Urban development is fraught with hope, ambition, loss, and peril. Developers can be seen as big bad wolves, tearing through local fabric for economic gain, but they can also resurrect neighborhoods. The group show “re: development,” curated by Maggie Cavallo at the Gallery at Atlantic Wharf, shines a light on the tenuous relationship between development and the arts.
The waterfront, now undergoing such dramatic changes, is the perfect place for “re: development.” June 15 Cavallo will host a panel discussion on the topic from 5-7 p.m. in the Fort Point Room at Atlantic Wharf.
Artists can play a crucial role in gentrification. In Fort Point and elsewhere, artists set up studios in old warehouses long before developers revamped the neighborhoods — sometimes pricing the artists out. Yet developers know art in the community adds to quality of life, and some foster public art projects.
Like a small parcel targeted with big plans, “re: development” doesn’t have a lot of space. With only eight artists or artist groups exhibiting, the show just begins to skim the surface.
A couple of pieces document projects. They’re secondary versions of something we miss in person. Yes, they add to the conversation: These projects — dance performances in local businesses, a repurposed mill — helped revitalize neighborhoods. But when a small show tackles a giant issue, all the wall space should be given to work that is immediate, not an echo.
Cavallo should stage this show again, in more depth, and then give space to projects outside the gallery.
For the feminist collective That Hollow Place, though, documentation is part of the art. They keep tabs on areas they deem hollow — protective, empty, untouched by developers (in their manifesto, they call development a “phallocentric ethos”). Their “Incomplete Dossier #1” comprises notes and finds about a place they call “Sharon,” which is on the verge of development, and kept under surveillance. The notes and odd bits and bobs they collect from the site read like the work of spies in enemy territory.
Other pieces have a magnetic effect, warmly intimate against the backdrop of a building boom. Silvia López Chavez crafted her topography of a city, “Colomorpho,” from recycled packing materials. Their odd, clustered geometries make a toy-like urban abstraction that begins gray and brown, the color of construction, then brightens to hues you don’t often see in city structures — but you might like to. Ryuji Suzuki photographed Fort Point as major construction began, capturing layers of history and change: neighborhood as palimpsest.
Maria Molteni has moved. A lot. “Standard Variation (Castle, Log Cabin, Skyscraper, Smokestack, Fortress),” made of the colorful milk crates she packs her supplies in, changes configuration throughout the show, evolving the way development of a parcel of land might.
“re: development” is David to the developers’ Goliath. It counters the mammoth growth on the waterfront with the small, personal visions of artists, many of whom live there. They won’t conquer development; they may not want to. But here, they provide a counterbalance.
There are two electric two-person shows up, full of thoughtfulness and sparky conversation. Katherine Porter, a painter who has twice shown in the Whitney Biennial, and metalsmith Ellen Wieske exhibit together at Room 83 Spring. Encaustic painter Tracy Spadafora and mixed-media artist Carrie Crane have a show at Fountain Street Fine Art Gallery.
Porter doesn’t so much paint an image as brashly build it out of paint, her surfaces are so tactile, her abstract forms so structural. There’s always the hint of a grid, which plays directly to Wieske’s spare, labor-intensive works snipped from the grids of steel hardware cloth. Porter’s all flesh and color; Wieske’s bone and shadow.
In Porter’s “Venice 2 at 3 p.m.,” tonic blues emanate from a black X, its angles underscored and reverberant, the whole framed by gray architecture. Above, she paints the suggestion of a city bathed in yellow light.
Wieske tacks sections of her “4 Square Quilt” to the wall so they belly out, casting graphite-gray shadows like drawings. She cuts portions out of the grid, making it an irregular pattern of lines and crosses, the spiky, hard-bitten ghost of your grandmother’s quilt.
Crane and Spadafora use scientific rubric to uncover metaphors and allusions — to induce, rather than deduce. Crane wittily roots her works in the clinical visuals of infographics, then fills them in and opens them out with a painter’s sensibility.
Her “Longitudinal Study Psycho-Social Development: Parental Complexity ,” based on the work of a 19th-century scientist who attempted to measure consciousness, has the underpinnings of a chart. The circles that rise over its surface grow bigger and more formally complex, like a single cell evolving into an organism.
Spadafora’s “Collection,” a series of nearly 90 discs on the wall like planets and stars, feature lettered DNA sequences, real pine cones, a bar code, milky Rorschach blots, and more. They reference systems and patterns — not ones we associate with one another. Yet there are echoes, and together they make a layered net that holds knowledge itself, and the way we make sense of the world.
At Gallery at Atlantic Wharf, 290 Congress St., through June 27. 617-423-4299, www.fortpointarts.org
KATHERING PORTER & ELLEN WIESKE: Line/Place/Time/Trace
At Room 83 Spring, 83 Spring St., Watertown, through June 25. www.room83spring.com
SYSTEMATIC AMBIGUITY: Recent Work by Tracy Spadafora and Carrie Crane
At Fountain Street Fine Art Gallery, 59 Fountain St., Framingham, through June 19. 508-879-4200, www.fsfaboston.com