Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sizing Up A Shift In Boston’s Art Scene

Last week’s news that the Judi Rotenberg Gallery will close its doors in late June comes as a blow to the contemporary art scene in Boston and to the gallery scene on Newbury Street.

The gallery opened in 1971, and for many years it was a sleepy venue for expressionist art. Judi Rotenberg’s daughter Abigail Ross Goodman took the helm in 2001, and together with codirector Kristen Dodge turned the gallery into a space for smart, provocative, often cutting-edge art. Their roster includes hot commodities such as the video and performance team Carlson/Strom and conceptual artist Dave Cole, who has knit, among other things, a giant American flag, using utility poles as needles.

Several galleries have closed or left Newbury Street in the last two years, many due to the struggling economy. Ross Goodman says that closing Rotenberg is a personal decision, not an economic one. “I’m ready to shift my relationship to the art world in a new direction,’’ she said in an interview.

There are still strong art galleries on Newbury Street, such as its flagship Barbara Krakow Gallery, as well as Miller Block Gallery and Gallery NAGA, among others. Maybe with a reviving economy, new commercial galleries will open there. But with the exit of Rotenberg, the street is languishing; Harrison Avenue has a higher concentration of galleries, and a more forward-thinking approach to art.

Ross Goodman and Dodge developed a powerful presence and an attention to young, emerging artists in a neighborhood where the art tends to be more conservative. They also kept their commitment to many of the painters the gallery represented before they came on, straddling two demographics, and opening a world of video and conceptual art to collectors of paintings.

They have embodied and helped finesse a shift of interest in Boston toward truly contemporary art, spearheaded by the revitalized Institute of Contemporary Art. It’s sad to see them go.

Two galleries that show traditional art have exhibits up that are evidence of a growing local passion for new work. “Clothes Make the Man?’’ at Childs Gallery and “Counterpoint: The Voices of John Walker and African Art’’ at the Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art mix contemporary art with the venues’ regular inventory. Both exhibits are ambitious.

Hamill Gallery has a better space to work with — a lofty space that suits the often large-scale, bold, juicy abstract paintings of John Walker, who has chosen an array of masks and sculptures to exhibit with his work. The matchup, even under pallid fluorescent lights, is stunning.

These paintings, many never before exhibited, date from the 1980s to the present. A viewer can follow Walker’s signature forms: the rectilinear hourglass inspired by Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba; the soldier with a sheep’s head who represents the artist’s father, a World War I veteran; the more recent tidal landscapes, playgrounds for paint inspired by summers in Maine. There are occasional direct evocations of tribal art: a shield from Papua New Guinea appears in “Oceania for Rachel.’’

The crosscultural connections are breathtaking. “Homage to My Father’’ features the sheep-headed soldier moldering in dark ochre tones (and a white halo) as well as a cartoon version of the figure. Several sheep’s-head puppets from Mali perch nearby, leering, funny, and dark, accentuating the painting’s morbidity and its magic.

Three gorgeous landscapes grouped together sport high horizon lines. To look at them is to drop into what lies below that line — muddy low tide coursing with gullies and dotted with boulders, or underwater, with glimpses of fish and serpentine sea creatures. Sitting before the paintings on a low platform are three Nigerian headdresses representing fish, in the same gray, speckled tones as two of the paintings. In a corner, a bird sculpture from Guinea has an S-curved neck that echoes the snaking form in the painting beside it.

The confluences between Walker’s paintings and the African objects add a startling dimension to canvases already roiling with life and grief.

“Clothes Make the Man?,’’ curated by William Stover, late of the contemporary department at the Museum of Fine Arts, also makes some terrific pairings, but the exhibit suffers from being crammed to the rafters of Childs Gallery, where it is hung salon-style.

The show examines costume and performance’s part in the perception of identity, a theme prevalent in contemporary art lately. It includes work by Triiibe and Caleb Cole, who photograph themselves in costume, and drawings by Cobi Moules and Ria Brodell, who examine gender through self-portraits. Brodell’s subdued “Self-Portrait as an Old Man (whittling)’’ hangs beneath an undated 20th-century portrait by Leo Blake, “The Sheriff,’’ who, like Brodell’s old man, is grizzled and gruff.

It’s a delight to look at some of the older works, such as William Merritt Chase’s charming 1881 painting “Dancing Girl,’’ through Stover’s 21st-century lens. Plump and blushing, with her hand to her forehead, the Italian street dancer performs for change. She has put on her demeanor, just as she has put on her clothes, and just as the three women in Triiibe, across the gallery, doll themselves up to go bar hopping in “Compatibility Quiz.’’

By: Cate McQuaid

No comments: