Changes afoot on Newbury Street

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 27, 2009
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Nielsen Gallery, a landmark on the Boston gallery scene, will close June 30 after 46 years at 179 Newbury St. It's not the only gallery in flux: OH+T Gallery will shut down in June. And Mercury Gallery left its Newbury Street digs last month; it remains running in its Rockport venue for the summer and may return to Newbury Street in the fall.

"The economy plays into it, but not in a big way. Rather, it's where we are in our life right now," says Nina Nielsen, who owns Nielsen Gallery with husband John Baker.

The two plan to take a year off, then return to the art scene as consultants.

"We want more time to work with museums and traveling shows and to work one-on-one with collectors," Nielsen says. The gallery's lease is up, and after years of mounting exhibits every five weeks, Nielsen is ready for something new. "When you're doing something well and you feel yourself changing, you have to change with it," she says.

Kathleen O'Hara, co-owner with Caroline Taggart of OH+T Gallery on Harrison Avenue, says the economic crisis is the sole reason for the eight-year-old gallery's closure. Its last day is June 20.

"Really, the last year has been incredibly bad," says O'Hara. "We can't afford to keep the place open if we don't sell anything." She plans to partner with Beth Kantrowitz, formerly of Allston Skirt, which closed a year ago, to run alternative curatorial projects.

Amnon Goldman, owner of Mercury Gallery, says the economy also played into his decision to close the venue at 8 Newbury St. He says he hopes to reopen in the fall in a smaller space. "I want to stay in the first block of Newbury Street, but somewhere more contained," he says.

Collected images
Michael Oatman's collages at Miller Block Gallery astonish with their sheer volume, variety of images, dramatic shifts in scale, and mind-blowing detail. Oatman cuts images from books and puts them together to create vast, surreal narratives.

The centerpiece of this show, titled after writer John McPhee's geohistorical collection "Annals of the Former World," is a 20-foot-long collage set at the beach, straddling past and future. It's alarmist yet comical and filled with narrative diversions, such as a crocodile with a camera in its maw.

Oatman specializes in creating unnerving but funny scenes that look as if they come out of B movies. In "Nutrition Error (Early Bird)," a huge, glowing pink worm crawls through a covered bridge in the blue dusk. "Man Falls to His Life" depicts objects pouring through the sky - a carton of cigarettes, a flashlight - against a cheerful background of a modernist building in a 1960s-era town. The man of the title lies in his red pajamas on the pavement; his life seems to be raining down upon him.

Artful dialogue
Painter Sam Messer engages in a dialogue of lines and words with Jonathan Safran Foer, the young author of "Everything Is Illuminated," in their witty, meandering drawing show at Nielsen. Messer starts with a loosely drawn portrait of the writer - dark-haired, with round glasses and 5-o'clock shadow. Then Safran Foer scribbles text and more over each, adding lyrical metaphor to Messer's lively depictions. "It's all black except my heart, which is green," Safran Foer writes over one portrait. The pieces are wry, playful, and shot with darkness.

Jane Smaldone's still lifes and portraits of her 13-year-old daughter Isabel and others, also at Nielsen, feature the same precise brushwork and clear eye she has always displayed. What's intriguing is her new exploration of textures. A subtle embroidery appears on Isabel's skirt in "In a Colorful World (Girl With Red Sky and Green Skirt)." In "Girl With Daisy Pin," the background is a series of broad, brushy, almost unfinished vertical strokes. It feels less controlled than in most of Smaldone's paintings, making an interesting correlation to adolescence.

Cityscapes and lighthouses
We think we know what a city looks like - until we look at it through a painter's eyes. Ben Aronson's cityscapes at Alpha Gallery are an appealing surprise. He is wide-ranging with his brush: gestural and impressionistic here, nearly photorealistic there. He draws the eye with planes, angles, and breathtaking contrasts of shadow and light.

In "IVe Arrondisement," all is dark in the foreground, with the reds of brake lights and a woman's shoulder bag glowing like a fire's last embers in the blue-black shadows. Everything is blurry, like a photo taken with a long exposure, yet the brushwork is delicate. Then in the distance, light pours into the chasm of buildings, which open and glow pink, their faces pale grids in broad strokes. A revelation of light.

Also at Alpha, Paul Resika makes formal abstractions of boats and lighthouses in paintings all about the clarity of color and form. "Blue Lighthouse" is perfect: a straight length of yellow rope, the cylinder of a lighthouse in the distance, all in a sea of vital pale blue. It's a visual haiku.

MICHAEL OATMAN: Annals of the Former World

At: Miller Block Gallery,

38 Newbury St.,

through June 13. 617-536-4650,

SAM MESSER & JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Hanging Correspondence JANE SMALDONE: New Paintings At: Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., through June 6. 617-266-4835, BEN ARONSON: Light and Geometry: The Urban Signature PAUL RESIKA: Selected Paintings, 2000-2008 At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through June 3. 617-536-4465,


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