LINCOLN - This year's DeCordova Annual Exhibition would have been good three or four years ago. For viewers today, it's a bit like arriving late at a party - much of the food has been picked over, and the balloons have begun to pucker and lose altitude.
Each year, I look forward to the Annual, a roundup of New England artists that the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park has staged since 1989, initially titled "Artists/Visions." It's like anticipating Academy Award nominations - who will be picked? Will someone break out from the pack? Almost every year, there's a surprise: a young artist elevated by the recognition, or an artist I've never seen, making something wacky and fun.
In this year's exhibit, organized by the museum's curatorial team headed up by Rachel Rosenfield Lafo and Nick Capasso, many of the artists are too familiar. They may not have shown together before, but they come across as the same old crowd. Usually the DeCordova Annual presents New England as a thriving place for artists. A show that evokes an "oh, yeah, them again" response makes the region look like a small place for creative souls.
To be sure, I've seen almost all the dreamlike, realist paintings Matt Brackett has up here, and I still find them haunting. Light plays as strong a role as it does in theater, illuminating characters who grope mutely around in gorgeous South Shore settings. In them, Samuel Beckett meets Edward Hopper. In "Preparations at Dusk," a group mysteriously hoists a pallet holding boxes into a tree. "Cold Front" depicts a woman carrying an armful of oranges over crumpling marsh ice. Brackett sets many paintings at a home that was in his family for generations, a gold mine of memories and odd reveries. "Distant Waves" shows a man in a bedroom, holding an anchor and leaning toward a window. He seems pinned to the homestead and longing to flee.
In a perfect counterpoint across the gallery, Vanessa Tropeano's dark, surreal large-scale color photos strive to honor the mystery in family stories and secrets. Sealed envelopes, available for the viewer to take, explain some of the imagery, but sometimes the title is enough, as in "Two Boys Drowned," a shot of an icy pond in winter's dusk.
There are a few unexpected sparks in the show, such as Yana Payusova's droll, graphic, comic-book style paintings chronicling her childhood memories of Russia. In "Because It's How It's Done," she draws a harrowing and funny scene of adults haranguing a disaffected girl, all within one person's gaping mouth. Every figure crackles with edgy personality. "Match," a diptych, captures high drama at a ping-pong game, as a vividly drawn crowd of worried and fractious spectators watches a laconic, tattooed player take on a one-handed opponent.
Kirsten Reynolds's wittily chaotic, ironically titled installation "What You See Is What You Get" subverts expectations of architectural space. Walls topple, wood beams turn out to be made of styrofoam, drawers fly through the air. Is it all coming together or falling apart? Is the disarray creative or destructive?
Mark Schoening's dense and brilliant canvases have the same feeling - what they depict might be explosive, or generative. He starts with gestural painting, then applies digitally manipulated forms, creating a dialogue between computer-generated marks and handmade ones. In his roiling diptych "The Czar," he packs cyclonic Abstract Expressionist swirls with flying I-beams, wheels, and items that look like they came from Batman's utility belt.
Niho Kozuru is a regular face on the Boston scene who seems like such a natural for the DeCordova, it's hard to believe she hasn't yet been in an Annual. She casts finials, cogs, and other round forms out of translucent rubber and stacks them into odd, compelling totems that seem to contain light. "Liquid Sunshine" delves into turning techniques - turned wood, spun metal, and thrown ceramic. It's more puckish and less stately than Kozuru's earlier work, which focused mostly on architectural elements.
Another familiar artist, photographer David Prifti, makes tintype portraits that, at 10 inches by 8 inches, are large for that format. The teenagers he photographs look at once contemporary and lost in time. Prifti also shot people who pierce their bodies and suspend themselves in trees, as in "Mike and Michelle II." These inject a humane sweetness into old-style sideshow portraiture.
The Institute for Infinitely Small Things, an artists' collective, takes art to the street in the guise of pseudo social-scientific research, a type of public performance that has surged in recent years. Maybe you've seen them downtown. In their "Corporate Commands" project, they donned white lab coats and enacted corporate slogans on street corners and in malls; for "Say It With Flowers," they stuffed their mouths with petals and read from Stephen King's novel "It." These comic efforts may baffle passersby, but the group cunningly deconstructs packaged messages. Even so, I'd rather experience them in person than in video.
The muslin scrolls that hang at the bottom of the DeCordova's grand staircase were printed, letter by letter, by Mitchel K. Ahern, with text from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," which the author typed on one roll of paper. Ahern utilizes hand-cut type to reinvigorate and question our relationship with text, sometimes with a devilish sense of humor.
Some installations by less-familiar artists don't quite rise to the occasion. Marguerite White's romantic sea chanty of an installation, "Waterline," features drawings, cut silhouettes, and shadows of pirates, seagulls, and sailing ships. All the layers and different media make for a fairy-tale landscape, but the setting, in the DeCordova's front window, is cramped. And Eva Lee's multi-channel video is more intriguing in concept than execution. She created animation based on EEGs taken to chart emotion, essentially making a landscape of feeling. The intersection of neuroscience and art is as cutting edge as anything here, but the animations - of rising and falling mountains and buttes - are too virtual, too slick.
One of the potentially freshest works in the show hasn't yet taken root, so it's impossible to judge. Leah Gauthier makes sculptural installations out of gardens, and she has planted watermelons on the museum's terrace. Calling a garden art and making it a museum installation imbues the cultivation process with an aesthetic and reinvigorates the sacred quality of growing food. As conceptual art, it's bright and timely. Whether it works formally remains to be seen.