Man vs. measures of masculinity

The stark image of Jesse Burke’s “Post Game’’ is part of the “Man Up’’ exhibit at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery. The stark image of Jesse Burke’s “Post Game’’ is part of the “Man Up’’ exhibit at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery. (Courtesy of the artist and Judi Rotenberg Gallery)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2010

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A cockfight, a strutting wrestler, a pyramid of Budweiser cans, a brawl. These are not the usual things you see in the refined space of an art gallery, but they all make an appearance in “Man Up.’’ The group show at Judi Rotenberg Gallery puts the microscope on expressions of masculinity fueled by high-octane testosterone.

The exhibit was organized by gallery co-director Kristen Dodge, who plans to open a New York space in the fall, after Rotenberg closes next month. Her exit is a loss for Boston.

The dark, occasionally giddy “Man Up’’ has edge and elegance. At the center hangs Jesse Burke’s montage of color photos that spotlight intensely masculine themes with self-consciously artful beauty. The portrait of the smudgy football player in Burke’s “Post Game’’ looks positively beatific. Shot-gunning beer, which involves shaking the can and poking a hole in it to shoot the foaming brew into your mouth, is a recurring motif, with inevitably sexual overtones. There’s also the image of a deer carcass, and “Open Country,’’ a starkly lit image of a bare-chested man in a hunting mask known as an executioner’s hood. The images tell stories of vulnerability and aggression, toeing the thin line between them.

All the works here grapple with that theme. Rune Olsen’s remarkable motion-filled sculptures, made of masking tape and paper on steel armatures to resemble drawings, come vividly to life, capturing moments of fierce assault, when the assailants see only red. Most of Steve Locke’s lush, economical paintings address a masculine companionability that is both exposed and competitive.

El C. Leonardo preens in his video, “El C. vs. The Invisible Man — The Highlights,’’ in which he plays a masked Mexican wrestler taking on an invisible foe in front of live audiences. His accompanying drawing, “El Conquistador vs. The Invisible Man,’’ a diptych depicting him and his competitor (negative space framed by the audience) in the same posture, suggests that he is his own adversary. That theme underlies every work here, and marks “Man Up’’ with unexpected melancholy.

Celebrating the mundane
In the 1980s, Richard Sheehan was a thoughtful, exuberant painter of Boston, but the artist, who died at 52 in 2006, hasn’t had a show here since 1991. He married, moved to Rhode Island, and became an involved dad. Most of the works in his solo show at Alpha Gallery date back to the 1980s; some stretch into this past decade.

Sheehan had an attraction to unnoticed places, such as highway overpasses. He painted them on the pivot point between representation and abstraction, carving out space with long, lush horizontal swipes of paint. “Grey Day, Neponset, ’88’’ is made with terrific vigor, in broad strokes and with a sense of unstoppable motion. Sky, overpass, and what lies below are described in juicy stripes of blue, brown, black, and more. The center band is almost robin’s egg blue, and there Shee han dabbed a small window, a door, a gas tank, and a skeletal flight of stairs in the distance, delicately anchoring the scene with detail.

He was a high-keyed colorist. One untitled street scene from 2006 follows a plum-toned road up a hill under an aqua sky. A yellow house glows, as does a utility pole across the street. Little touches such as a bag of trash on the sidewalk and the chicken-scratch shadow of another pole at the bottom of the painting turn a scene that could be too idyllic into something more mundane that the sun, and this painter, have smiled upon.

Edgy interaction
Painter Jennifer Moses pits straight line against curve in her abstract paintings at Kingston Gallery. Often, the curve seems to win out, looping tauntingly over and around more rigid structures. In some of these, such as the piece for which the exhibition was titled, “A Line Is a Straight Curve,’’ the interaction of straight edge and curve creates a pleasing spatial tension. At other times, Moses throws in too much information, cluttering the paintings and obscuring any sense of space. I especially liked several gouache works on paper, which are gentler and more precisely realized than many of the oil paintings.

Deborah Davidson has been evoking sound and language in her mixed-media paintings for some time. At Kingston, in addition to two works on the wall, she moves to the floor, making colorful pillars that stutter with squiggles, tiny elements breaking out from beneath the surface, like static crackling through silence. They’re intriguing, but a bit overdone. Often, different colors on different faces or edges of the pillars distract from the more engaging dance of the squiggly bits.

In the back gallery, Ann Wessmann continues a lovely series of projects made from family texts typed on vellum. These revisit her grandfather, a Swedish immigrant and poet. In “Journey,’’ a great U of long vellum ribbons, woven at the top, the warp is from his memoir, and the weft is text about him by others. Wessmann effectively imbues the words with fragile materiality; what is left of her grandfather becomes somehow more tangible.

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MAN UP: Jesse Burke, El C. Leonardo, Steve Locke, and Rune Olsen At: Judi Rotenberg Gallery, 130 Newbury St., 617-437-1518,

RICHARD SHEEHAN (1953-2006) At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through June 2. 617-536-4465,

JENNIFER MOSES: A Line Is a Straight Curve DEBORAH DAVIDSON: Stand ANN WESSMANN: Words Unspoken: Journey At: Kingston Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., #43, 617-423-4113,