Dancing around the ephemeral
Darren Foote and Sheila Gallagher make a discordant pair in "Astra Castra" at Judi Rotenberg Gallery. The two share a theme; the show's title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem that treads the realm between now and eternity, between what we know and what we can't possibly comprehend. Both artists are strong. Gallagher, who works in several media, was a contender for the Institute of Contemporary Art's Foster Prize in 2007. An up-and-coming sculptor, Foote continues to surprise - and only occasionally disappoint - with his use of wood's materiality to explore the ephemeral. Their work would fit smoothly into a larger exhibit on this topic, but in a two-person show, some formal kinship is called for. Without that, they're like two dancers who can't find the rhythm.
Individually, though, there are many delights. Gallagher's marvelous "Daily Calendar Mandala," made from tiny copies of tear-offs from her planner, transmutes a nattering record of chores into an object of meditation. So does her comical, beautiful video "SOS." The video depicts billowing purple smoke; the audio features a Buddhist sutra chant, which slowly becomes threaded with rhythmically intoned to-do lists: "E-mail Tim, e-mail Sue. . . . Get prescription for Wellbutrin."
Gallagher "paints" with smoke. With her breathy, iridescent images of creatures that have survived for millennia and will no doubt outlast us, a horseshoe crab and a sea urchin, the artist depicts the stubbornly tenacious with a material that evokes transcendence.
Foote appeared on the scene at Rhys Gallery last spring with objects crafted from wood, such as flashlights and lamps, shooting wooden beams. We associate rays of light with spirituality and awakening; Foote's crashed down toward surfaces in a frightening manner.
In that show, the wooden light touched down on tabletops without destroying them. Here, in "Entry Table," the beams buckle the table. In making his light even more like matter, Foote pushes the conceit too far. It worked better when the rays looked threatening, but still behaved like light.
But then Foote leaves the beams behind and lets his sculptures appear to dissolve or crumple in the light of day. In "Two Chairs," in which the air seems to have eaten into the space between the two, the artist recovers his balance, toying with our sense of what's solid and what's palpable about what is not.
Several paintings of prone women thematically evoke art history's reclining nudes; think of Manet's "Olympia." One, "Wedding Day," even takes on the freighted feminine icon of the bride. But Livingston's women are always clothed and often have their eyes closed - asleep or lost in reverie, not open and inviting. In "Wedding Day," the presumed bride lies asleep amid degrees of white - the bedding, the morning sun on the planes of her tensed face, the pale lamp shade behind her.
Her "124 Seascape Lane" focuses on characters lost in thought, playing up their disconnection. A man and a woman sit on lounge chairs; floodlights illuminate them and their yellow lab, the night sky black behind them. The stark, homey image might be from a terse, loaded short story.
Livingston includes several paintings of a woman in a lit swimming pool at night. These pieces, such as "Before I Could Answer," glow gorgeously, but they don't have the psychological punch of her other canvases. It might be hard for anyone to create a fraught scene amid that haunting turquoise glimmer. The artist is young; she got her master's at Boston University in 2006. She could take painting richer pool scenes as a challenge, or she could find quieter challenges - like the glory of whites in "Wedding Day" - in settings more hospitable to her charged narratives.
In "Pinky," she covers her background in a wash of gray swirling over a warmer peach, like storm clouds obscuring a sunset. Over that, she drizzles loose, fluid grids, first in black, then in white. The gleaming threads of paint look like fishnets drifting on the sea's surface. Here and there, she has squiggled little green flowers. The grids and flowers shine and dance over the moody wash.
Through the exhibit, the flowers grow and the grids ultimately recede. "Totally Surrounded" has black and gray nets floating on a lipstick-red ground; they seem to part for a bouquet of broadly painted blossoms, languid and full, nestling together like scoops of ice cream. Edwards savors the delicious materiality of her paint, and flowers, so full of sentiment and fleshy form, are a wonderful place to explore that.