December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
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Exhibits worth a second look

Too much of a good thing

Although the Institute of Contemporary Art's spring "Inside the Visible" show collected a good many terrific works, including the dark series of paintings by Auschwitz victim Charlotte Salomon, there was too much to see -- or rather, display -- in the ICA's smallish space. Many works suffered by location, becoming hard to view. All the same, seeing was indeed believing.

A Homer run

As American as apple pie, yet as mysterious as the American wilderness, Winslow Homer was the subject of the Museum of Fine Arts' big spring show. It's not easy to say what kind of painter he was: in art he was as restless as in life, and his artistic relationship with women was a continuing enigma. But in revealing Homer as a troubled explorer, in works like Snap the Whip and The Dinner Horn, of what America is all about, the MFA dispersed his Norman Rockwell reputation and proved him to be a great American painter.

Fantasy girls

At the same time that the MFA was going American, the Worcester Art Museum was turning Japanese with its "The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World." This glimpse of the dreamgirls of Edo-period Tokyo, high-class courtesans who wouldn't even get intimate till the third very expensive meeting, was as explosive as sex. Instead of exploiting the subject, however, the WAM gave it a treatment every bit as high-class as the ladies themselves, showing their world from their point of view, and making these "women of pleasure" the women of the year.

The art of relationships

Natural mayhem and middle-class order collide in the world of almost-70-year-old Stephen Trefonides. And his paintings at the Creiger-Dane Gallery this spring dared us to compare our own relationships -- sexual, familial -- with those depicted in his determinedly promiscuous work.

The curve of the earthly

Seeing Archy LaSalle's photographs for the first time is like seeing Fred Astaire dance for the first time: what you thought you knew suddenly seems incredible. His black and white conjunctions of architecture and landscape -- which we got to see in "Form: Architecture and Landscape" at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square -- enjoy an unencumbered authority, especially in the way they render architecture, from T stops to the ruined walls of Italian castles, as if it were organic.

Brittany calling

Who would have thought that modern art -- everything from Expressionism and Art Nouveau to Cubism, Abstraction, and even Pop -- started in 19th-century Brittany? But with the flat, brilliant colors and stylized forms of Paul Gauguin's stunning Vision After the Sermon, the 20th century was officially underway. Kudos to the Museum of Fine Arts for bringing us "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" -- it's not every day that we get in on the beginnings of a revolution.

The resurrection of Grant Wood

An eye-popping exhibition (still up through January 5) at the Worcester Art Museum, "Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed," unveils its subject as a gandmaster a step ahead of public perception. Forget all the jokes everyone makes about American Gothic: works like Daughters of the Revolution, The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and Midnight Ride of Paul Revere show Wood to have had a sly sense of humor, a keen insight into the relationship between fact and legend, and a penchant for political and sociocultural subversion.

[Herb Ritts]

The photographer's new clothes

Regardless of where one stands on the Herb Ritts show up at the Museum of Fine Arts through February 9, it's provocative, posing challenges to more formal notions about photography as art. Where does the line between expression and commercial hackery lie? Somewhere between Ritts's beautiful recent portraits of Africa and its people, on the one hand, and his celebrity pix and homoerotic postcards.

Gifts of nature

This fall's "Natural Immersion" show at the Boston Center for the Arts featured nine artists whose landscapes went deeper than the soil, exploring the way we relate to the world and how it, in turn, can be made to respond to us through the artists' visions. Works by Cyn Maurice, Pat de Groot, and Ann Christensen were especially thought-provoking.

[Nan Goldin]

Goldin eye

Ex-Bostonian Nan Goldin hit an apex of recognition with her extraordinary show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, which is up through January 5. "I'll Be Your Mirror" obliterates the traditional distinction between photographer and subject, bringing loving attention and uncommon empathy to her portraits of sexual mavericks, addicts, artists, and victims of the AIDS plague. Goldin transforms the seemingly seamy side of life into something beautiful and transcendent.

-- Jeffrey Gantz, Christopher Millis, and Gary Susman

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