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Boston's Alternative Source!

[Art reviews]

Serious play
Whimsy becomes profound at the DeCordova


It’s a truism that as technology grows, leisure diminishes — but it’s a truism with some unexpected fallout. As the human need to play goes increasingly unfed —as cell phones kill daydreams and laptops turn travel into work — art’s newest mission in technologically “advanced” cultures is to provide, of all things, a place for frivolity.

This year’s DeCordova Annual Exhibit, perhaps the premier showcase for emerging New England artists, demonstrates both the potential and the pitfalls of art as playground. Its best work proves delightful: humorous, surprising, incisive. Other contributions, however, are as predictable and empty as a knock-knock joke. Of these 10 traditional and nontraditional artists, I was surprised to find that the ineluctably zany creations of Kelly Kaczynski, Dean Snyder, Janice Redman, and Richard Klein had the most staying power. All are sculptors, after a fashion, and all work in unusual materials or combinations thereof — from shelves made of soldered eyeglass lenses to sewn rawhide to old spoons.

Depending on which door you go in, Kelly Kaczynski’s compact Untitled: uncanny either unfolds with progressive and sick inevitability or hits you all at once like a camera flash. You want to enter a short hallway marked by a few outcroppings of what look like incipient pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers: built-up, bulbous formations on the ground and walls that suggest a gigantic, blistering poison-ivy rash. Progress down the hallway and turn a corner and the swellings increase until you can barely move. Suddenly you’re a few feet from an upended life-size deer, a giant evocation of road kill, which you can’t get too close to since the teeming bubbles block it off. On the ceiling above appears a series of large, low-hanging, intricate paper honeycombs — as if built by wasps with advanced degrees in architecture.

When Untitled: uncanny reveals itself progressively, its unfolding packs real drama — the opaque plastic bubbles that at first seem whimsical and abstract grow ominous as they accrete in the presence of the dead deer. Unfortunately, the artist did not insist on one avenue of access to her work; it’s just as easy to enter from another doorway and take in the deer and the futuristic wasp nests and the proliferating protuberances all at a glance — to attenuated effect. Also, I have to wonder about the deer on its back with its feet in the air positioned as the source of the room’s contamination. Lethal Bambi enjoys an ironic edge, but the ambitions of the piece go beyond irony.

Less edgy and more playful but no less otherworldly are the contributions by RISD-affiliated artist Dean Snyder, who creates large, abstract pieces of rawhide and wood that look like mutant hybrids of dirigibles and cacti — translucent, air-filled vessels punctuated by pieces of turned wood. Joop, which resembles a huge turkey baster whose spherical top has been shot through with chair rungs, actually hangs from the ceiling just above the floor, an airborne latter-day tribal fetish. In both of Snyder’s three-dimensional works, the artist plays volume and mass against near-weightlessness; he also plays luminosity against opacity — though peppered with wooden embellishments, the sewn and stretched rawhide of both Joop and its pincushion cousin, Boogle, practically glows.

More exciting still is Snyder’s 30-foot long pencil drawing — on one sheet of paper that stretches across the length of its own wall. Sensus reads like a cornucopia of the id, as a tumult of random yet interlocking images rises from a dense and narrow beginning to a wide, open finish. Its constituent elements — hats and pans, penises and wooden cogs — are almost beside the point; the piece is about pure momentum. Elaborate and brazen, Sensus is one of those rare works of art that lives up to its tremendous size.

Domesticity meets obsessive compulsion in Janice Redman’s small constructions, where whimsy quickly gives way to self-conscious discomfort. The best of her work involves kitchen utensils sewn into thick, cloth casings. The casings themselves suggest old-fashioned poultices, as if medicine were being delivered to the surface of a set of spoons. And since they’re all white, one has the sense of being in the presence of a most peculiar 19th-century surgical procedure, the mummification of artifacts from a traditional home.

In his own self-effacing, bespectacled way, the most deceptively renegade sculptor of this year’s DeCordova Annual may be Richard Klein, who weaves old eyeglass lenses, glass, and surrounding metal into gently dazzling wall-mounted displays. His work is about seeing, and among the arresting inversions he pulls off is the appropriation of objects originally designed for the visually impaired as the material for dappled, light-drenched, often mesmerizing art.

In his fashion, Klein makes shelves; among the most sensual and funny is Cataract II. Composed of framed lenses, the work begins as a triangular shape fitted in the 90-degree angle of two adjoining walls. After a short horizontal stretch, Cataract II then cascades water-like to the floor, where it ends in a fringe of thin, plastic-covered metal — the “temple” pieces from multiple eyeglass frames. Klein’s real interest seems to be the effects he creates when light is reflected through the various interlocking lenses (in his catalogue statement, he addresses medieval religious superstitions about reflected light). I was struck more by the pattern and play of the light his pieces cast than by the objects that do the casting.

None of the three painters in the show is displayed to best effect. Ahmed Abdalla creates large, abstract canvases that read like ancient, worn frescoes: within the faded, cloudy sweeps of muted color, small scribbles seem to poke through like a skyline emerging from fog. Yet the uniform quietude of his Poetics of Memory series does not justify their number here. They measure, on average, six by eight feet, and there are four, in addition to a similarly sized work painted directly on a nearby wall. Given pieces of such similar tone and expressivity, I suspect that their abundance undercuts their effectiveness.

Sarah Walker also paints in abstract, rounded patterns, but there’s nothing remotely whispery or evanescent about her canvases. They read like cross-sections of volatile lava lamps: sharp, filmic spheres of almost confrontational color that appear to have welled up from below the surface of her frames. Although her five paintings aren’t large in size, they’re demanding to look at. Nevertheless, they’ve been hung almost salon style, crowding one another; it’s the visual equivalent of hearing an audio tape on fast forward.

Also receiving less space than they deserve are the Balthus-inspired paintings and drawings of Brett Bigbee: six works crammed into a small, second-floor room. Marian Roth’s incendiary pinhole photographs are reminiscent of the moment when the nuclear blast wipes out the house with the white picket fence in those Defense Department films of the ’50s. Kelly Heaton’s Furby installation features a lot of dissected toy parts and an accompanying wall text about the human genome; the photographs and reworked movie posters by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew are also didactic.

Issue Date: June 21-28, 2001