An astute 4-year-old once told me he had come to realize that pretending wasn’t reality. And that made him sad.
Since seeing Valérie Massadian’s installation “Little People and Other Things” at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I’ve been recalling (or imagining – hard to say) what it’s like to inhabit the body and mind of a small child. Imagination, at that stage, blends with reality. Little minds percolate with associations, intuitions, and inventions, uncluttered by the systems of thinking, socializing, and getting things done that order the lives of older kids and adults.
Massadian’s exhibition, the coziest show I have ever experienced, seeks to honor the wide open, roaming consciousness of the very young. The artist is a photographer and filmmaker; her photos and one of her short films make up the heart of the exhibit. But they’re not the first things you see.
Step into the gallery, and a wall of blankets obscures what’s inside. Shoes, big and small, have been left on the floor, and visitors are invited to remove theirs. On the other side of the blankets, the large gallery has been made domestic, but it doesn’t feel staged. There’s nothing about it that says “look at me, I’m art.” Rather, it’s a place to relax and play.
The bed is unmade. Toys litter the floor. Children have drawn on the walls (and are invited to draw more). The only indicator that this is not somebody’s flat is the old technology: A boxy vintage television, a record player.
Massadian’s touching photographs, mostly of children, line the walls. Some grin; others look shy, or lonely. Childhood is no idyll; children are as lost, or as prone to laughter, as adults. Shooting most of the children alone, she lets us glimpse what’s going on inside. Maybe that’s why all the electronics look circa 1965 – that technology left room for an inner life.
And a blanket fort just might be the inner life’s best fortress. The artist’s 2011 film, “Ninouche,” screens inside one. The film follows a small girl as she wanders through the woods, reads, and plays inside a rustic cottage. She encounters loss, and copes in her own way. Mostly, she, too, is alone (a motherly figure shows up late in the film, when she’s needed).
Massadian respectfully portrays the great breadth of the girl’s imagination, and indeed her soul, inviting us to remember that capacious, curious, and alert place in our own souls.
Spooky and kooky
If “The Addams Family” were an art installation, “The Uncanny Home of Our Imagination” at Nave Annex would be the seeds of it. The gallery is in a house, and curators Lisa Crossman and Julia Csekö take advantage of the setting for this group show, which capitalizes on artful spookiness springing from domestic objects.
They don’t quite carry off the great idea. The place feels like a gallery, not a home, because they’re limited to three rooms and the only furniture is art. Plus, they’ve assembled all the so-called pets — hair-raising biomorphic ceramics by Jonathan Talit — in one room. Who keeps all their pets in one room?
Still, there are some terrific works. For her own “Tripas de aço (Guts of Steel),” Csekö has wrapped a table and a child-size chair in skin-tight purple velvet. Bumps under the surface suggest a dish and more, and atop the velvet sits the silverware, which bends and branches out. The fork feeds eight. The artist subverts access to food and dining rituals to unnerving effect.
In another room, Mia Cross’s “Time to Go,” a straight-backed chair with human legs, appears about to skedaddle, and Kate Gilbert’s inflatable “Shell Jackets” hang in the closet. Visitors may try them on; you can blow up like a pufferfish, should you need to scare off anyone.
Dreams of home, of course, can stir longing and disaffection, and art installed in a place like home can do the same. I only wish Crossman and Csekö had had an exorbitant budget. They need to push “Uncanny Home” farther.
Art with an edge
Sarah A. Smith, brilliant with technique, draws and paints on paper with watercolor, ink, and imitation gold leaf. Her works at Beth Urdang Gallery shimmer with nuances of light and shadow, white and black, negative and positive space, pigment and resist. The works are alive with layers, gradations, and gestures.
An undercurrent of violence gives edge to many of Smith’s nature scenes. The cat in “Mountain Lion” is an empty-eyed pelt, with a single wing sweeping above it. A hawk perches on a stump nearby. Barbed wire and chain thread through it all. Smith burnishes her dark, oblique narrative with gold, which gathers light as you walk past.
Wire appears again in “Resurrection Snake and Bird of Paradise,” catching on everything: the snake looping round a stump, the long-tailed bird, and another great, single wing spread like a banner. The animals in these works can’t evade humanity’s snares and detritus, yet they maintain their dignity.
Valérie Massadian: Little People and Other Things
At Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery,Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 8 Garden St., Cambridge, through April 16. 617-496-1153, www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/event/2016-valerie-massadian-exhibition
The Uncanny Home of Our Imagination
At Nave Annex, 53 Chester St., Somerville, through April 9.(No phone), www.uncannyhome.com
Sarah A. Smith: Ocean River Bird Tree Night
At Beth Urdang Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through April 23.781-264-1121, www.bethurdanggallery.com