Monstrously provocative portraits

Gaudy, gorgeous, and unnerving figures flirt with abstraction

Peter Opheim’s “Untitled’’ at Steven Zevitas Gallery. Peter Opheim’s “Untitled’’ at Steven Zevitas Gallery. (Andrew E. Katz)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2011

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Good painting can be a freak show, at least when you have artists pushing the limits of figure painting, as in “I am who I am. The Portrait Reconsidered,’’ a gaudy and delectable group exhibit at Steven Zevitas Gallery. Zevitas examines a particular edge in figure painting, familiar in the work of art stars such as Dana Schutz and Glenn Brown. The worlds they paint are disastrous but lush; the people they paint are monstrous but compelling.

Oh, the allure of a monster. Almost human, but not quite. Evocative of all the dark, unseemly stuff we try to keep sealed inside. Paint, when handled properly, can be a gorgeous medium, so when deft painters draw out all that shadow material, the result can be magnetic. It pulls you in. It pushes you away.

Look at Peter Opheim’s untitled work. Opheim, who used to be an abstract painter, dreams up figures, crafts them in clay, then paints them with a delicate, fluttering stroke. This one has a blocky white body with five truncated limbs; one hand is just a round pink ball. The brownish, pop-eyed face features prodigious ears and lips like pink sausages. The figure has a childlike appeal; it’s even painted on a baby-blue background. Wildly out of proportion, it’s frightening, yet weirdly earnest.

Several works unnervingly merge figuration and expressive abstraction. Ruby Neri’s “Untitled (Woman With Flowers)’’ is dense, wheeling with patterns and garish hues. Neri builds up her paint to sculptural proportions; this woman’s facial features protrude off the canvas, giving her an aggressive mien. Her hands are like paddles, fending us off.

I loved Michael Hilsman’s “If I had known my robe would come loose, I would have tied it tighter (Fruitman),’’ which takes a page from 16th-century Italian painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who built portraits out of fruits, vegetables, and more. Hilsman’s is a woolly-bearded beast with banana arms, kiwi eyes, and a torso full of eggplants and peppers, some artfully rendered, other scribbled on, suggesting he is only just coming to be.

Summer Wheat’s “Zombies (Meat Puppet)’’ jumps off the canvas. The eyes, dolloped on in a brilliant impasto, stand out an inch or two, like those of B-movie zombies. The colors are bold and pure, kelly green and fire engine red. Portrait painters often refer to the paint as skin. Wheat goes straight for the slippery, rotting flesh — a painter’s paradise.

Serious comedy

Nathan Prouty’s mixed-media ceramic sculptures at Lacoste Gallery are often no larger than a cereal bowl, but each is a nuanced feast of texture, color, and form. That all sounds quite serious (and it is), but the first thing that draws you into one of these pieces is its comedy, which springs from formal juxtapositions — it’s like seeing a pile of worms on a robot’s head, topped with a beret. Or a doughnut.

Look at “The Bammer’s Rakish Angle.’’ A soft, narrow-brimmed fedora shape in cantaloupe orange, topped with a pompom of blue ribbons, fastened with a glittery gold button. “Negley Farson’’ looks like a powder blue Cousin Itt in an orange party hat. In “Doola,’’ a white, red-speckled earthenware hump with a gray tongue sticking out loiters beneath a glossy but nonetheless daunting black cloud.

This artist is exquisitely attendant to detail. His finishes — speckles, marble textures, powdery surfaces — are intense. He crafts a small pedestal for each piece, which adds another formal twist. “Negley Farson’’ stands on a round pedestal topped with yellow, its white sides fanning out; and the orange underneath casts a reflection on the surface it sits on. Prouty’s colors burn gently. He uses long strips of clay that more resemble linguine than ceramics. In fact, these pieces have nothing of clay’s usual earthiness. They look like a toddler’s toys, except that all the massaged details proclaim that they’re far more precious than that.

Interior spaces

Tezh Modarressi’s small-scale paintings on paper at Chase Young Gallery have no people in them, but they are psychologically charged. She paints interiors of homes, often ones that are being sold or renovated, and they ache with absence and longing.

“Things Are Starting to Change’’ features many patterns: a diamond-tiled floor, a hallway cut by diagonal shadows and light, and a standing fan in one corner, its green blades contained in a wire cage. The furniture stands in for human presence. “Hurry Home to You’’ revolves around a plush white sofa in an otherwise empty, dark room. A door opens behind it. In the distance, sunlight pours through a window, but it seems far from the lonely sofa. Modarressi’s showers of sunlight can’t help but recall Vermeer; they’re calming amid the shadows and emptiness of many of her rooms.

In some of her paintings, Modarressi offers a glimpse through a window or door at the world outside. These pieces are less intriguing. The nearly empty rooms, with sun pouring in but no sense otherwise of what’s outside, convey a fascinating labyrinth of interiority. A pretty tree outside frees the viewer from that maze, and makes for a more predictable image.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at


At: Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 26. 617-778-5265,


At: Lacoste Gallery, 25 Main St., Concord, through Feb. 28. 978-369-0278,


At: Chase Young Gallery 450 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 27.