Deconstructing the bride
June brides may want to steer clear of Kelly Sherman's show "Success & Happiness" at Barbara Krakow Gallery. It features a thoughtful deconstruction of the iconography and packaging of the modern bride. That princess-for-a-day role can be challenging enough to live up to. Seeing this exhibit could trigger a bridal identity crisis.
Sherman is no iconoclast. She takes a gentle, open-ended approach, concerned with wishes and longings and how we project them. One of the bodies of work that won her the Institute of Contemporary Art's 2006 James and Audrey Foster Prize was a series of wish lists she found on the Internet. Here, she investigates how those projections can be co-opted by cunning marketing.
Although Sherman is a conceptual artist, "Success & Happiness" has a wonderful formal quality that was missing from her ICA show, which featured lists and diagrams.
For "Brides, horizontal" she has twice blown up a page from a bridal magazine and positioned the brides horizontally, foot to foot. They don't form a mirror - one bride faces up, the other down - but rather constitute one long, twisting stretch of bride. The suite of woodcuts "Brides 1-5" joins white and gray silhouettes of brides at the skirt hem. They verge on complete abstraction, yet edge toward the recognizable. The gray duplicate suggests a shadow or doppelganger - a bride's unspoken wishes.
In another series, the artist tears sheets from bridal magazines and paints over the bride in white enamel. The silhouette becomes a screen for our projections, and Sherman creates a pleasing tension between figure and ground.
There's one series unrelated to weddings: photographs in which, wearing a black cocktail dress, Sherman lies on a variety of sofas, her own and several in furniture stores. They have titles such as "Willow Sofa in Snow," and many sofas feature prominent labels full of ad copy trumpeting, for instance, "a deep, sink-in hospitality."
These are not as disturbingly effective, but as with the brides, the sofa images examine what we want for ourselves and how that is shaped by what we are being sold. None of Sherman's work is a simple critique of advertising. Nor is she calling us out for our naked longing for deep, sink-in hospitality. This work prompts us to shed the trappings of sales and stories and return to the elusive essence of desire as something that reveals us, and keeps us moving forward.
For "Moth Wings Study #6," Formica laid a heap of wings on the scanner. The result is a composition of dramatic, swooping lines, often with feathery fringes, glorious tones, and absorbing patterns. Something about her "Drosophila," a glowing blur of a fly with wings folded in and head tucked, looks eerily like a fetal ultrasound. "Lily Ovulary Megasporocyte" shows a single cell blown up against a black ground in a spectacle of yellow and green, blotted with electric purples.
Devenney makes little assemblages and scans them. Her assortments of strings and bugs come across as too precious, but when she sticks to one material, as in "Flies: Passion," a star form made of a small army of flies, the result is all at once formally precise, creepy, and funny.
When I was there, she was showing a visitor works on paper in flat files arrayed on the gallery floor, including 19th-century English cartoons of the type she sold when the gallery first opened.
On the walls, the paintings are a testament to Nielsen's aesthetic, which is strong on painterly Expressionism, but often goes in other directions that her eye and imagination take her. So in addition to brawny, brushy canvases by Gregory Amenoff, there's an ethereal Anne Harris portrait, "Muscleman Jason," whose pathos emanates from the figure's pearlescent skin and red-rimmed, liquid eyes, and Robert Contois's "Evocation," a tautly realist painting of a radiator, with the dirty wall behind it lovingly rendered as an object of beauty itself.
For years, Nielsen Gallery has anchored one end of the art stretch on Newbury Street, with Barbara Krakow Gallery pinning down the other end. Nielsen champions the emotive Expressionists and Krakow shows off the sharper-edged Conceptual artists.
When Nielsen closes (at least the brick-and-mortar gallery; the website will remain up and running), it's as if one of the tent pegs will be pulled out. With several galleries closing in recent years, the geography of the art scene on Newbury Street is changing. Let's hope someone sees that as an opportunity.