The shape of obsession

Painstaking handwork is hallmark

“Nimbus,’’ part of Imi Hwangbo’s “The Spire Series.’’ “Nimbus,’’ part of Imi Hwangbo’s “The Spire Series.’’
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2010

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Obsessiveness has been a vital trend in contemporary art for some time. Surely that says something about society. Perhaps immersing oneself in an intense, repetitive task is meditative for an artist. But the resulting art, while often a marvel, is hardly calming. Three artists showing now are of this ilk.

Imi Hwangbo prints and hand cuts the edges of chrysanthemums out of up to 30 layers of translucent Mylar. The layers shrink as they recess, making each blossom a delicate cup of concentric lines. Her show at Miller Block features work based on decorative patterns from 19th-century Korean wrapping cloths, in which the chrysanthemum is a symbol of joy. Astonishing pieces such as “Nimbus’’ depict a floral cascade, with overlapping paper blossoms that would drift in a breeze. It’s a lovely conflation of 2-D and 3-D.

Amelia Hankin, also at Miller Block, draws in pencil on silkscreen prints. The drawing “Seguine Series’’ looks like an immense colony of bubbles. Hankin cleverly angles the spheres to shape the space they inhabit, deepening in the center. You can see the silkscreen backing clearly in “Forgive’’ — the paper is covered with black, blotted ink, over which Hankin has drawn expanding patterns of balls, each surrounded by champagne bubble-size silver circles. These are frothy yet relentless, walking a surprising edge between biomorphic and decorative.

Over at Walker Contemporary (where the hours are spotty in December, so call ahead), Benicia Gantner uses synthetic materials such as vinyl and plexiglass to make surreal, shiny nature scenes. She laboriously hand cuts the vinyl into slender vines, blades, and tendrils. In “Silver Downstream,’’ bright yellow, green, blue, and white ribbons pour from the top edge over a silver ground, tangling with spiraling brambles and pinwheeling blossoms. It’s festive, ridiculously detailed, and unsettling in its plastic colors.

All this refined, delicate handwork recalls decorative textiles, for centuries the realm of women. Today, the sheer materiality of handwork like this can be read as a repudiation of our increasingly virtual world. Yet what these artists depict is not exactly safe and solid. The art abounds, seeps, and grows. For all the control in its making, what it expresses is out of control.

Southern charms Artadia, a national nonprofit that supports artists locally, has brought its 2009 Atlanta award winners to Boston. “Southern Exposure,’’ at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts, doesn’t hang together well. Dina Deitsch, associate curator of contemporary art at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, had the thankless job of trying to make links among an extraordinarily diverse group of artists.

At this point, with communication so fast and easy, it’s hard to find traces of regionalism in art, unless an artist is specifically documenting it. Jerry Siegel does just that with his rich, quirky documentary color photos. “Would Jesus Steal Worms, Selma, AL’’ shows a bait shop sign unlikely to be found in our parts.

Fahamou Pecou’s gorgeous paintings explore and deflate mannerisms of hip-hop. In “Pop,’’ a guy with several layers of pants descending to his thighs holds a little gun provocatively in front of his groin; an anticlimactic, comic book “Pop!’’ emerges from the muzzle. This work seems fresh partly because it’s funny, sharp, and beautifully crafted, but also because there’s a dearth of hip-hop art in Boston (there’s regionalism for you). What are we afraid of?

Other works might have been made here, or anywhere. Don Cooper’s grid of concentric watercolor circles, inspired by the bindu, a dot found in Indian art, is a hypnotic installation. Some pull you in, others push you out, and there’s a terrific pulse of hues vibrating against one another. Ruth Dusseault’s sweeping photos of the demolition and subsequent development of an old mill site capture elements of history and the push for change. Larry M. Walker’s collaged abstract paintings, which echo the textures of weathered walls, could be minute details from Dusseault’s site, and in that context feel intimately human.

Angela West toys with identity and relationship. “Too Much for You,’’ a color photo, shows several postcards written to West set in a grid, with handwritten sentiments tracing lines of affection from far-flung places. “For the Love of You,’’ another photo, depicts a string of dead ducks. Do the titles address the viewer? That would make them especially provocative, but it’s not entirely clear.

Tristan Al-Haddad’s installation “Ruptures in running bond,’’ I was told, is best experienced after dark. I was there on a gray afternoon. Projections slide across the corner of the gallery and over a window filled with a brick pattern sporting protruding glass, like snouts. The projections are ghostly in the daytime; some were abstract, others were photos of architecture. The artist, in a statement, says he is exploring the relationship between material and immaterial. That tension is palpable, but I found it hard to parse the relationships among the projected images. Perhaps if the installation had been more immersive, I would have stopped parsing, and simply succumbed to the experience.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

IMI HWANGBO: The Spire Series

AMELIA HANKIN: Recent Drawings

At: Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Jan. 12. 617-536-4650, www.miller

BENICIA GANTNER: AFTER At: Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 21. 617-695-0211, www.walker


At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Jan. 2. 617-426-8835,