Exhibit charms with its twists on being "Handsome''

Ria Brodell’s “The Handsomest Ken Ever!’’ Ria Brodell’s “The Handsomest Ken Ever!’’ is at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2009
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Ria Brodell’s drawing exhibition “The Handsome & the Holy’’ is not as corny as Kansas in August, but there’s a degree of intently self-aware schmaltz that moves it quite sweetly in that direction. It’s at Judi Rotenberg Gallery.

Brodell deploys heroes and stars from mid-20th-century American musicals, toys, saints, and more to examine ideas of masculinity. She pictures herself as Gene Kelly, a Ken doll, Curly from “Oklahoma!,’’ and other iconic male figures.

Gallery manager Patton Hindle says that Brodell identifies herself as queer. The artist was more interested in Ken than Barbie as a child; she also played with G.I. Joe and He-Man. She wasn’t allowed to watch much television, but she was given free rein with musicals. She went to Catholic school and aspired to be holy, but she longed to be handsome.

In the past, Brodell has made watercolors of hybrid animals in barren environments. Here, she adroitly uses gouache to tell a personal story that, like her odd creatures, unifies two unlikely elements. Her drawings are by turns comic and poignant in their naked evocation of a child’s fantasies.

“The Handsomest Ken Ever!’’ puts her in a toy sports car as a white-suited Ken doll, stiff and endearing. In “He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common,’’ the saint and the doll, both clad in chest plates and boots, genially put their arms around each other.

“A Picnic With Audrey Hepburn’’ is the gravitational center of the show. In it, the slender young actress sits on a blanket with her back toward us and all the masculine self-portraits. It’s a picture of mythic femininity, here elusive. “The Handsome & the Holy’’ is a charming, playful, and nuanced consideration of gender, longing, and the conflict a girl feels when she dreams of being a man.

Puzzling prints
Usually, printmaker Yizhak Elyashiv shows abstracted maps and landscapes, often made to document the results of a gesture, such as tossing grains over printing plates. In his new show at Gallery NAGA, he goes in a dramatic and unfortunately mysterious new direction.

Elyashiv copied 15th-century German artist Martin Schongauer’s engraving “The Foolish Virgin’’ as a woodcut. He offers two prints here, one in burned linseed oil, the other in oil and ink, each evoking a woman and her lamp. In the second print, the artist cuts out the woman’s hair and moves it to her chin, like a beard.

I’m not sure what he’s getting at with that maneuver; indeed, given his previous work, it’s hard to grasp the conceptual underpinnings of this pair of prints. In a sense, it’s another exploration of gesture, this time with Elyashiv charting Schongauer’s.

Elyashiv also presents two “Oil Dress’’ prints, taken from designs for 18th-century gowns. These prints explore pattern, which links them more closely to Elyashiv’s maps and landscapes, where the eye finds patterns whether they were intended or not.

Brenda Star’s sculptures, also at Gallery NAGA, have deliciously sinuous forms. Made of white plaster, they come across as part bone, part flesh. Some are too cluttered, but most of them are economical and voluptuous. They tunnel and blossom. Blossoms are easy to admire, and the tunnels seduce with their elegant curves and shadows. Star garnishes the work with tiny references to animals, which imbue them with magic; they look like the tools of a shaman.

“Septa’’ is vertical wall sculpture that repeatedly divots in and coils around. Star has placed three sets of cat nostrils down the center; they become almost like vertebrae, but they’re pink and perhaps sniffing.

Emerging artists
Alpha Gallery’s Summer Invitational is always an intriguing opportunity to see the work of emerging artists. This year brings a pleasing array of three painters and a sculptor.

Hilary Alder, who just received her MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, works with bright string, stretching it tautly in eye-catching patterns inside boxes and, most impressively, in an 11-foot installation across the walls of the gallery.

Patty Adams, who just got her degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, is a digitally canny painter and collage artist. Her process involves making a mixed-media work, then photographing it, printing it digitally on canvas, and adding paint and collage. The result, as in “Mary, Mary,’’ is riveting, as it shuttles the eye through space and plays tricks with surface and pattern.

In all of her works, Stephanie Pierce paints on a bed beneath a window in a small room. She plays with planes, angles, and a terrific fluttery brushstroke so the scene seems on the verge of dissolution.

I’d call Sangram Majumdar’s paintings still lifes, as they look at arrays of objects, but the objects stutter, crumple, and break apart. He works in a hushed palette that makes the scenes feel airless and focuses the eye on broken furniture and other items that almost, but intentionally don’t quite make sense.

RIA BRODELL: The Handsome & the Holy At: Judi Rotenberg Gallery, 130 Newbury St., through July 11. 617-437-1518,

YIZHAK ELYASHIV: New Prints BRENDA STAR: Manifold At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through July 10. 617-267-9060, SUMMER INVITATIONAL At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through July 10. 617-536-4465,

Playing with toys and gender

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