Taken from the drawing board

Above: “Sprinklers,’’ a watercolor by Stella Ebner, on display at the Mills Gallery. Below: “Tide Pool,’’ a work in colored pencil by Michael Krueger, on exhibit at Steven Zevitas Gallery. Above: “Sprinklers,’’ a watercolor by Stella Ebner, on display at the Mills Gallery. Below: “Tide Pool,’’ a work in colored pencil by Michael Krueger, on exhibit at Steven Zevitas Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2009

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The Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts has mounted “Drawings That Work: 21st Drawing Show’’; the first such show was staged in 1979. I’ve seen many of them, and most have faded from memory, although former Mills Gallery director Laura Donaldson put up a crackerjack exhibit of wall drawings in 2005.

“Drawings That Work’’ may prove memorable, too. It’s intriguing, but too often frustrating. Juror Andrew Stein Raftery, an associate professor of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, asked artists to submit preparatory drawings. Not their best work, not anything truly finished, but pieces in any media “used in the realization of completed or future projects,’’ Raftery says in a wall text.

Process geeks will love it. Those who go to exhibits expecting to view fully realized art - a much larger group - will be disappointed. The best pieces here are those that are a pleasure to look at, and although they may be sketchy, you can see the artists’ intelligence at work.

That’s true in Suzanne Schireson’s “Pig Roast on the Hill,’’ a dynamic gouache-and-charcoal rendering of a picnic. Schireson’s forms are quickly drawn, her colors swiftly blotted on. She plots out composition and tonal shifts, and the drawing pulses with energy as everything begins to coalesce. The same goes for Stella Ebner’s graceful watercolor “Sprinklers,’’ a graveyard landscape full of life.

Nataliya Bregel’s tiny prints with watercolor are less than 2 inches tall and about 18 inches long. Each is chopped up into little scenes, so they read like film strips. In “Beit Yanai: Dog Walkers,’’ she pulls in the viewer with the intimacy of her small scale and improbable compositions.

Then there are pieces such as two inkjet works drawn over with pencil and paint by Andrew “Pez’’ Fish. In his statement, Fish says, “I would have never thought to exhibit these drawings, as I do not see them as finished works.’’ Of course, these blurry sketches fall flat. If we could see them beside the completed pieces, the juxtaposition might be fascinating. Alone, they do the artist a disservice.

I felt more generous toward Linda Price-Sneddon’s “Working Drawing - WonderWorlds Installation’’ because I have seen her installations. They’re fun, over-the-top pieces crammed with neon-bright materials such as puff-balls and pompoms, organic and chaotic, reminiscent of Star Trek’s “The Trouble With Tribbles’’ episode. It was a surprise to see her sketch, carefully plotted on graph paper, as fastidious as an engineering diagram.

There are pieces by 36 artists in “Drawings That Work,’’ and some of the drawings are terrific, but far too many of them work only as a ladder rung does, moving the artist on up. Lacking context, there’s nothing about them to grab the eye. This isn’t an art show; it’s an exhibition of ephemera from the artistic process. Interesting if you’re in the know. If you’re not, don’t bother.

Pencils and patterns
Michael Krueger’s sharp, funny drawings at Steven Zevitas Gallery do work. Using colored pencils, Krueger sets crazy little narratives against abstract backgrounds of bands of color, sometimes horizontal, sometimes radiating around the scene. Because many of Krueger’s characters look drawn from American history - mountain men, Colonial soldiers, hippies - the bars in the backdrop conjure the stars and stripes; sometimes Krueger even scatters them with little diamond shapes. But his pinks, yellows, and oranges are more fevered than red, white, and blue.

He renders his enigmatic scenes with exquisite detail, often turning the landscape into a group of intricate patterns. In “Every Which Way but Loose,’’ Redcoats attempt to approach a woman covered in psychedelic body paint, but a blue-coated soldier won’t let them through. The exchange takes place along small islands connected by driftwood. Krueger’s surreal narratives link disparate parts of American history and the American psyche. The associations may not make sense, but they’re freighted with tension, and Krueger’s terrific skill with pencils and patterns makes these drawings fascinating, regardless of their subject matter.

Aesthetic gravity

There’s one gorgeous object in Michael Phelan’s show at Samson (formerly Samson Projects): “Tomorrow’s a new day . . .’’ is a large, rectangular assemblage of jagged pieces of black glass, foundry castoffs that Phelan says are often sold to tourists as souvenirs in the West. It’s a threatening carpet, or a low landscape of dark, glistening blocks, some pulverized into blue or purple dust, dangerous to the touch - a brilliant piece.

Phelan is a conceptual artist; mostly, he engages in discourse about what Americans value and how we think. “Tomorrow’s a new day . . .’’ is implicitly about commodifying the Western landscape, and repurposing trash as art.

Several enamel-on-aluminum paintings sport familiar phrases using a common expletive. Alone, each is a bore, but together they show how much meaning we put into this one word. The buzzing neon sign “Bless You Taco Bell’’ provocatively conflates corporate culture with religious culture. Pieces like these have a degree of snarky wit, but nothing like the aesthetic gravity of “Tomorrow’s a new day . . . .’’

DRAWINGS THAT WORK: 21st Drawing Show At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., through Oct. 25. 617-426-8835,

MICHAEL KRUEGER: Endless Colony At: Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 17. 617-778-5265, ext. 22,

MICHAEL PHELAN: Dear [Saint Matthew’s] . . . At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 17. 617-357-7177,

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