Portraits of power, perception

The sunlight gathered on the thin strip of water in Christopher Armstrong's 'Floater' rivets the eye. The sunlight gathered on the thin strip of water in Christopher Armstrong's "Floater" rivets the eye.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 9, 2009

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There’s a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park in central California, called the General Sherman, said to be the largest tree in the world. It stands close to 275 feet, and its base measures 36.5 feet in diameter. It’s hard to imagine that kind of enormity, but Sandra Allen begins to approach it in “Ballast,’’ a multi-panel drawing at Carroll and Sons.

“Ballast’’ brings us nose to bark with a section of a giant tree. The graphite drawing is 11 feet high and 18.5 feet across, roughly half the width of the General Sherman. Granted, there’s no comparison with the real thing. Even so, it’s an astonishing piece of work, monumental but startlingly intimate, realist but pulsing with evidence of the artist’s hand: scratches, scrawls, smudges, and erasures.

Up close, it recalls an aerial view of land deeply rutted with water-carved canyons. It’s easy to get lost in the details; in the shadows on the right, I glimpsed faces. Stand at the other end of the gallery, and all the odd forms within the giant drawing coalesce into a craggy, slightly leaning portion of what looks like an old elm.

Most of the pieces in this show are considerably smaller than “Ballast,’’ and the contrast in scale can be mind-bending, evincing how size alone can affect a visceral perception of power. “Scion,’’ which depicts a grafted beech tree, shows more of its subject, but unlike “Ballast,’’ it doesn’t dwarf the viewer. At almost 6 feet tall, it’s person-size, but I felt larger than the beech, perhaps because Allen has brought its size down significantly.

The shift in scale also poses a dramatic shift in technique for the artist. “Scion’’ is delicately rendered; the smooth bark looks like skin, creasing at the joints. The tree forks near the bottom, and the two branches evoke a relationship in the way they pull away and then reach toward each other.

Allen photographs her trees, then maps the images onto a grid and draws them. This simple process takes nothing for granted. Anyone can draw a tree; Allen draws portraits.

Visionary details
Nature and landscape are one of the oldest subjects in art and bad landscapes are legion: pretty and trite, iterations of a bland imagined ideal. Good landscapes require deep attention from an artist willing to see something with an original eye. Often, as in Allen’s case, that’s a matter of examining every knot and gnarl. Painter Christopher Armstrong brings that kind of attention to the sea in his works at Clark Gallery.

You might think his “Floater’’ focuses mainly on the mountain of cumulus clouds that fills the painting, but what rivets the eye is the thin strip of water below, gathering bright sunlight on its surface in slender ridges of white paint, topping off several degrees of blue, from aqua to a serene gray. “Dorsal’’ lands us in the drink like a swimmer. Diamonds of sunlight glitter off the softly rising waves. A transparent haze softens the horizon line.

Also at the Clark Gallery, Don Kirby’s stunning photographs of wheat fields were shot on black-and-white film with a large-format camera. Patterns appear in the fields based on what has been planted or harvested. Sometimes, as in “Bluegrass, Jackson Road, Rockford, Washington, 1997,’’ that pattern has the contrast and groove of a zebra’s stripes. The stripes accentuate the soft contours of the land.

The ties that bind
Christy Georg has spent time on sailing ships, and her crafty conceptual show “Nautical Body’’ at Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College makes wry use of knots and rope - crucial to any sailing vessel, and ripe with the potential for metaphor.

Two 6-foot-tall “Giant Becket-Brooches’’ face each other in the gallery. Beckets are sea-chest handles made of knotted rope; historically, each sailor made his own, and they were said to reflect his seamanship and character, Georg writes in an annotated title list. Making them so big, Georg further fetishizes them.

She fashioned her “Love-ly Beckets,’’ out of black and white ropes, to be worn as necklaces by a couple. They function as wedding rings, but they also resemble yokes or neck shackles, and the bond of love slips disturbingly in the direction of bondage. That comes up in an even kinkier manner with “Chafe Gear for Hand and Forearm,’’ seen here in two large photos. Sailors wear chafe gear to avoid rope burn, but Georg’s version, made out of finely knotted black twine, looks more like part of a dominatrix’s costume. Or perhaps her equipment; the artist’s notes suggest the gloves render the hand immobile.

The show is not all ropes and relationships, though. “Six Frigates’’ is a witty installation of telescopes in front of a seascape drawn on plexiglass. Peer into a telescope, and see a sailing ship. The artist clearly savors sailing lore, and the joys of life on a ship, but the show is best when her gear makes dark, contemporary references. Georg will stage a performance with some of her works and a sea chantey at the opening reception tomorrow evening.

At almost 6 feet tall, Sandra Allen's grafted beech tree in 'Scion' is person-size. (Sandra Allen) At almost 6 feet tall, Sandra Allen's grafted beech tree in "Scion" is person-size.

SANDRA ALLEN: Pencil on Paper

At: Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 17. 617-482-2477,


DON KIRBY: Photographs

At: Clark Gallery, 145 Lincoln Road, Lincoln, through Sept. 30. 781-259-8303,

CHRISTY GEORG: Nautical Body

At: Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons College, 300 The Fenway, through Sept. 30. 617-521-2268,

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