Pious conversions, dazzling domesticity, and ghosts made tangible
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It would be easy to see Claire Beckett's quietly reverential photos of Americans who have converted to Islam as a public service campaign devised to combat the badmouthing Muslims take in the United States. But they're more textured than ads, and sometimes more provocative.
Beckett visited several mosques in Boston and elsewhere and got to know their congregations. She attended a conversion class. Her intention was not to convert, but to observe. Her show is up at Carroll and Sons.
Nobody in these images fits easily into any slot. Their subjects are black, white, and brown; their names are Anglo, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern. Their clothes range from jeans and T-shirts to hijabs and turbans.
In their lighting and their unironic attention to faith, some of these portraits recall Renaissance paintings. That sincerity is powerful; contemporary art has a troubled relationship with religion, and can belittle it with irony.
"Mary" might be a Vermeer: A porcelain-skinned woman, hair tied up in a scarf, gazes downward, pale light flooding her face. She wears a white, button-down shirt. Her name alone connotes Christianity, and that's part of the wonderful complexity of Beckett's photos.
"April and her daughter, Sarah," the most powerful image in the show, depicts a conservative Muslim in full hijab tenderly holding her toddler daughter. In Islam, the hijab signals modesty. In feminist circles, it has been a rallying point against oppression.
When I see a woman on the street covered so that only her eyes are visible, I'm curious about her. Who is she? What choices has she made? Looking at April's portrait in a contemporary art gallery, I'm prompted to reflect on the confounding quality of masks. She is hidden from us, and that's chilling, yet she cradles a sleeping tot, and that warms the picture up again.
Beckett asks her viewers to confront their own assumptions and biases, and that can be uncomfortable. She repudiates the "us versus them" mentality of many. Then she invites us to get to know her subjects as we would any of our neighbors.
Home is where the art is
Painter Eric Stefanski has curated his first show, "Interiors," at Dorchester Art Project, in which the paradigms of contemporary art dance with the intimacies of domestic life. It's crackerjack.
Michelle Grabner's painting "Untitled (Yellow Gingham)" has more zing than an espresso. This modernist grid looks like your grandma's tablecloth, and at the junctures the yellow doubles in intensity, setting off a throbbing beat. Also from the kitchen, Allison Reimus paints and collages on dishcloth linen. Her spooky red abstraction/still life "Paint Pitcher 2" has a feverish glow, a ghostly grid, and circular cutouts bobbing along the bottom.
It's a squirmy piece, half domestic still life, half nightmare, as is Angelina Gualdoni's "The Lie of Balance," a juicy green painting of a painting. It upends spatial logic: a table made of flat pattern; a tabletop that lifts into the neck of the subject of the portrait within the painting. You don't quite know where to sit or stand in Gualdoni's world; you might end up flattened yourself.
Sean Downey crafts sculptures as sly and oblique as his paintings, which reflect on American history and masculinity. For "MARSinstallation," he lines a wall with roofing shingles, which hover over a cutout camouflage pattern of a hilly landscape. Atop the wall, ceramics painted with totems. Got that? Off-kilter DIY meets landscape painting meets iconography. Downey shuffles a head-spinning number of tropes, finding friction and humor in the juxtapositions.
The prize for the most naked, discomforting work goes to Maura O'Donnell's video "Angel of the House." In it, the artist (who is Stefanski's wife) engages with domestic objects — a door, a chair, a sofa — in ways that, in another context, would be viewed as athletic. Here, as she pants and contorts, there's a sexual cast, and a performance artist's battle with endurance.
Life at home can be mundane, intensely personal, or fraught. Stefanski suggests that one way to make sense of it is through art.
Capturing the forgotten
It's not easy to make sculptures, which can be so solid, about how fleeting life is, and how ghostly history. Hannah Verlin's show "Remnants" at Simmons College's Trustman Art Gallery explores the early New England shipping industry. Using barely legible text and delicate materials, she evokes how a once booming business has dissolved into mere wisps of information.
"Red Whale: The Profits," a whale form made from hammocks of paper strung in a corner, is written over in red cursive, blotting like blood. "White Whale: The Men Who Went to Sea" is even harder to read: Verlin inscribes the names of whaling men in white on arcs of paper suspended by red thread. She captures the forgotten.
In "Let Loose Upon the Seas," Verlin suspends corked antique bottles along a wall, charting the rise and fall of Medford's ship building industry from 1800-1875. Tiny paper boats, each named for a real ship, fill the bottles. The ships, the workers, all dust now, not even memories. It's that evanescence, more than the history, that Verlin brings to life.
Claire Beckett: Converts
At Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 28. 617-482-2477, www.carrollandsons.net
At Dorchester Art Project, 1486 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, through May 21. www.dorchesterartproject.org
Hannah Verlin: Remnants
At Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons College, 300 The Fenway, through May 25. 617-521-2268, www.simmons.edu/trustman