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Telling it like it is
2006: The year ahead in Art

Pictures of people abound this season, with portraiture popping up in historical investigations into identity and race, expressive paintings of faces and figures, dead-on social commentary, and more. Also look for stereotype-blasting new art from China, extreme landscapes, and a guy who performs dressed as a beaver. Many shows are planned to coincide with the College Art Association’s national conference in Boston, February 22–25, which is sure to generate its own burst of art-related events.

Art meets activism in recent photographs shot in Boston-area neighborhoods by nine artists who train their cameras on faces we know but don’t always see, including firefighters in Somerville, adolescents in Dorchester, and gay-parented families in Provincetown for Family Week, in " Document: Contemporary Social Documentary Work from Greater Boston " at the Photographic Resource Center (832 Comm Ave, Boston; February 2–March 26). The show complements " A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840–1865 " at the Boston University Art Gallery (855 Comm Ave, Boston; February 10–April 2), which looks at photography in Boston before, during, and after the Civil War, revealing technological innovation and offering insight into the socio-economic realities of the day.

Portraits of and by African-Americans, from the Civil War through the Gilded Age, are the subject of " Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the 19th Century " at the Addison Gallery of American Art (Phillips Academy, Andover; January 14–March 14), which looks at the role that these images played in establishing racial identity during a period of radical social change. On view at the same time, and also underscoring the political implications of portraiture, is " Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, " which celebrates the pair of commercial photographers who created likenesses of the rich and famous in their Boston studio between 1843 and 1863.

Since the birth of the medium, artists have photographed the human body unclothed, with purposes ranging from the erotic to the scientific. That enterprise is looked at afresh in " The Body Familiar: Current Perspectives on the Nude " at the Griffin Museum of Photography (67 Shore Road, Winchester; January 13–March 19), whose nine contemporary artists include John Coplans, Henry Horenstein, and Gary Schneider.

Always well dressed himself, David Hockney has been blazing art trails for more than 50 years. From paintings of lovely boys and California swimming pools in the 1960s to photocollages in the 1980s, he has pioneered taboo subject matter and introduced new techniques, always with viewer-friendly results. " David Hockney Portraits " at the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston; February 26–May 14) offers his depictions, in many media, of significant people in his life. Portraiture takes a strange twist in the paintings of Hannah Barrett, one of seven artists featured in this year’s " SMFA Traveling Scholars " at the MFA (February 18–March 19), which showcases current work by the 2004 recipients of the Museum School’s prestigious Traveling Scholarships.

In our West-centric art world, China’s avant-garde artists have found themselves doubly marginalized, first in their own country and again by the global art community. " On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West " at Wellesley’s Davis Museum (106 Central Street, Wellesley; February 15–June 3) presents a dozen Chinese artists whose bold, experimental work blends art and politics. Art and politics are also key elements for conceptual-art makers Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, whose collaboration was cut short by Ericson’s untimely death in 1995. Their work between 1984 and 1994 makes up " America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler " at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (32 Ames Street, Cambridge; February 9–April 9).

Urban commodity culture is at the heart of " Alfredo Conde: Objects, Wall Paintings and Works on Paper " at the Essex Art Center (56 Island Street, Lawrence; January 13–February 24). In particular, Conde has been studying the culture of the street vendor in Chinatown. His installation of what appear to be cellphones, luxury watches, and other commonly " knocked off " items comments on the fabrication, distribution, and consumption of these items. The street also figures in " Spothunters " at the New Art Center (61 Washington Park, Newtonville; March 6–April 7), whose four artists represent four generations of graffiti and street-art culture; their work typically has to be happened on or hunted down on lamp posts, walls, and the sides of mailboxes.

A very different kind of landscape compels artist Shintaro Miyake — one that draws as much from our actual environs as from his somewhat disturbing inner life. In " The Beaver Project: An Exhibition by Shintaro Miyake " at Mass College of Art (621 Huntington Avenue, Boston; February 8–March 18), Miyake creates a fantastical environment involving a beaver pond complete with lodges and dams (and a souvenir shop) that he also inhabits, performing in an oversized beaver head. The forces, imagery, and materials of nature have had a different effect on James Surls, whose animistic sculptures turn up in " James Surls: The Splendora Years, 1977-1997 " at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln; January 28–April 16). Surls’s work ranges from elegant, tabletop wood carvings to monumental forms that he hacked from fully grown trees using a chainsaw.

Nature finds a more political role in " Cross-currents in Recent Video Installation: Water as Metaphor for Identity " at the Tufts University Art Gallery (40R Talbot Avenue, Medford; February 9–April 2), where four artists with ties to Africa explore shifting notions of identity, migration, and memory, central issues in contemporary post-colonial art. At the same time at Tufts, actual extreme landscape is on view in " Diane Burko: Flow, " which offers paintings and photographs of volcanoes, craters, and glaciers from around the world.

Our domestic environment is the subject of " Living in Motion: Design and Architecture for Flexible Dwelling " at the Institute of Contemporary Art (955 Boylston Street, Boston; February 1–May 7), which with objects by the likes of Isamu Noguchi and Philippe Starck challenges the idea that architecture and furniture should be permanent or fixed. These furnishings fold, adapt, disassemble, and combine in order to enhance modern mobility and keep pace with hectic contemporary life.

An inventive young painter whom index magazine calls " insanely talented " is featured in " Dana Schutz: Works from 2002–2006 " at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum (415 South Street, Waltham; January 19–April 9), which has more than two dozen lively works by this rising art star. And Harvard takes a look back at another talent who made his presence known very young in " Frank Stella 1958 " at the Sackler Museum (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge; February 4–May 7), with more than 20 works from a single year of tremendous experimentation and productivity in this artist’s formative days.

Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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