ARTISTS, like most of us, might not be au fait with the physics of bridge building or with the design of complex financial instruments. But they can be expert at engineering loss.
Those two words are used, with a sort of hesitant pride, by Meg Alexander, an artist based in Concord. Her work combines the delicacy of tissue paper with the adamantine solidity of a dam wall.
Alexander, 50, will show recent pieces, alongside Britain’s Richard Forster, at Beth Kantrowitz’s Drive-By Projects in Watertown. Both artists make drawings based on photographs, but Alexander’s are particularly unusual. To begin with, they’re not made with pencil but with an India ink wash applied with tiny brushes. “It’s a process of layering up,” she says. “I like the way the ink soaks in and bonds with the surface, erasing any evidence of the hand.”
The other oddity about Alexander’s new work is that it veers from her customary two dimensions into three. For her “Stick Project,” she took a stick from a beaver dam she encountered near her home. Suspending it from monofilaments, Alexander photographed it all the way around. Then, working from life-size prints, she brushed her faithful, fastidious marks onto a layer of gesso covering the stick — creating a drawing that is as faithful to the original beaver-gnawed surface as she could make it.
Alexander compares the process to mapping — she can render things with unerring precision — and yet also to the functioning of memory, with all its attendant failures and imperfections. The results have something at once beautiful and redundant about them. They evoke futility even as they function as metaphors for the very powerful human impulse to stave off loss.
Alexander’s show will also include three drawings of peonies from her 81-year-old neighbor’s garden. Bees and ants punctuate these floral forms, which channel the optical fidelity of Dutch still lifes.
There’s something at once exquisite and brittle about the peony sequence, which, in its transformations, matches the recent illness and recovery of her neighbor. That woman doubles as her daughter’s violin teacher and, as Alexander puts it, “brings a lot of goodness into our lives.”
Flowers, neighborly goodness, violin-playing . . . the cliches mount. But maybe, in the end, these are the things worth building dams around?
>Alexander’s exhibit at Watertown’s Drive-By Projects opens Thursday and closes June 8. Viewing available Thursdays and by appointment. 617-835-8255, bkartprojects.com
Sebastian Smee, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is the Globe’s art critic. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @sebastiansmee.