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Exhibition encourages artists to alter one another's work

We assume that art is inviolate: The artist has created an original piece that should not be touched or altered. Yet as curator Mary Sherman points out with "What If?," an exhibition that aims to tamper, works of art are not pure and sanctified. They change according to how they're presented, who presents them, and who sees them. Their original relationship may be with the artist, as a child relates to a parent, but other influences shape them as well.

Sherman breaks the powerful unwritten rule that says "Don't touch the art," and simply stepping across that line makes this show shocking and fun. Six artists paired off, and halfway through the show each changed his or her partner's work.

The alterations sometimes feel like violations of the original artist's intent; sometimes they further explore it. The show, ultimately, is more about the idea than the art itself. Signing on, the artists resigned their vaunted roles as creators. On Monday, they will take suggestions that viewers have dropped in a box and will revisit their work. It must be a humbling experience for them, but maybe it's also exciting.

Installation artists Kelly Kaczynski and Larimer Richards interfered the most with each other's pieces. Richards's consideration of landscape and the American highway included a video of a road leading to mountains; a beveled plank near the floor echoed both the stretch of road and the shape of the peaks. Landscape photos hung on the wall above keys; the shape of the keys, like the plank, mimicked that of the land.

Kaczynski packed up the photos and keys in storage boxes and installed doorknobs where the keys were. She raised the plank onto a chair and crashed it into the wall; a mirror at its end suggests endless highway. An old carpet on the floor looks like a road map. It doesn't all come together; the keys were identified as car keys, not door keys. Kaczynski and Richards appear to be involved in a game of telephone, and the message that she has taken from him to us has gotten slightly garbled, but it makes its own weird kind of sense. Richards takes Kaczynski's ice-cave-like sculpture into a dark room and lights it from within, making it more epic and spooky.

Sherman, herself a painter, makes the most effective alteration when she teams up with Urban Ramstedt, who set his paintings on glass in a grid, beside a glass box into which he placed colored twine. Sherman took the twine and drew a bigger grid on the wall; the result is what might happen if a teacher were to urge a student to take his installation a step further. It feels deeper and more satisfying.

Other changes are hokey or satiric embellishments. Ramstedt added two pairs of dancing shoes to Sherman's "At Heart, Spike Jones," painted blocks on metal rods with spinning disks and musical accompaniment. James Tellin took Peter Lindenmuth's modernist, modular furniture piece "Fancy Party Chair for a Vain but Beautiful Young Woman," draped it in camouflage, and called it "Man's Chair." Lindenmuth strung ribbony lengths of pink construction paper between Tellin's brightly tinted plywood units on wheels.

Curators and gallerists show art because it has a level of visual and conceptual sophistication and stands on its own. To meddle with it risks muddying the clarity of its effect. And that happens here more often than not. Yet the show has the spontaneity and the spirit of collaboration of a good improvisational group; it takes the static timelessness out of visual art and deposits it into the present moment, prone to change. As we all are.

Boyajian's broad horizons Gail Boyajian casts out her net and collects images from nature, art history, architectural history, and her own life in her allegorical paintings at Judy Ann Goldman Fine Art. Most of these beautifully rendered landscapes have a post-Sept. 11 feel, as life goes on despite the tumbling of society -- as in "Back Bay in Ruins," where the bow-fronts topple and the gardens run rampant but there's still a long, white-clothed table in the middle of the chaos, where people gather. Culture continues, despite apocalypse.

"Reflections on a Reservoir" is not so threatening. It depicts Fresh Pond, where dogs -- excerpted from Rubens and Carpaccio -- frolic; a small reprise of "The Rape of Europa" emerges from the water near the Loch Ness monster; a quote of a Gorky self-portrait wanders the water's edge; and Boston painter Gerry Bergstein, Boyajian's husband, watches, bemused. This is an idyll, an urban fancy, as thick with history as it is with wildlife.

Birds perch and flutter in the foregrounds of all of Boyajian's paintings; in her artist's statement she calls them "a holdover from prehistory." Birds witness; they can also be a symbol for the human spirit. There's joy in Boyajian's work, but also folly and threat. The birds abide.

It's all about beauty Joseph Piccillo's paintings and drawings at Chase Gallery continue his pursuit of perfect beauty in animals and humans. It's not a sophisticated concept, but it doesn't need to be, and Piccillo's technical expertise makes these works enchanting. He paints and draws massive horses, ballerinas, and divers. The last are a new theme; tinted orange, they hurtle through black space, icons of fleshly beauty and motion.

Larger works, in which Piccillo puts more than one figure on a canvas and adds diagrammatic lines and little passages of color, offer nothing new or original.

He should stick to his simple, bold depictions of one subject and not clutter up his work with ideas when it's really just about beauty.

("What If?"; At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St.. through Nov. 30. 617-426-8835.)

("Gail Boyajian: Allegory of the Air Quality"; At Judy Ann Goldman Fine Art, 14 Newbury St., through Nov. 29; 617-424-8468.;

("Joseph Piccillo: New Paintings and Drawings; At Chase Gallery, 129 Newbury St., through Nov. 29; 617-859-7222;

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