Last fall, Jackie Nickerson mounted an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in which she paired her photographs of farm workers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa with portraits from the museum’s collection.
Imagine the contrast! Bygone aristocrats decked out in their finest, paired with African laborers; the juxtaposition immediately raises the specter of colonialism — European white privilege and African toil.
Nickerson challenges portraiture’s grand tradition of puffing up the mighty, and not simply because of her subjects. She approaches portraiture in a distinctly roundabout way, foiling some of its expected goals. Her photographs, taken for her book “Terrain,” which examines African agriculture with keen detail, are up now at Samson.
She photographs laborers in situ, with their faces often obscured by bushels, crates, and hay. We see “Clemence” from behind, wearing red and black athletic clothes, his head lost beneath the tremendous umbrella of leaves he holds up. “Ruth” stands near, or in, upturned earth, facing away from us, with a sack of yams on her head.
By avoiding her subjects’ faces, Nickerson sidesteps old tropes associated with American and European photography of Africans — ethnographic portraits and images that play to Western fantasies of exotic Africa — and instead focuses on the sweat and yield of 70 percent of Africa’s work force.
The viewer takes in these images first as portraits, but with no eyes to meet, the interaction changes. The tools and crops, the clothing and the context, even the oddly abstract compositions, carry as much weight as the people.
Nickerson plays with traditional notions of landscape, as well. “Propagation Shed,” a close-up of a plastic wall, lacks the serene spaciousness of most landscapes. Plants grow on either side of it — crisp, dark silhouettes in front, and hazy shadows behind. But of course, this is the African landscape, cultivating 25 percent of the continent’s gross domestic product.
A few short videos screening downstairs have the same precision as the photos, but here Nickerson spotlights the choreography of farm work: the repeated gesture of a man with a scythe-like rake, or hands moving masses of bright green beans. Worker and farm are part and parcel in Nickerson’s art; portrait and landscape are one.
Airy heights to watery depths
Cheryl Ann Thomas’s big, crumpling, airy, light-on-their-feet ceramics on view at Gallery NAGA spring from a long, arduous process. First, she builds a large vessel, 3or 4 feet high, by laying one spaghetti-thin strand of porcelain clay over the next. She makes it top-heavy, so that when she fires it, the vessel slumps. She’ll fashion two or three of these, then fit one on top of the next like puzzle pieces, and put the whole thing in the kiln to fix it.
From a distance, her works look like piles of laundry or stacks of old linen baskets, but up close, they’re almost animate, as they scrunch, stretch, and twist, inviting you to peer in and through. In “Curl,” one pale green-gray form snakes between two coal-gray ones, a thread of blue activating their rippling surfaces. It looks as if it’s about to take flight.
Weather is a magical aura in Julia Von Metzsch Ramos’s paintings, also at NAGA. This young painter continues to experiment, using seascapes as a foundation, and occasionally, in her push toward the fantastical, she falls flat. “Steaming Ocean” looks unconvincingly surrounded by white flame.
But in “Shark’s Mouth in Winter,” she makes clever use of an absorbent ground. The blues and turquoises of the luscious, silken water seep into the canvas, while the spiky, dotty froth of a wave hitting rock sits on top. We expect to experience space in a landscape in the tried-and-true way, across the horizon line, but Von Metszch Ramos pings us from depth to surface here, there, and everywhere, and appears to be having great fun doing it.
Katharina Chapuis’s paintings at Alpha Gallery’s new space in the SoWa district have no imagery. They’re more meditation object than picture. They certainly are objects: Chapuis builds up the edges of her paintings so that they have a stony texture and plenty of heft. Then, within them, she drops into sheer atmosphere: color at the edges, lightening (in her larger paintings) to near white in the center. Earth and air.
There’s an uncanny sense of space here. On one hand, we might be gazing into a tunnel of light, toward something imperceptible. On the other, we seem to stand at the brink of a thick fog, through which light disperses, a mist we could almost reach out and touch.
Tone is the essential variable from one painting to the next: mossy green, midnight blue, peach. I was drawn to the last, the warm, inviting “Untitled (SQ-OR16),” orange and rosy pink around the edges, with breaths of yellow as we move inward.
Chapuis uses the same techniques and format in her smaller paintings, but they intensify in tone toward the center. “Untitled (#189)” looks like an ember, glowing red at its core. The whiter paintings, with their spatial ambiguity, have more mystery.
At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 26. 617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.com
Cheryl Ann Thomas: Out of My Hands
Julia Von Metzsch Ramos: Evaporating Landscapes
At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through March 26. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com
Katharina Chapuis: Clouds
At: Alpha Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through March 30. 617-536-4465, www.alphagallery.com