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A public artist uses his wits

Pedro Reyes's 'ad usum' has hope and heart

A giant seesaw dominates the main gallery at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Its glossy red construction catches your eye, and then you notice its improbable setup: At one end, a single seat rests on the floor, holding up a network of nine seats at the other end. It's funny to see, defying the laws of physics, like a feather having more mass than a boulder. For Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, the piece, called "Leverage," is as much social commentary as sight gag, a reflection on how much weight powerful people can throw around.

"Leverage" differs from most of the other works in Reyes's show "ad usum: To Be Used" because this teeter-totter can't really be played on. Most of the pieces in this mini-retrospective either document or propose some form of social intervention, hence their usefulness. The artist found inspiration from masters of political theater such as Antanas Mockus , the former mayor of Bogota, who hired mimes to mock traffic violators because he thought ridicule was a more effective deterrent than fines.

Reyes, who started out as an architect, makes conceptual art, architectural models, and ritualistic projects, all intended to change and refresh the public's mind-set through the element of surprise.

Some of these are wonderfully ambitious yet sensible, such as his vision (with Jorge Covarrubias ) for an abandoned, triangle-shaped high-rise in Mexico City: Turn it into a vertical green space with hundreds of hydroponic units, and put in solar panels to create enough electricity to pump the water. Others are pointed commentary: A ceramic lattice made for this show honors Le Corbusier's built-in latticework cooling system in the Carpenter Center building and critiques Harvard for running air conditioning instead of utilizing the original, more environmentally friendly system.

Reyes is a public artist, and the main problem with showing his work in an institution is that most of it represents ideas realized elsewhere. Some of the pieces here, like "Dump Shoes," modeled on snowshoes but made for tromping through heaps of trash, are merely one-note jokes skewering humanity for the damage we've done to the earth. Despite this, his vision is radical in its hope, and open-hearted in its desire to honor and empower ordinary people.

B-movie sentimentality
Duane Michals has, over the decades, built his own niche in the international photography world. His work, often scrawled with text in his own hand, is as narrative as it is visual. He can be deft at exploring the crevices of longing and hurt in the human heart. Unfortunately, his new show at Robert Klein Gallery is largely just maudlin.

"The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy " is formally interesting, reading almost like a (photo)graphic novel: several series of black-and-white images and text, each spelling out a little scenario from the life of a fictional poet, portrayed by actor Joel Grey . These mostly explore the legendary gulf between age and beauty; the latter is always represented by some young hunk that Cavafy dreams of or admires from afar. Hokey comedy, sentiment, and ridiculously idealized beauty put these works on the level of a B-grade Hollywood romantic comedy.

Michals's other body of work here, "Japonisme: Photographs F rom the Floating World," features single- color images, some lustrous and haunting, with text. The text self-consciously reaches for a zenlike mysticism and reads like clumsy haiku; the images with people again objectify beauty into something that can only be longed for and never realized. The pieces absent of people, however, captivate, such as one magical spectacle of fireworks exploding above a field lit up with fireflies.

Other worlds' impact
Painter Rick Harlow has spent much of the last 20 years traveling in Colombia and living with indigenous people there, exploring their values and spirituality. He applies those to the paintings he has up at the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University. His canvases spring from epic landscapes, but they sport brilliant, otherworldly tones and wheel into kaleidoscopic designs.

These are expertly painted, and the shift from familiar landscape to hallucination, as in "The Inside Out," in which a canopy of trees spins into a colorful vortex, can be heady. The variety of painting techniques, from splatters to scrapes to smears and washes, is more intriguing than the subject matter itself. Harlow has evidently had a Carlos Castaneda kind of experience in Colombia, and there's something awkwardly instructive about his work, as he takes us down a path we couldn't possibly walk ourselves, at least not without the aid of certain sacred plants.

In the project room at NESAD, photographer Barry Goldstein offers images of soldiers returned from Iraq. Goldstein, a social documentarian and former physician who teaches humanities to medical students, also interviewed these vets and quotes them at too much length. This show is more photojournalism than it is art, but with these strong portraits, it's an effective lens through which to view the impact the war has had on these soldiers.

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