Now that the Fuller Museum in Brockton has decided to devote itself to the work of New England artisans and craftspersons, the pressure on the DeCordova Museum, arguably the best independent museum for contemporary art outside Boston proper, has markedly expanded and just as markedly shrunk. Expanded in the sense that, having lost the Fuller, area artists now depend on the DeCordova even more heavily to showcase their work. Shrunk in the sense that, with signiﬁcantly less competition to be the nearby suburban museum of choice, the DeCordova might be tempted to relax, to allow its importance to substitute for the grittier stuff of actual achievement.
Evidence of both a greater and a diminished need to perform comes through in the current exhibit, the 13th Annual Exhibition. Initiated in 1989, the Annual has as its mission to present the best of what New England artists have to offer — it’s as simple as that. The good news is how much high-quality art emerges from the latest show, from groundbreaking photography to meticulously outrageous collages and rough, abstract, wall-mounted constructions that charm like old maps. It all attests to the intelligence and commitment of the show’s curators.
At the same time, I worry that this commitment may be more vestigial than active. I’m not talking about the artists whose work I ﬁnd weak or those who seem out of their league. You can argue about choices. But you can’t argue with complacency. The show’s limited stylistic range proves as worrisome as the way even the best work has been presented. If you haven’t gone to art school, or (conversely) if you’re working within a strict tradition, forget being included in this exhibit. Web art has been relegated to the " Web Racket " show in an antechamber (and not included as part of the Annual). And adventuresome new genres don’t exist.
More to the point: group shows enjoy their own peculiar dynamic. Like a poetry anthology you return to or a " best hits " CD you play more than once, group shows depend on sampling an artist’s best efforts across time. Unfortunately, this year’s Annual has drawn exclusively from each participant’s most recent series. That, together with the fact that big works crowd the big walls and small works crowd the small walls, means that even the most arresting art feels uncomfortably repetitive.
Take Judy Haberl’s remarkable and important contribution of gigantic yet ethereal photographs from her newest series, " Iced Fictions. " I’ll never forget the ﬁrst piece of hers I saw years ago in a group show at the Howard Yezerski Gallery — a quilt she’d concocted from the heads of desiccated sunﬂowers with the seeds picked out to form a grid of interlocking patterns. Natural and unnatural, serious and hilarious, manipulated and unplanned are all terms that apply both to her sunﬂower quilt and to the latest work (and no doubt lots else in her śuvre besides).
In the selections from " Iced Fictions, " Haberl takes constructed objects, arranges them to create make-believe landscapes, and then freezes those arrangements beneath vast beds of ice, which she then photographs. In fact, the chilly fabrications have to be hauled to New York to ﬁnd a camera with a lens of the necessary size.
Each frame measures in at around four by eight feet — about the size of a small car — and of the ﬁve pieces, two, Stilled Garden I and Stilled Garden II, are uniﬁed by their dynamic tension. The one to the left looks stable, traditional almost, with its decorous, Asian-appearing arrangement of trees and hill and uniform sky. But in the Garden to the right, which shares the same trees and hill and sky, the sky churns and the air undulates silver and molten, like mercury or a ﬁlm still of the moment before a nuclear explosion.
Haberl’s three other works also involve repeated imagery, but the variations are comparatively subtle and few, with the result that your eye is less engaged. The problem isn’t the art but the presentation — when you’ve just taken in the expansive intensity of Stilled Gardens, seeing three more colossal frames exhausts and overwhelms. It’s a disservice to Haberl’s majesty.
At the far end of the main gallery appear a pair of Scott Peterman’s delicate, enigmatic, seemingly abstract works — small, gently colored objects against white backgrounds that on inspection reveal themselves to be photographs of ice-ﬁshing shacks. Each is about two by three feet.
There are, in fact, eight Peterman photos on display (in a space suited to about half that number), and each merits a level of attention the exhibit would deny it. Between the frozen lake that forms the broad foreground and the empty, overcast, white winter sky that forms the wide backdrop, a thin, hazy, almost invisible horizon divides the earth from the æther. But you can’t tell them apart, so each ﬁshing shack, like the gridded one in Naples, becomes your only visual anchor. What’s curious and compelling about Peterman’s photos is how they sidestep sentimentality; they don’t register as forlorn so much as purposeful. They may be shacks, but his perspective makes them feel more like churches.
Michael Oatman creates big, intimate, tightly ﬁtted collages so rhythmically calibrated, they’d hypnotize you if they weren’t so funny. In The Birds, he positions hundred of precise cutouts of birds (looking as if they’d been taken from traditional ﬁeld guides, Peterson and Sibley, with a few Golden Book images as well) that he’s equipped with ﬁrearms, uniforms, and other military accouterments. A bluebird looks through the lens of a bazooka; a magpie clutches a shotgun under one wing; a thrush packs a pistol; a vireo (or is it some kind of warbler?) swallows a bullet. And there are hundreds of them in an interlocking network of feathery militia, leafy forest ﬂoors, and picture-postcard sunsets. It’s stately and mad.
What Oatman knows, beyond his compositional astuteness, is the drama that dissonance delivers: he arms the harmless, makes strange the familiar, animates the inanimate, dresses the feathered, juxtaposes the disparate. Every square inch of his frames yields an unsettling surprise.
In his catalogue notes, Oatman refers to growing up on cartoons, and it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to understand The Birds as a droll send-up of the Warner Bros. menagerie. But one-liners these aren’t, and it isn’t just for their technical complexity or wit — fury, as in a deep disapproval of the murderous world, charges Oatman’s humor and vision and skill.
The works of two other artists in the show, though predominantly decorative, satisfy with their whimsy and taste and control. Mario Kon makes almost ﬂat, geometrically patterned, appealingly hued wall mountings from rough but carefully cut wood. Think parquet with attitude. Kon is interested in making you want to run not just your eyes but also your hands and tongue over his splintery mosaics — they appeal as designs and as fabrics and as candy.
Kenneth Speiser re-creates ﬁngerprints, his own mostly, a hundred times bigger than the original; each is roughly three feet tall by two feet wide. The prints, constructions actually, are made from thousands of tiny, round, multi-colored plastic sequins, which instead of buying in fabric stores he punches from old movie ﬁlm leader. They’re fun.
An installation about her mother’s surviving the Turks’ massacre of the Greeks at Smyrna and her subsequent migration to the United States sets Annee Spileos Scott’s installation apart. Its direct emotional appeal, its Old World immigrant imagery, and the sound of the artist’s own mother’s voice recounting her ordeal — all contribute to the piece’s impact.
Four oil paintings of various ﬁgures and text by Domingo Barreres suffer from an overarching didacticism. In these large, dark oils, each of which draws on one or more ﬁgures from Diego Velázquez’s Las meninas, Barreres seems to instruct us on to what we should be experiencing — instructions not supported by the imagery. In Boy Impostor, for instance, we see an untroubled, open-faced, naked boy holding a spray of morning glories; at the boy’s feet rests a dog who’s been borrowed from Las meninas. Above the dog we read in English mixed with the artist’s native Spanish, " And how he tortures al testigo morón [ " the inquisitive witness " ] with the most acute existential doubt. "
Thirteen Bremmer Benedict photographs, all black and white, and all seemingly part of the same narrative, tile the walls where the exhibit continues on the museum’s third ﬂoor. Bremer’s images combine recognizable gestures and body parts construed into surreal predicaments. Think Magritte with a pinhole camera. In Orpheo, a hand reaches out from a black-robed body, but the body has only a mirror for its head. The drama in these skillful works feels strained; I hope the artist will work toward ﬁnding in naturally occurring situations the human interactions that compel her.
Cynthia Consentino’s sculptural installation may win this year’s award for most poorly positioned work. A ceramic allegorist, Consentino creates such things as a she-wolf with a man’s head whom a housewife climbs a ladder to milk. Her creations are cartoonish and yet slightly deformed, a hybrid of Jeff Koons and Jon Imber. But placed as they are in the center of the main gallery, they’re asked to occupy a space it’s hard to imagine they ever aspired to. In my mind’s eye I keep trying to relocate them in one of the smaller rooms on the third ﬂoor; when I succeed, so does the installation.