A year for seeing promising signs

Artists, exhibits, and venues all produced buzz in 2010

“Post Game’’ was part of a montage of color images by Jesse Burke in “Man Up’’ at Judi Rotenberg Gallery. “Post Game’’ was part of a montage of color images by Jesse Burke in “Man Up’’ at Judi Rotenberg Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 29, 2010

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In contrast to the dramatic action on the museum front, with the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts’ ambitious new Art of the Americas Wing, 2010 has seen local galleries in something of a holding pattern. The bloodletting of the two previous years, during which several commercial ones closed, has given way to a condition of waiting and hoping that a recovering economy will bring active collectors back into the galleries.

There have been promising sparks. Beth Urdang was one of many art dealers who closed up shop in recent years declaring they would be back; she is the first to actually return to Newbury Street. Meanwhile, over on Harrison Avenue galleries continue to open, following the development of 460 Harrison Ave., and the enclave buzzes with activity. In the last couple of years, Gurari Collections and Galatea Fine Art, an artists’ cooperative, have moved in.

The gallery scene suffered a blow when Judi Rotenberg Gallery closed in June, not for economic reasons, but for personal ones, according to co-director Abigail Ross Goodman. After nearly 40 years on Newbury Street, the gallery had become a standout venue for edgy art in the last decade under the leadership of Ross Goodman and Kristen Dodge. Dodge has since opened Dodge Gallery in New York. Ross Goodman will co-curate the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s 2012 Biennial.

Rotenberg mounted one of the best group shows of the year, the brooding, often comic “Man Up,’’ celebrating and critiquing masculinity and its high-octane fuel, testosterone. Jesse Burke’s montage of color photos at the heart of the show married aggression with vulnerability, and Steve Locke’s portraits in simple, lush strokes conveyed the competitiveness of male companionship.

Two standout exhibits pushed painting and sculpture displays into installation art. At Samson, Jackie Saccoccio and Jeffrey Gibson each took an opposing long wall and hung abstract paintings, but that was just the beginning. Gibson papered his wall with patterned prints, and Saccoccio filled hers with paint — operatic ges tures in black and white. It was a wild call-and-response, Gibson’s staccato patterns pinging off Saccoccio’s legato strokes.

Similarly, painter Carl Ostendarp and sculptor Gail Fitzgerald, who are married, staged “Plasti-Kool II,’’ a sequel to a smaller 2009 effort in New York. Ostendarp painted the walls in turquoise over powder blue with an undulating horizon line separating the two. Fitzgerald built bright, layered, monstrous sculptures, like tangles of squirming leeches, out of children’s modeling goop. The show delved into 20th-century abstraction, with nods to Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein, and took a kindergartner’s delight in color and touch.

The Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art has turned into a smart and surprising venue for contemporary art, thanks to the eye of Bobbi Hamill. In the spring, she brought John Walker’s juicy, emotionally fraught paintings to her capacious gallery, and paired them with African and Oceanic sculptures, masks, and textiles, finding astonishing counterpoints. Sheep’s-head puppets from Mali hung near Walker’s paintings featuring a World War I British soldier with a sheep’s head, a figure that represents the artist’s father. The association was dark and magical.

Deb Todd Wheeler’s witty and disturbing exhibit “Blew’’ at Miller Block Gallery featured a 10-foot-long piece, “High Sea,’’ which looked like a Winslow Homer seascape. But it was no painting. When viewers eyeballed the piece, they recognized scanned images of clumped together plastic bags — sublime and trashy. Videos also made ingenious use of plastic, a material that provokes playfulness and anxiety.

Megan and Murray McMillan’s sharp and engrossing video installation at Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media comprised a two-minute video projection in a room papered with reflective mylar. The video followed the artists as they rowed a boat over a lake — actually, a mylar-carpeted platform they had erected in a warehouse. Watching the video, the viewer ricocheted between illusion and reality, the dream of the visuals and the mechanics of their making.

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts mounted “Andrea Fraser: Boxed Set,’’ an exhibit of several of the artist’s videos of her cunning performances, which lampoon and critique art world tropes. God knows the art world takes itself seriously, and Fraser is no less serious in her deconstruction of paradigms about what artists, curators, collectors, and critics value, but she does it with such deadpan accuracy, even the most self-serious arty type would laugh.

Kay Rosen’s eye-opening conceptual show at Barbara Krakow Gallery was as much about wordplay — by which I mean words as symbols and pictures — as it was about painting. Rosen uses sign paint and experiments with typefaces to let the architecture of a word express its meaning, an approach that makes text more physical, and shakes up the experience of reading.

That leaves two more traditional shows — one of paintings, one of prints — that still shimmer in my memory. Cliffton Peacock studied at Boston University with Philip Guston, and his figure paintings at Alpha Gallery shared Guston’s edgy brusqueness, but they were tinged with melancholy. Peacock’s brushwork is broad and loose, his colors appear in eerie, sickly, vivid combinations, and the subjects of his portraits often look masked. The canvases were surreal, fresh, and unpremeditated, as if emerging without thought from the generative force of the artist’s paint.

Finally, the opening in September of Maud Morgan Arts, a community arts center in Cambridge, brought on its coattails an exhibit of Morgan’s prints from the 1960s and 1970s at the Art Institute of Boston Gallery. Morgan was something of an art star in the 1930s, but after she married and moved to Massachusetts, her career went off the rails. She kept making art. These delightful abstract silk-screens were jazzy and giddily chromatic, formally crisp and dancing. Morgan never lost her eye, and she never lost her touch.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at