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[Art reviews]

Gallery surfing
Provincetown’s high-summer treats

BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS

Few beach resorts suffer the cognitive dissonance of Provincetown, which perpetually tries to reconcile its cultured history with its galloping commercialism. You don’t see Ogunquit, Maine, or Lewis, Maryland, or Miami Beach having the same misgivings about artists’ being squeezed out by the cost of living, but Provincetown continues to be perplexed. And for good reason. For better than a half-century, it could lay claim to more than magnificent ocean vistas and Greek-isle summer weather. From theater to painting, from Eugene O’Neill to Robert Motherwell, Provincetown could boast artistic as well as natural beauties. Apart from Andrew Polk’s Cape Cod Theatre Project, nothing remains of that heritage on the Upper Cape in terms of new theater, but a few of Provincetown’s galleries are still genuine showcase for real talent.

Of course, for every place worth visiting, 10 others (I counted) vie for your tourist dollars under the banner " gallery " or " fine arts " with meticulously presented dreck. And in addition to having the usual types of standard-issue schlock — at one establishment I heard the director insist she sold " real oil paintings, " all of which bore price tags affixed to the real oil — Provincetown can lay claim to some varieties of its own. Commercial Street, where better than 90 percent of the city’s art galleries do business, plays home to a powerful number of vanity venues, in which the name of the gallery corresponds with the artist it solely, or at least most aggressively, promotes. Beware. Other establishments worthy of skepticism promote work in all genres — painting, photography, sculpture, birdbaths — that expresses a clear gender preference. A useful rule of thumb for avoiding such places is to find out whether exhibits change. When they do, chances spike for seeing actual art.

Some of the summer’s most poignant and inventive work (on view now and at least through late October) can be found at the Rice/Polak Gallery, toward the east end of town at 430 Commercial Street, where the insufficiently celebrated art of Boston’s own David Prifti is on view. Among Prifti’s gifts is his shameless embrace of nostalgia: at the center of every one of his multimedia constructions is an old-fashioned amateur black-and-white family photograph from what looks like the 1950s: children in their best Sunday clothes; shirtless, unsmiling young men lined up so formally at the beach that their muscles resemble soldiers’ uniforms; a kid in a cowboy hat beaming as if on Christmas morning.

Oversized and often seeming out of focus, Prifti’s images also appear granular and faded — as if they’d been fire-damaged, erratically torn at the edges. Many of the photos look like parts of a larger lost original. The notion of loss and damage and fragmentation, the idea of time’s corroding effects, finds rich expression in the shape and texture of the material onto which Prifti transfers his snapshots. In Self-Portrait with Michael, in which two children, brothers I presume, are caught tearing at each other in a scuffle, the artist has superimposed their grimaces and flailing limbs onto a length of rusted scrap metal. It resembles the kind of shrapnel from ancient car wrecks that one finds at city dumps.

Self-Portrait disturbs in part with its multiple time warps, the way old photo and old metal are manipulated by sophisticated, up-to-the-minute technology to create an entirely new entity. Then there’s the disturbance created by the combination of the familiar and the strange — everyone’s personal family album as corrupted public billboard. Finally comes the disturbance created by Prifti’s vision, the way he heightens photography’s built-in drama of stopped time. By superimposing idealized images (even the boys’ fighting has a fleeting feel) of our shared past onto worn lengths of picket fence and irregular scraps of steel, he causes our own mortality to meet us, not as the grim reaper but as a shockingly intimate friend.

Prifti’s visceral appeal finds its complement (and opposite) a few blocks away at the DNA Gallery (288 Bradford Street) in the heady, dazzling, cerebral work of Sterck and Rozo, the internationally acclaimed team whose photo collages form part of a group show (on view through August 8). The most recent creations of these collaborators signifies a startling departure in tone as well as in content. Whereas their collages from the first half of the past decade involved shrouded, vaguely human figures in muted, dreamy landscapes, their current show is marked by a crispness of imagery so sharp it looks as if it could cut you. Gone are the haunting, virtually abstract levitating apparitions. In their place appear precise depictions of the natural world. In the past, every component of Sterck & Rozo’s collages worked together to form one composite scene. Now it’s like looking into a kaleidoscope, with each frame involving multiples of the same identical image positioned side by side at right angles.

The result at first feels gently surreal. An autumnal tree pattern rotates on itself to create the impression of a giant flower — four of their seven works here unfold in that way. Yet despite the mellifluent shapes and sumptuous colors of these postcard-perfect landscapes, it’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at. A vertical pattern of intricate green lacework suggests a column of lichen or moss. Upon scrutiny, it reveals itself as another arrangement of trees shot from a distance. By fusing the foreknown with the indecipherable, by upending nature with nature’s own exactitude, Sterck and Rozo seduce us into reimagining the world we thought we knew.

" Five Photographers " also includes a campy series, another of their faux narratives, by the team of Nick Kahn and Richard Selesnick. This DNA show is rounded out by good work from Joel Meyerowitz, Quentin Curry, and Peter Hutchinson.

One of the standard bearers for fine art in Provincetown is the Albert Merola Gallery, at 424 Commercial Street. Through August 2 the diminutive painted metal and wall-mounted sculptures of Timothy Woodman are on display. With his boater and surfer, hunter and hurdler, Woodman’s work resembles what Alex Katz might create if he built doll houses: deliberately flattened, deliberately impersonal figures whose power lies in their falling shy of personality. From August 3 through 16, James Balla’s delicate paintings and drawings, lyrical and evocative, will be on view.

Other exhibits worthy of note include the photography of Michael Fisher at the School House Center (494 Commercial Street). Fisher’s " Interiors, " depicting color still-lives of objects in working-class homes, are at their best when they are least staged. A pair of tennis trophies under glass convey a deep forlornness; a birthday cake with its candles removed and a matchbox lined up nearby registers as over-orchestrated. And at the other end of Commercial Street (#148), through August 1, the Tristan Gallery has an ambitious show that includes work by Stephen Coyle, Pauline Lim, and Sky Power.

Issue Date: July 26- August 2, 2001