Witty experiments

Opie is engaging with themes, styles, materials

Julian Opie’s “Caterina dancing in black trousers (4),’’ made with vinyl on a wooden stretcher. Julian Opie’s “Caterina dancing in black trousers (4),’’ made with vinyl on a wooden stretcher.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2010

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Julian Opie’s fun ride of a show at Barbara Krakow Gallery leaves me dizzy. The British art star is best known for his pictograph portraits, figures sporting blank circles for heads. They resemble symbols on restroom doors, yet they’re identifiable as real people. Witty and engaging, they strike a balance between generic and specific.

There are several such images here — in a tapestry, in vinyl, in a computer animation, on coffee mugs. This exhibit, featuring work made in the last two years, demonstrates the range of Opie’s imagination, his scrutiny of the nuances of looking, his varied means of production, and his Warholian proclivity for making fine art available to the masses. These themes would propel a fascinating retrospective. They’re too much for a gallery show.

The centerpiece of the show is the gorgeous tapestry “Ed and Marlanela (8),’’ depicting two dancers from Britain’s Royal Ballet joined in a composition of elegant lines. “Caterina dancing in black trousers (4)’’ a vinyl piece, is similarly driven by the lines of the dancer’s body. Opie delineates the trousers as a continuous flat black form, but he adds highlights to Caterina’s red vest and shiny black shoes that give her volume.

Opie draws his images on a computer, then outsources production, so it’s easy for him to generate a lot in a small amount of time. It enables him to make low-end pieces such as the coffee mugs. But when does an artist become a brand, and at what cost? Many artists do it in order to challenge society’s expectations about value. Others do it to make a buck. It can work if the art remains fresh.

And Opie is still experimenting; many images here push deeper into representation. “Joo Yeon contemplates her imminent wedding,’’ a computer animation, gives us the simple lines of the woman’s face and features. Pink blossoms wave on a tree behind her. She blinks, and strokes her chin with her thumb, but is otherwise static. The piece is crystalline, and absorbing in its near stillness.

There are other pieces: lenticular prints that toy with perceptions of surface and depth, cameo-like silhouettes. They capture their subjects with distillation, rather than profusion of detail. That’s what makes them so hard to walk away from.

Surface tension
Abstract painters Wlodzimierz Ksiazek and Rainer Gross, in a show at Alpha Gallery, both manipulate the surfaces of their paintings. Ksiazek, using oil paint and cold wax, carves into his surface, making sculptural paintings. They are like the ghosts of architectural edifices, scarred and scored and brooding. Most are largely monochromatic with hints of other tones.

One piece (they are all untitled), though, is gashed with red, black, and white, and it pops off the wall. Black bars drop while thick spacklings of red cut across. Rectangular gouges make diagonals beneath. For all the sculptural inclinations of the piece, the background is a lusciously vaporous mix of all the tones. Ksiazek excels at textural tensions. For my money, the more ethereal undertones he can add to his forcefully solid paintings, the better.

Gross presses a canvas covered with water-based pigment against a canvas covered with oil-based pigment. The two peel off one another, and he hangs them side by side, although not as mirror images — he will flip or turn one, to skew the viewer’s experience.

Fascinating, desiccated surfaces result. The oil on one canvas literally pulls the pigment off the other one. “Balaba Twins’’ is a stacked diptych. One is gray-green on red; the other is red on gray-green. The red looks stripped raw and fiery on the top canvas, but powdery and sweet on the bottom, where it cracks and crawls like lichen. The paintings have the same DNA, but they’re distinctly different — fraternal twins, not identical. Hanging them together suggests a partnership, a give-and-take that can be beneficial, or damaging.

Fired by history
Aldo Tambellini is best known as an avant-garde filmmaker and founder, with Otto Piene, of the Black Gate Theatre, a New York performance and electronic media space in 1967. Tambellini, who taught at MIT for years, is also a painter, and a show of his works from the early 1960s and the late 1980s is up at Pierre Menard Gallery.

They’re largely black, with occasional red or white thrown in, and they hum with dark energy. Tambellini deals with cosmic, generative themes that merge birth and destruction. “Black Energy 2 (From Black Energy Burns With Fire)’’ (1962) features a velvety black ball with a single white slit in the paint. Red surrounds and embraces the black; it feels as if the black has spawned the red.

When he was a boy during World War II, Tambellini witnessed his hometown of Lucca, Italy, being bombed. He burns, rips, and incises many of his paintings, as if re-creating the scene. But in the later works, those incisions take on a different tone.

“SG-5 (From Black Energy Suspended)’’ (1989), a black circle painted over architectural paper, like a dark explosion over careful plans, is feathered with pinpricks and tears; the effect is like the sparkle of fireworks. In other works, the black becomes a metaphor for outer space. For Tambellini, black may be dark, but it is filled with possibility.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

JULIAN OPIE At: Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St., through Dec. 7. 617-262-4490, www.barbara

WLODZIMIERZ KSIAZEK, RAINER GROSS At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Nov. 20. 617-536-4465,


At: Pierre Menard Gallery, 10 Arrow St., Cambridge, through Nov. 15. 617-868-2033,