Neither here nor there

Exhibit stretches our perception of space and reality

John Tracey's 'Fence Line.' John Tracey's "Fence Line."
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2010

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It’s ironic that most of John Tracey’s ethereal paintings at Miller Block Gallery depict fencing. The very nature of Tracey’s paintings, which he builds out of layer upon layer of pigmented bees wax, is unbounded. The wax seeps off the sides of his panels. The many layers evince deep, limitless space that is somehow shrouded — as if defined by substance, such as a mist, rather than edges.

Looking at works like this thrusts interiority on the viewer, amid the perception of endless expansion. So it is that Tracey’s fence posts, blotted on darkly with thinned-out pigment, fit perfectly in his world of neither here nor there. Under the veils of wax, they suggest something charged yet intangible, a shadow or a dream. The boundaries they indicate may be more internal than external.

In “Fence Line,’’ a smudgy series of posts appears to recede into the painting’s depths and then curve to the right below a brushy horizon line. The posts cast shadows, so perhaps they are meant to be solid, but they appear dribbled on, whispering and inexact. They hover beneath layers of translucent ivory. On the right side of the panel, Tracey has soaked the scene in a mottled pumpkin orange tone. It’s another layer, another, warmer mood, delectably textured like a yummy gastronomic glaze.

Tracey also has on view a number of small, globular bronze pieces, and one large sculpture, “Scribe,’’ which stands just beside “Fence Line.’’ It’s a tall pin of dark and twisty wood, another fence post outside of the painting, solid and undeniable, but sly as it stretches our perception of the painting’s space and the nebulous reality it conveys.

Definitively abstract
To make her wall sculptures, Jae Ko spins a roll of adding machine paper into a donut using a potter’s wheel. She shapes the circle as she sees fit, and puts it into a bath of ink and water. The paper absorbs the water and swells up, expanding more where it has been more loosely rolled. Then Ko sprays on more ink. The whole process for a single sculpture can take from weeks up to years to complete.

The results, up at Walker Contemporary, are velvety and organic, rolling and cupping like seashells, yet definitively abstract. I preferred Ko’s simpler one-roll pieces. Round, in shades of black, gray, or fire-engine red and traced with hollows and seams, they’re succinctly erotic. “JK190’’ is silky gray, a circle cinched at the sides toward a figure eight, plump and voluptuous. The center seems to open in a wide pucker, like a mouth mid-gasp. Ko has applied her ink with such finesse the piece shimmers as it swells, giving the immediate impression that she has encased her sculpture within slinky nylon, which she hasn’t.

Sometimes the artist assembles several rolls into one roughly rectangular piece, such as the black, architectonic “JK306,’’ at almost eight feet across the largest piece in the show. It’s built out of rounds compressed into J-shaped sections that loop together. Works such as this feel a bit more forced and less freighted with meaning than the single-roll sculptures, as if Ko is trying to push the limits of her material, rather than dive deeper into its possibilities.

A lot to say
Talk about taking off like a rocket. Last spring, Rebecca Lieberman finished up as an undergraduate at Harvard, and now she has a solo show at anthony greaney, “Whitetail Deer, A to Z.’’ The exhibit is a little too smart and relentless, the product of a bright young artist who is still synthesizing everything she has learned. She hasn’t quite landed in a confident groove. That’s to be expected, and although Lieberman has perhaps too much to say, when you put aside the show’s frenetic pace — the gallery is crowded with objects, all in chatty conversation, like a jam-packed cocktail party — you see wit and some panache.

Lieberman begins with two video monitors showing the same video out of synch, a reenactment of an old instructional video about taxidermy in which the artist has substituted a chunk of found wood for the dead deer that appeared in the original. It’s deadpan, comical (with shades of Julia Child), and vaguely disturbing, and it points to a question Lieberman explores throughout the show: What is real? When is a deer no longer a deer? When is wood not wood?

The rest of the show comprises dozens of sculptural pieces made of wood, wood veneer, plywood, wood laminate, and wood-patterned contact paper. There are works that cleverly tie taxidermy mounting plaques to the structure of a painting. There are doors on hinges, which can’t be opened.

It’s no surprise to learn that Lieberman's teachers at Harvard included filmmaker Amie Siegel. The references are hip deep, not only to the artist’s teachers but to video pioneer Martha Rosler, to Frank Stella’s black paintings (Lieberman sands down walnut veneer) and Carl Andre’s floor pieces. Lieberman’s standout sculpture is on the gallery’s maple-toned floor, a warm, lush cherry wood laminate braced on wood extensions that look like canvas stretchers. It’s floor-on-floor, mixing up references to painting and the modernist grid with a contemporary twist of DIY-mania, and it’s gorgeous.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

CORRECTION: Because of incorrect information given to the Globe, the "Galleries" column in Wednesday's "g" section said artist Rebecca Lieberman studied with Taylor Davis when she was at Harvard. She did not.

JOHN TRACEY: Recent Paintings and Sculpture At: Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Oct. 30. 617-536-4650,

JAE KO: Paper At: Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 30. 617-695-0211,

REBECCA LIEBERMAN: Whitetail Deer, A to Z At: anthony greaney, 450 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 6 617-482-0055,