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Power in numbers
Nielsen and Krakow deliver summer heat
"Summer Surprises"
At Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury Street, through August 30.
"4 To Look At"
At Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury Street, through September 6 (by appointment only during August).

With a show title like "Summer Surprises" (why not "Paintings on Walls" or "Art Worth Buying"?) and a virtual armada of watercolor boats that greet your entrance, you don’t have to be a cynic to be skeptical of what’s in store at Nielsen Gallery this month. Marine imagery in the Back Bay during tourist season is not the stuff of which exciting exhibits are made, right?

Wrong. Despite the enervated title and the immense improbability of interesting frigates, "Summer Surprises" lives up to its name: it’s bright, as in smart and lively, it’s packed with what you’d never expect, and it’s fun. Let your prejudices set sail.

As for those boats: I counted eight altogether, and they make up half of Roger Kizik’s 16 small (7x11), delightful watercolors. The energy and good humor of his shimmering, playful, quotidian images — campers, beer bottles, bugs, goggles, the occasional house — is conveyed so matter-of-factly, you scarcely notice how astute he is. I’m no fan of product placement — the brand-name candy so prominently ingested in E.T., or the full-frontal label of the beverage at the beginning of the latest Terminator — so I had to work at figuring out why I wasn’t at all put off by the Corona beer bottle that towers at the center of Waiting for the Tide. Part of the answer turns out to be that it does tower: the beer bottle dwarfs the motor yacht to its right and the SUV to its left. It’s as if the artist were implying that booze fuels both. Further, the bottle’s been integrated into the scene, and not just as a monolith — Kizik could have called the piece Size Matters for the way the three objects compete for our attention. The surrounding sky boasts the color of the beer; the black of its label appears nearby and is identical to the shadows cast by the two vehicles. You can’t tell whether the work’s meant to be a putdown or a party, but in neither case is it a commercial.

Kizik’s incorporation of name brands — Wilson tennis balls at rest on a racket, a matchbox labeled "New York Yacht Club" — in no way resembles Andy Warhol’s fiercely casual meditations on the banality of commercialism. Rather, it reads like a Whitman poem: the bountiful detritus of daily life isn’t abstract, it’s got logos. A giant green beetle, fully half the size of the Scubapro goggles it’s ambling toward along the sand, turns out to be the only living creature in any of these frames. Perhaps the product labels have taken over for the humans.

If Kizik’s dense, tumultuous compositions have an opposite, it would have to be the sparse, hushed landscapes of Mel Pekarsky, whose shadowy pencil, oil, and pencil-and-oil renderings of low-lying desert shrubs and stones against white, sandy expanses convey the desert’s charged sense of unseen presence. For all its quietude, Dry Season achieves a kind of momentum as the concentration of flora gradually increases from open spaces to a thick network of bushes and weeds. The perspective is aerial and ambiguous — it could be a flying bird’s, it could be a walking human’s. The artist makes you feel an urgency to take it all in — in a moment you’ll be gone and it will disappear.

If Dry Season trades in transience — Pekarsky’s light graphite touch finds its analogue in the seeming evanescence of his vista — then Robert Bauer’s oil Landscape, Spain trades in permanence, that lasting, dusky, Mediterranean kind that inspired Renaissance painters to include glimpses of the Tuscan hills in their portrait backgrounds. People die, the earth doesn’t. Although the perspective of Landscape, Spain is unambiguously aerial, it’s like Dry Season in the way its nearly empty lower section of broad, terraced fields gives way to more congested foothills beyond. But Bauer’s painting delivers a sense of permanence and continuity in time in part by being as symmetrical as a crystal — its bilateral symmetry is both horizontal and vertical. And the luminous sky lights the ancient, carefully farmed land like a halo. It’s heaven on earth.

Christoher Wilmarth, Arthur Dove, Gregory Gillespie, Sue Miller, Mary Frank, and Sam Messer are among the more than two dozen contributors to "Summer Surprises." New to my eyes were three paintings by the Boston-based Laurel Hughes, whose subject matter — chickens — begins to describe her paintings’ zany appeal. Hughes applies her oils in bright, thick swaths, like frosting, so that her birds — or, in two of the three works, the feet of her birds — seem both weighty and cartoonish. The dynamism of her poultry can be attributed in part to the way she makes the space around the hens — built-up, almost sculpted, and just as colorful — feel as alive as the creatures themselves.

A smaller group show of a more austere kind continues at Barbara Krakow Gallery through September 6. "4 To Look At" features installations by Rachel Perry Welty and Cree Bruins as well as mixed-media work by Kelly Sherman and Sally Moore. Sherman’s layered diagrams of sentences — she parses simple phrases (no subordinate clauses that I could make out) on multiple pages of vellum so that the words behind the greatest number of sheets are illegible — become visual representations of the spoken word: opaque, buried language co-exists with the clear and prominent. There’s a pared-down architectural element to her frames as the lines beneath the words create multi-level rooms or maps. The lines are also coordinated with each phrase’s content; in the phrase "so close like breath," the word "so" appears adjacent to "close," but descending at a 45-degree angle, and grayed-out. These astute and sensitive manipulations still registered more like an exercise than a discovery; I felt I was watching a great dancer not on stage but in the rehearsal studio. I’ll be in the front row for the next performance.

I had a similar reaction to Sally Moore’s complex, wall-mounted sculptures, and to Cree Bruins’s installation of a continuous line of 120 and 35mm photographic film that crawls across the space of an inner gallery room — walls, ceiling, floor — like an anaconda with multiple personalities. It’s as if Bruins had asked herself how many ways can cellulose be cut, folded, and spindled without being mutilated; every foot or so sees a different twist. I was taken by the wit — it’s wonderfully smart — but left wishing for greater poignancy.

Rachel Perry Welty’s dramatic, wall-sized installation of interlocking bag twists (the kind you use in the bulk-food section of the supermarket) is shaped into a postmodern spider web. Behind the network of white twists, the wall has been painted pink, so that the circular openings in Welty’s weird fabric suggest arteries. The work is at once visceral and cerebral.

Today, Thursday, July 31, is the last day to catch "4 To Look At" during regular hours until September 2. Throughout the month of August, the gallery will be open by appointment only. But gallery director Andrew Witkin maintains that the Krakow will be "easily accessible"; you can call (617) 262-4490 during regular hours, but he says the fastest way to reach him is by e-mail at info@barbarakrakowgallery.com

Issue Date: August 1 - 7, 2003
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