Blame René Descartes: “I think, therefore I am” set us human thinkers up as separate from, and ultimately superior to, other creatures. Indigenous societies don’t share the paradigm.
In “Theories of the Earth: Beth Lipman and Lauren Fensterstock,” at Wheaton College’s Beard and Weil Galleries, two artists interrogate the nature/culture schism through a historical frame. Both use intensive processes to craft dauntingly dense, monochromatic 3-D pieces. Both make work rooted in Dutch still-life paintings, jewels of the Enlightenment in their loving attention to details of nature domesticated and arrayed in a pleasingly cultural fashion.
The show is stunning; the artists couldn’t make a better pair. But might they be stuck in the same dichotomy that has enthralled us for centuries, producing a hubris that has led to incalculable damage?
Lipman’s sweeping, all-glass installation “Laid (Time-) Table With Cycads” takes after the so-called vanitas still lifes, in which plump fruit puckers and rots, and flies set in on half-eaten feasts. The message: Nothing lasts. We are all mortal. Ultimately, nature wins. True enough.
She gives us a picture of exorbitance: The table overflows with food, drink, musical instruments, a pistol, and more. A mirrored orb reflects it all, amplifying the effect. There’s more beneath the table, including a jungle of bounteous plants.
The cycads — ancient, unchanging trees that look like palms — rise from the floor, burst through the tabletop, and spread their ferny leaves. This, of course, is nature’s persistence in the face of culture. Nature is long; culture is fleeting.
Fensterstock builds stalactites and stalagmites, mostly out of shells, which she colors black. In “The Order of Things,” stalactites bloom and droop from a series of hutches, recalling Enlightenment-era cabinets of curiosities also often seen in still life paintings. Like Lipman’s table, Fensterstock’s cabinets are overrun with nature — in this case, dark and foreboding cornucopia.
Despite the beauty and ambition of these works, and the lovely way they fit together, isn’t it time contemporary artists aspire to a larger idea? Instead of simply critiquing this notion of an opposition, why not move toward a new paradigm — one that sees culture as a part of nature, not its adversary.
Echoes of the spiritual
Theaster Gates’s melancholic video “Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr,” on view at Rosebud, the Rose Art Museum’s satellite gallery in Waltham, takes place amid the dust and rubble of a half-demolished church. St. Laurence Catholic Church in Chicago was once home to a largely African-American congregation.
Here, it’s inhabited by memory and spirit, as conveyed by the Black Monks of Mississippi, an experimental gospel choir. As a cellist wanders the cavernous space playing mournful notes, a few voices sing out a spiritual: “I’ve been working in the fields a long time.” The camera follows two men as they lift and drop heavy wooden doors on the floor. It’s too effortful to be rhythmic, but the thunderous, percussive crashes tie the music to the demolition, heightening the atmosphere of destruction and loss.
As the video concludes, the camera points us at the door. Above it, there’s a simplified, colorful rendering of the Last Supper, in which Jesus spreads his arms, welcoming his disciples to the feast.
Gates created an installation around this video for the 2015 Venice Biennale; it screened in a room filled with rubble, inviting the viewer deeper into the experience. There’s no debris here, just the video, but the imagery and the echoes of the old spiritual evoke lifetimes of community, faith, labor, and loss.
Maria Molteni’s bouncy new show at How’s Howard, a comic and subversive take on tennis, dallies in sexual innuendo and plunges into notions of painting and perception. The show ricochets around the gallery; paintings are hung everywhere, with references flying: abstraction, spirituality, three-dimensionality.
The exhibit revolves around technology that monitors whether tennis shots are out of bounds: Several cameras follow the ball, and the combined image determines the point of impact.
When the ball hits the court, it compresses briefly into an egg shape; Molteni often calls such ovals “yoni,” the Sanskrit word for vagina, and a Hindu symbol of the divine mother.
They appear in paintings such as “Hawkeye Simulation 1 of 4, OUT (Venus Challenges Serena, Women’s Quarterfinal, US Open 2015),” in which a double disc of tennis-ball yellow and blue flies over a cosmically speckled ground toward a vertical white line — the boundary line on a tennis court. We already knew Venus and Serena are goddesses; Molteni underlines the mystical heft of that.
“Untitled (Painted tennis net)” is a painting out of bounds; it’s 3-D. But it has a ground: a painted net strung from the ceiling. The painterly gestures are several tennis panties, a garment that has side pockets for tennis balls. The panties stuffed with balls have their own not-so-veiled meaning, but Molteni’s work isn’t simply saucy. It’s venturous and sly.
Theories of the Earth: Beth Lipman and Lauren Fensterstock
At Beard and Weil Galleries, Wheaton College, through April 9. 508-286-3364, www.wheatoncollege.edu/gallery
Theaster Gates: Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr
At Rosebud, 683 Main St., Waltham, through April 3. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose/
Maria Molteni: L’oeuf et l’oeil (The Egg and the Eye)
At How’s Howard, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 29. 603-498-7736, www.howshoward.com