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Proximate opposites
Paul Rahilly and Louis Risoli, María Magdalena Campos-Pons and John Goodman
"Paul Rahilly: Figures and Still Lifes" and "Louis Risoli: New Paintings"
At Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury Street in Boston, through January 31.
"María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Elevata" and "John Goodman: Habana, Cuba"
At Howard Yezerski Gallery, 14 Newbury Street in Boston, through February 10.

You might think it’s the full frontal nudity of the lanky, handsome model in Paul Rahilly’s 1997 oil painting The Belmont Women’s Club that keeps your eyes riveted. Her athletic breasts, narrow waist, and squared-off hips with their feathery center could well give rise to that belief. Or you might think it’s her size and position in the gallery that make you swear you can feel her breathing. She almost fills the 78 by 48 inches of the painting’s frame, and the half room she’s part of in the two-person show at Gallery NAGA means you’re never more than a few feet away.

Failing that, you might attribute her power to the incandescence of her skin. The way her breasts and upper thighs and the place surrounding the right hand on her pelvis appear almost unnaturally luminous and white suggests the otherworldly if not the spiritual. Finally, you might want to attribute the figure’s monumentality to the context in which she’s placed — the birds over whom she towers, the clothes she’s thrown off with complete unselfconsciousness, the mansion and the tree behind her that for all their grandeur and complexity can’t compete with her knowing stare.

In the end, however, neither her beauty nor her dimensions nor her strangeness — the naked lady motionless as a stop sign on the lawn of a suburban manse — can fully account for her power and her immediacy. Why does so thin a figure make me think of Achilles? Why doesn’t her nakedness seem preposterous? Good looks and narrative contradictions aside, why am I interested?

There are two answers, I believe, one political, the other technical. As a political work, The Belmont Women’s Club offers up something to offend almost everybody. Liberals can cite its apparent objectification of women (we’re invited to stare at her body), its association of the human female with the flighty (as in, "stupid goose"), its predictable celebration of white, upper middle-class suburbia (where better than Belmont, birthplace of the John Birch Society?). Conservative can point to the painting’s pornographic immodesty (note how her pubic hair corresponds with the color of the elongate neck of the nearby gander), its "Leda and the Swan"–like pagan sensibility, and above all the threat this woman poses to free enterprise and the marketplace. Is it purely coincidental that a naked female stands with her arms akimbo, as if in an argument, before the very emblem of the American dream, the home?

Folderol? I understand from Gallery NAGA that representatives of the Belmont Women’s Club have registered their objections to the painting and that the threat of legal action looms. What such rumblings point to — beyond our usual human foolishness — is Rahilly’s unflinching understanding that the drama of our lives begins and ends with our bodies, and that whatever space our bodies occupy is invariably familiar and fantastic at the same time.

The technical achievement of The Belmont Women’s Club is greater still. No moment of the model’s body is without a parallel moment in the rest of the picture. The whiteness of her thighs rhymes with the whiteness of the plastic chair; the brown of her hair gets mixed up with the color of the tree’s leaves; the tawny pink of her skin becomes recast in the inner chambers of the house in the upper-right quadrant. When I realized that she’s everywhere in the painting, I stopped puzzling at her power, at least for a second. Rahilly’s other contributions to the exhibit — three figures and three small still lifes — are merely terrific, whereas The Belmont Women’s Club is something of a masterpiece.

It’s hard to imagine a painter less like Paul Rahilly than Louis Risoli, whose work makes up the other half of the NAGA’s current presentation. Not only does Risoli employ a purely abstract, quasi-psychedelic style of swirling patterns and bright colors, but his canvases are themselves shaped into curvy triangles. Further, no work is ever made from a single canvas — they come in twos and threes, big as ship sails, lying near to one another on the wall like puzzle parts about to be united.

Tipography, for instance, looks like a stained-glass window being sucked into a black hole. Each unit of the triptych is marked by a downwardly circular spin of ever-changing patterns and saturated hues. The painted patterns appear to jump across the spaces between the individual canvases, and the largest of the three, in the middle, suggests a spaceship emerging from a dock, or a flower rising from between two leaves. Yet no metaphor is adequate or satisfying when it comes to Risoli’s paintings. They insist on their own ambiance, and that turns out to be surprisingly restive. You’d think such huge (Tipography tips in at 112 by 72 inches) inventive enterprises would bespeak ferocity or turmoil or angst, but no. Maybe it was the elliptical shape of Risoli’s frames, or the jewel-like gleam of his paint, but more than once I found myself thinking of Fabergé eggs.

In the spirit of pairing opposites, the current exhibit at the Howard Yezerski Gallery may qualify as the all-time winner for packing the greatest number of disparities into a show where you’d have reason to expect convergences. Both María Magdalena Campos-Pons and John Goodman are Boston artists whose primary medium is photography. More to the point, Goodman has taken as his subject matter candid shots of persons in the capital city of the country where Campos-Pons was born, Havana.

But there, as they say, all similarities end. Whether or not she’s in her frames, the subject matter of Campos-Pons is always herself, and her photographs are invariably marked by deeply saturated color. The 16-panel Elevata, a giant, dramatic installation with each panel measuring in at nearly two square feet, begins with a shot of the artist’s upper torso seen from behind and upside down. She’s in the upper left, six feet above where you’re standing. The rest of the wall — that is, the surrounding dozen prints — is made into a continuation of the back of her head as the braids from her hair extend farther and farther, like the filaments of a jellyfish reaching into a watery-blue make-believe expanse.

Another wall-sized installation of color prints, Classic Creole, has no figure is but flanked by ceiling-to-floor black and white strands of bulbous African beads. A form of tie-dyed cloth in the shape of a woman’s body with a spray of flowers for its head hints at the artist’s presence.

John Goodman, on the other hand, looks outward, and he sees not in color but in black and white. Goodman’s Havana is populated by shadowy figures, all of whom come across as the last people on earth. Even when they’re in pairs or in groups, these men and women seem isolated, and their isolation packs a powerful tension and weight — desolation, inevitability, fate. As the director of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling knew that focusing on an individual while he or she was engaged with a group dramatized that person’s loneliness. Even among others (or maybe especially among others), we’re most by ourselves. Goodman succeeds at the same technique. The hands of his domino players look forlorn, tentative. The lower torso we see in Tradesman/Old Havana seems more funereal than death itself. And it doesn’t matter that the female figure crawling on the beach in Tide is near to her husband and child. Her reptilian posture and the triad of hidden faces make each of them emblems of separation.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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