Flying off the edges of the expected

Jennifer Riley shows her newest leaps in line and color

Above: Jennifer Riley’s “Fire-Fangled Feathers’’ at Carroll and Sons. Top right: Elizabeth Alexander’s “Welder’s Daughter’’ at Bromfield Gallery. Above: Jennifer Riley’s “Fire-Fangled Feathers’’ at Carroll and Sons. Top right: Elizabeth Alexander’s “Welder’s Daughter’’ at Bromfield Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2011

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Jennifer Riley has cut loose. The painter, who lived for a time in Boston and now resides in New York, seems to have a show here every four or five years. In between, her imagery moves forward in great, long leaps. She went from stripe paintings to geometric abstractions that featured fractal-like patterns, all straight edges and angles. Now, in her show at Carroll and Sons, Riley leaves straight lines behind for giddy, tangling loop-de-loops. The previous works were contemplative and smart - and, a Riley constant, pulsing with throat-catching color - but these feel as if she has broken out of a rectilinear box and is dancing with newfound freedom.

These works are no doubt every bit as carefully plotted as the striped and patterned paintings. We get a glimpse into her process with several smaller sketches in pastel. There’s a “Young Galaxy’’ pastel here, and the resulting “Young Galaxy’’ oil. The pastel could be a preschooler’s refrigerator art, ecstatically messy, with drooping fronds of royal blue, green, purple, and red over meandering scribbles in yellow and pink. There’s a surrealist quality of automatic drawing, and it’s loaded with the brawny gestures of abstract expressionism.

In the “Young Galaxy’’ painting, everything snaps into place. The overflowing form remains, but here the droops are galvanized by crisp double lines careening around the canvas. There’s not nearly as much blue, yet there are many shades of it, from powder to navy. The swooping, snarling lines reach toward the edge of the canvas, but don’t quite touch it, and make a barely contained storm. In between them, Riley fills spaces with colors, yummy as a free-for-all at a sorbet stand.

The lines fly off the edges of “Fire-Fangled Feathers,’’ the largest piece at 90 inches by 66 inches. This format allows Riley to play with space. The double lines cross under and over, inevitably suggesting room to tangle. But when she fills in many of the interstices with flat, albeit luscious colors - plum, tangerine, magenta - the space collapses. That tension, plus the sheer audacity of gesture and the breathless movement it engenders, makes for exuberant paintings.

Density and delicacy

“Welder’s Daughter: Safe & Powerless,’’ Elizabeth Alexander’s show at Bromfield Gallery, blends the heft and utility of welders’ tools with a feminine delicacy. Alexander cuts lacy patterns into leather protective gear in “Jacket & Bib.’’ For “Anvil,’’ she mimics the shape of that tool in precisely paned glass, transforming the heavy object into something light and translucent.

In some of these works, the delicacy comes across as protected vulnerability. But in others, such as “Monkey Wrench,’’ a wrench swaddled in lacy cut paper, it may be ladylike, but it’s defiant. “Face Shield’’ features carved and etched ornate designs in a welder’s clear safety mask, topped with precisely cut paper feathering everywhere, making a bold warrior headdress. “Safe & Powerless’’ is not the most accurate description of these works. Subversive and sly - that’s more like it.

Also at Bromfield, Nancy Diessner has put together “Printed Green,’’ an exhibit of art by printmakers who work at the Zea Mays Printmaking studio in Florence, Mass. They all buck traditional printmaking practices, which often employ toxic chemicals and solvents, to use safer, greener products. I can’t say that I see any difference; the tones are no less rich and deep.

It’s also just a good show. Prints often seem less immediate than paintings or photographs, perhaps because printmaking is so laborious and process-oriented. Images can still be strident - the muscular black vortex of Carolyn Webb’s big, untitled woodcut attests to that - but it also holds a sense of history and hard work. Victoria Burge’s intaglio prints “Montana Day’’ and “Montana Night’’ feature the same black mountainous landscape, one under a white sky traced with a network of radiant black lines, the other under a black sky traced with white. For smallish prints, these aptly capture Big Sky Country.

Wondering underwater

The summery show “Aquatic’’ at FP3 Gallery is a refreshing diversion: three photographers working with water. My favorite is William Hamlin, who shoots tiled swimming tools, then cuts and weaves the photos, as in “Pool Step on Right.’’ We see ripples, and the sunlight trampolining off the water surface, and shadows moving over the tiled pool bottom, which has its own geometric pattern. The weaving breaks up yet also reconnects the imagery, which is already a midsummer’s dream.

Also on view, Lora Brody’s pinhole photos of swimmers underwater. Several of them are strategically installed to make a cohesive whole that shows off her abstract mindset: blurry fractions of bodies cutting shapes against an aqua ground. Thom Lussier shoots underwater and prints on chiffon, which drapes and sags nicely in a way that complements his imagery. His “Underneath #4: Flotsam & Jetsam’’ depicts most of a slender woman in a billowing orange-gold skirt, floating in a seated position near the sandy bottom of emerald water. As with Brody’s swimmers, the frame cuts off the figure - we see her body tilting in the water, not her head, and consequently the image is less a story than a coalescence of light and shape, and the otherworldliness of underwater.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

JENNIFER RILEY: A Bettor’s Dream

At: Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through Aug. 27. 617-482-2477,

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Welder’s Daughter: Safe & Powerless PRINTED GREEN: Selections From Zea Mays Printmaking At: Bromfield Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Aug. 27. 617-451-3605,

AQUATIC: Lora Brody, William Hamlin, Thom Lussier

At: FP3 Gallery, 346 Congress St., through Sept. 28.