Remaking history by themselves
Artists try to rattle our staid perspectives
Some artists simply make beautiful things. Others strive to understand beauty within the framework of art history and contemporary art. These more conceptual artists — such as Daniela Rivera, who has a show at LaMontagne Gallery, and Taravat Talepasand, at Steven Zevitas Gallery — make art that is striking in part because it shakes us out of our old and steady ideas.
Rivera’s installation “Growth’’ at LaMontagne Gallery is beautiful and funny, if a bit intellectually laborious. Rivera was a finalist for the 2010 James and Audrey Foster Prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art; her piece in the Foster Prize show comprised a sky painting unfurling down the wall and onto the floor, with elements of a Turkish carpet design splattering across it.
“Growth’’ nods to environmental artist Richard Long’s “A Line Made by Walking,’’ a 1967 conceptual work that entailed the artist “drawing’’ in a field by walking back and forth across it.
Rivera seeks to engage the viewer in space in a similar way, inside the white cube of the gallery. She has created dozens of 2-foot-square realist paintings of grass, and arranged them in a tight grid on the wall. The installation spills onto the floor, where more canvases lie flat, some singly, and some stacked — you can see the dried paint that has dripped down their sides. Pathways are built into the floor grid so you can navigate around the installation. The piece lands the viewer somewhere between scruffy backyard and artsy white cube, and that’s deliciously disconcerting.
There are two other bodies of work in the show, which gallery staff say are part of the “Growth’’ installation, and here is where it becomes strained. “Labored Landscape,’’ a three-channel video, features Rivera pushing a ball of snow up a hill, a too-obvious quote of Long’s work.
The “Accidental Sky’’ series of 5-by-7-inch paintings features sky imagery, which has often shown up in Rivera’s work. Their small scale creates a lovely counterpoint to the sheer volume of the grass paintings. But Rivera has splattered, stained, or affixed stuff to each of these pieces. Maybe she intended the stains to interrupt the illusion of sky, and assert the maker’s presence. But it seems an unnecessary and over-thought gesture in an exhibit that already artfully breaks a lawn into a modernist grid.
Leveling subject, object
“The Corrupt Minority,’’ Talepasand’s exhibit of paintings and drawings at Zevitas, also wrestles with art history — in this case, the objectification of women and of Arabs and Persians that was routinely seen in 19th-century Orientalist art, such as the paintings of Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Representation is always going to objectify, in one way or another. The artist projects beliefs and desires onto the subject. Talepasand, a woman and an Iranian-American, might have, in a different time, been the recipient of those projections. Here, in works that include self-portraits, she conflates subject and object, and asks the viewer to examine his or her own assumptions about “the other.’’
In “Self-Portrait: Sanctioned’’ she uses the tricky, delicate medium of egg tempera to portray a bust of a woman. It’s a classic form, like a Greek or Roman statue, broken at the arms, but here the hands remain to demurely cover the figure’s breasts. The honey-toned skin of the body turns near black on the face, and the woman wears a scarlet headdress of red draping. Unlike in statuary, she has eyes that look straight at the viewer, wary and accusing, as if to say, “I am not your fantasy of beauty; you don’t know who I am.’’
“Why So Worried King?’’ in graphite, pigment, and gold leaf, takes traditional portraiture of powerful men down a peg. It shows a gaunt-faced king in a beaded, feathered headdress and a regal robe. He purses his lips, his eyes widen fearfully. Men in power don’t project this kind of image, but they must feel cowed and frightened sometimes. Riffing through art historical formats as if they were playing cards, Talepasand makes the game more even between those who traditionally have held power and those who have not.
An impulse for action
Gregory Wright’s work falls into a particular genre: biomorphic forms, textured backdrops, scenes that might be taking place at a cellular level or a galactic one. His show at Galatea Fine Art stands out from the biomorphic crowd for a couple of reasons. First, Wright works in encaustic — he paints with pigment and wax — and with layers upon layers of wax he is able to build up three-dimensional forms that stand off his birch panels like bubbles. Encaustic also makes for lush hues.
But what I am most struck by is Wright’s graphic impulse. These works are abstract, but they have the muscle and punch of an action comic. The diptych “Tidal Dance’’ has a crackling green-gold backdrop that looks like layers of algae. Atop that, Wright has built blue, green, and brown vines that rise off the surface, and then added sprays of garish red bubbles. Clusters of purple teardrop shapes scuttle along the edges and out of the frame. Texture, tone, and form are each nuanced and distinct, sometimes comic, always fluid and eye-catching.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.