The bright and comical ones on view here are not functional — one loops from one hoop to another — but they give B-ball a playful conceptual twist.
The local artists prove it’s possible to work in the community and still create tangible art objects. The social experience is the greater work, but what’s left behind often determines what comes next, and should be gallery ready.
At: Montserrat Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, 23 Essex St., Beverly, through March 29.
LIVING AS FORM (The Nomadic Version)
At: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., through April 6.