Adrift on a sea of our own making
From a distance, Deb Todd Wheeler’s 10-foot-long “High Sea’’ at Miller Block Gallery looks like a Winslow Homer seascape, with roiling water crashing and foaming beneath a gray-blue sky, save that it’s all diced into a grid.
Step up close, and the picture gives way. Wheeler made “High Sea’’ by strategically clumping plastic Boston Globe delivery bags on a scanner bed; each of the 21 segments is a digital scan. What appear to be whitecaps and rollers from across the gallery are images of a morass of blue plastic. The nearer you get to the work, the more it resembles a heap of discards. Noticing a hair among the bags, I shuddered with disgust.
“High Sea’’ leapfrogs wonderfully between the sublime and the trashy. And it’s inadvertently timely. Plastic is a petroleum product, and “High Sea’’ can be read as a gorgeous, tragic representation of the Gulf of Mexico, increasingly contaminated by oil. Wheeler made it before the oil spill, but she wasn’t prescient. She was inspired by a Texas-size mass of accumulated plastic debris discovered more than 20 years ago in the North Pacific. We’ve been poisoning the oceans for some time now.
Wheeler’s works may be mournful, but they aren’t without hope and humor. The video “do and be done with me,’’ made with Robert Todd, is a shadow play. A chrysalis-like lump unfolds into the shape of a woman in a long dress, and bits of what must be plastic bags come flying at her like friendly birds. Ultimately, they overwhelm her, but the video is on a loop, so she rises again.
That dress is made of inflatable plastic bags, and it’s the centerpiece of another affecting video, “So She Floats.’’ A woman wearing the inflated dress takes a circular raft out into the water, and with an oar filled with holes, spins herself in circles. The video, made with Georgie Friedman, Heidi Kayser, and Alison Layton, is lulling and ritualistic, and the plastic here is a ritual object, like a wedding dress. Wheeler clearly loves the material; she does remarkable things with it. That makes her work deliciously complicated. If she loves the earth and she values plastic, she’s like most of us. What are we to do?
Beresford borrows from old circus posters dating back 100 years or more, often brimming with bold text and simple imagery. Prompted by the recession, she made pieces filled with warm homilies that are clever enough not to sound saccharine. In jaunty, shifting typefaces, a piece titled “Now Playing, Too’’ features text reading “The Greatest Show is Earth! Animals, vegetables, & minerals, too!!! Spectacular sunrises, heart-stopping crashing surf, rocks of many colors, giraffes, rainbows galore, bird songs, spring breezes, butterflies, oh! snowflakes — just to name a few! Free & open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with a special bonus day every four years. Now. For a limited time only.’’
The prints are eye-catching and nostalgic, and their content is slyly hopeful. There’s also a jar of hard candy and a roll of tickets for the taking, just to make it more like the circus. And just as with the circus, this show is full of clever, inspiring surprises.
Monica Nydam’s thoughtful paintings from the “Untitled (horse series),’’ also at LaMontagne, began when she posted an offer on Craigslist to paint beloved objects. One respondent invited her to portray Minnie, a chestnut-colored horse. In this series, Minnie replicates and often blurs to the point at which she’s impossible to see. The rush of the blur can be rapturous, with the object of affection nearly lost in the fierce tide of love.
Nydam’s works are as much about painting as they are about love. She pulls us in with her strident smearing, then dizzies us with symmetry, and stops us short with hints of pattern and precisely rendered elements, such as Minnie’s spindly legs painted with a calligraphic simplicity, or small windows where the blurring pauses and we glimpse a patch of grass, or of Minnie’s flank, and breathe deep.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.