“Coded.,” eight works by eight artists concisely curated by artist Alexandria Smith at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery, opens a trap door into a realm of awe and misery.
Art is always coded, carrying allusions to things we may be capable of fully experiencing only through ciphers, opening doors we can’t budge with intellect alone. To give viewers something sturdy to grasp, Smith points to color: It’s charged with aesthetic and psychological meaning. But color is only one of many codes (including grids, symbols, mediums, themes), pinging from one work to the next, cinching them together into a lustrous whole.
Carla Edwards’s “Bonfire,” a roughly 10-foot square assemblage of dyed and bleached stripes from American flags, would be a majestic thing to wrap yourself in. Its many colors suggest those of many Americans, yet its frequently fiery tone might also mean we’re going down in flames.
Across the gallery, a campfire roars in the middle of Jordan Seaberry’s “The Wanderer Part II,” a dense painting scurrying with ghosts. In it, the artist and another man sit at the fire, a night expanding around them and hovering with old family snapshots. The outline of a boy rises from the flames; a white silhouette of a baby squirms in one man’s hands. Around this fire, time and space merge into one fraught, murmuring matrix.
The nude man in Kenny Rivero’s sweet painting “Hibiscus” glows from within. One eye open, the other punched closed by a boxing glove, he holds a drooping flower. Rivero, a Dominican American, pulls apart issues of ethnicity and masculinity in his work. Themes of identity, belonging, and social justice are a refrain throughout “Coded.”
Laylah Ali’s cartoony paintings have always been concerned with outsiders and power dynamics. An untitled piece from her “Acephalous” series depicts three pink-flushed circular heads, eyes wide and anxious, perched on a yellow horizon line beneath a silky blue sky. The scene is astringent, the colors potent.
“Coded.” is spare but eloquent. Every work is loaded. Together, they sing. And keen. And roar.
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Jan. 27. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.org