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Behind cheery chaos is a darker picture

Michael Oatman’s collage “Daylight Savings.”
Michael Oatman’s collage “Daylight Savings.”

In his artist’s statement, Michael Oatman describes some of his painstakingly detailed collages as “Rockwell meets Hitchcock.” The Norman Rockwell reference hits the target: Many of Oatman’s source materials (children’s books, nature guides) adhere to that crisp style, and seem to draw from Rockwell’s stockpile of robust, apple-cheeked characters.

But if “Megafuana and Micromanagement,” Oatman’s show at Miller Yezerski Gallery, is any indication, Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov are more apt mixes with Rockwell than Alfred Hitchcock. Oatman’s works are sardonic, like Vonnegut, and visionary, like Asimov. Then Oatman anchors his works in images from the mid-20th century, bringing that optimistic time smack up against our more cynical era.

He made “Germinal Velocity (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, She’ll be Rising)” with his father, Gordon, a retired high school shop teacher who builds all his son’s frames. Gordon made this one in the shape of the Ford Thunderbird emblem.

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Oatman filled the tail feathers and the low wing tips with a fiery Martian landscape. Androids stand watchful in the corners as a shuttle lands in the center. A peacock perches upon it, with a tail seeming to extend through the rest of the piece, although it’s really increasingly large circular bits from Oatman’s stash of clippings: a logo from a pack of cigarettes, needlework portraits, a boxing glove. It’s a resplendent trail of trash we might drag behind us should we ever settle on another planet.

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Much of the work expands on this theme of trying to make order of burgeoning chaos. It’s humanity’s task, yet we keep generating more chaos. Oatman offers several images of piles, societal accumulations that keep mounting.

“Daylight Savings” shows a pile of framed pictures depicting stargazers, a fireworks display, a UFO. A lighted match comes hurtling down at the heap like a comet, hinting that our romance with space, which hit its height with the moon landing, is going up in flames.

The sheer density of some of Oatman’s collages can feel claustrophobic. In others, he masterfully manipulates perspective. “The Suburbans” utilizes clips from a chart of Homo sapiens evolution. The loinclothed figures from this family tree walk straight at us from a sunny suburban ranch home, with an ape standing just outside the door, like a father waving goodbye to his kids.

Steeped in retro-pop culture and funny, Oatman’s collages are easy to like. Despite the cheeriness of his materials, though, this is dark work. We humans are the megafauna, the large animals, of the title. And all the micromanaging in the world isn’t likely to get things under control.

Karl Stevens’s self-portrait “Karl: Paint Clothes.”

Stevens’s nimble realism

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There’s more to see than four portraits in “Karl Stevens: Four Portraits” at Carroll and Sons. The artist, whose somewhat autobiographical graphic novel, “Failure,” came out earlier this year, offers paintings and a chorus of works on paper in ink, graphite, and watercolor that record his life and his artistic process; the works fluidly feed off one another, as images reiterate and seem to circle back even as they evolve.

Stevens is a nimble realist. His images of his girlfriend, Alex, capture many moods and stances. In “Alex: Buttercup,” she looks affectionately to the side, a yellow buttercup tucked behind her ear. We see in “Alex: Buttercup Comic” that she’s listening to a companion — presumably the artist, given the angsty tone of the dialogue.

Alex and Stevens’s friend Jamie come across as lively and fully fleshed subjects. Stevens, in self-portraits such as “Karl: Paint Clothes” looks rigid and dour, as if he makes every self-portrait as he stares ruthlessly into a mirror. Nor do we see much variety of expression and personality in his fourth subject, Nikki. She’s his model, and the focus is more on her body than on her face.

Carroll and Sons gives Alex the most wall space, and rightly so. As we see her in paintings, drawings, and in dialogue, we can’t help but like her. Liking the subject of a portrait is not necessary, of course, but seeing his or her humanity is. Sometimes Stevens is better at that than others.

Youth served in Providence

Corey Oberlander and Lindsey Stapleton, both recent Massachusetts College of Art and Design graduates, in June opened up GRIN, an alternative space in Providence. Now they have started the Might & Main Collective, a loose, rotating group of young artists from around New England. For Might & Main’s first show, “Follow in Turn,” four anonymous artists used to working flat challenged themselves to work in 3-D. The theme: change.

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There are two bold, successful pieces in the show; the rest falls away. “Follow in Turn” is a series of successively smaller wooden rings suspended on nylon thread. From the side, the piece has a kind of ethereal unity, which is odd, given its rugged material. Gazing into its mouth is daunting, like peering into a vortex.

“Rift” features two wall drawings of cross-sections of a tree, one opposite and mirroring the other. Strings run between them, attaching tree ring to tree ring, like the palpable aura of connection remaining after a split.

Oberlander and Stapleton say they hope to take Might & Main to different settings. This is a good beginning.

More information:

Karl Stevens: Four Portraits

At: Carroll and Sons,

450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 21. 617-482-2477, www.carrollandsons.net

Might & Main Collective: Follow In Turn

At: GRIN, 60 Valley St., Providence, through Dec. 27. (No phone), www.grinprovidence.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.