New history paintings tell stories old as war

Betty Herbert's 'Collapsing Buildings' Betty Herbert's "Collapsing Buildings," a depiction of ground zero, is part of her "America's Wars" exhibit at Childs Gallery. (Childs Gallery)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2010

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George Washington appears in long johns and boots beside his cot in a tent in “Washington Slept Here,’’ one of the more comic of Betty Herbert’s war paintings at Childs Gallery. Herbert, 82, is an unschooled artist who started painting at 54. Her exhibit, “America’s Wars,’’ is a sweeping trip through selected conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq.

Like history painters of old, Herbert is a storyteller. She packs her paintings with action, humor, and pathos. These are fervent, declarative works, brushed and smeared and dripped onto the canvas with great heart. She has nothing of the skill we associate with past painters of history — think of the precision of Jacques-Louis David — but her naive depiction of figures and occasionally awkwardly skewed perspective fits right in with a style popular now with many young, art-school trained artists.

The Civil War painting “Blue at Bay’’ captures a blue-clad Union soldier ducking beneath two angry steeds — one fiery red, the other a fierce, mottled gray-brown. Lines are fluid, colors pop, and the lush green background has such vibrating energy it hardly feels like background. “Collapsing Buildings,’’ a depiction of ground zero, shows jagged shards in thickly laid-on paint — the material and gesture carry the emotion of the scene as much as the image does. The skeletal remains of the twin towers lean away from each other, and smaller, nearby structures bow, as if in mourning.

Herbert also captures small, human moments, as in “Skittles,’’ from the Iraq series, depicting a green-beige jumble of helmets and shoulders, bent over a single red package of the candies. “King George and Queen Elizabeth in London during the Blitz’’ revolves around the demure Elizabeth, in a pink suit and pearls, standing amid gray rubble.

These are stories of heroism in the face of devastation. Most contemporary artists take a more confrontational approach to war; last year, British artist Jeremy Deller made a road trip around the United States towing the shell of a car bombed in Baghdad. Herbert’s paintings are not so unsettling. They are dramatic, sympathetic rallying cries — the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air! — in all, a delightful assortment of war paintings. Maybe that in itself is unsettling.

Blurred boundaries
“Boston Related,’’ a group show of artists with Boston ties organized by the artist duo Antoniadis and Stone at Fourth Wall Project, neatly demonstrates how foggy the boundaries have grown among street art, graphic art, and fine art. Even the organizers, who are sculptors, fit this theme: They create what look like scraps of trash and building materials, stuff you might find on the street. But it’s not at all what it appears — a sculptural trompe l’oeil. “Untitled (sole and foil),’’ for instance, exactly resembles an old rubber sneaker sole propping up a used sheet of tinfoil. But the piece is made out of plastic, plaster, and enamel.

Fredo Conde’s stylized sculptures of ordinary objects have much in common with Antoniadis and Stone’s. His painted wood “Briefcase’’ and “Modern Trinkets’’ (a phone and a watch) are positioned beneath “Modern Painting’’ (on canvas) — a faux painting in an art exhibit. Or is it?

Alone started out as a graffiti artist, and you can see the muscle of his gesture in the sweet painting “Black and Blue,’’ of a squat, bare-chested guy in grays and beiges who has a small, heart-shaped bruise on his chest. It hangs near Jesse Littlefield’s prints of a magazine cover design, with two graphic fists holding daggers — recalling the bold Soviet printmaking in the first half of the 20th century. Matthew Rich’s exquisite yet homely paper constructions fit perfectly alongside Littlefield’s crisp graphics. And Raul Gonzalez’s Looney-Tunes-inspired paintings of characters in scuffles have plenty of punch, but they’re also almost secretly gorgeous and politically daring.

There’s more to see in “Boston Related,’’ including David Ording’s delicate, realist little canvas of a Boston police officer playing a keyboard in what appears to be a burgled museum gallery, painted with such refinement it would feel out of place in this show save for its provocative content.

Sad, colorful creatures
Printmaker Vicky Tomayko is a busy woman: She has a show up now at FP3 Gallery, and on Friday, a second exhibit opens in Provincetown at the Schoolhouse Gallery. Her monotypes of monstrous creatures at FP3 are both comic and melancholy, and she has a vibrant color sense. Look at the drypoint monotype “St. John the Baptist as an Artist.’’ The squishy figure is, of course, headless, and he grips to his chest a pink, heart-shaped critter with one eye on a stalk and a protruding, forked tongue. The suggestion is that this artistic St. John speaks from his heart, but even when the heart speaks, you can’t entirely trust what it says.

“Time and Distance’’ has a tiny, far-off figure in polka dots moving through a forest of glowing, gnarly red trees, with eyeballs hovering among the dark leaves. The title hints at absence, if not loss, but that figure can’t be mistaken or lost, even though it’s far away.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of artist Fredo Conde was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

BETTY HERBERT: America’s Wars At: Childs Gallery, 169 Newbury St., through Oct. 30. 617-266-1108,


At: FP3 Gallery, 346 Congress St., through Oct. 9. 617-261-7425,


At: Fourth Wall Project, 132 Brookline Ave., through Sept. 4. www.fourthwall