Fear is not something we tend to reflect on. We just act. We don't like to feel it; we do what we can to avoid it. Yet fear drives many of our choices, from the cars we buy to the laws we enact. If we looked at it with a little detachment, we'd learn something about ourselves and our neighbors, and perhaps be more compassionate.
Cuban-born Magda Fernandez turns her gimlet eye on Americans' obsession with security in ''Home Sweet Gated Home," an installation at Allston Skirt Gallery.
Formally, it's a bit dicey -- it feels more like several small pieces than an installation, which ought to transform the gallery space. But Fernandez has packed the work with smart, questioning content, both funny and disturbing.
Fernandez's sister Lourdes recently moved to a gated community in Florida, where the landscape is sculpted to meet residents' needs; houses are built to be individual, but not too individual. Such communities seem designed to fit an equation that calculates degrees of comfort and sameness.
Fernandez invokes patriotic symbols to show how they lend a sense of security, post-Sept. 11 -- but how they can also be a club wielded by fearmongers. Here, a picket fence surrounds a garden of artificial plants; a golden eagle plastered with an American flag rises above the plastic greenery on a pole. Nearby, another eagle clasps a sign reading ''The Smiths" in its talons. The sign has been shot with a pellet gun; the eagle appears to be rescuing it.
The strongest work is on the wall. The artist has manipulated images to suggest tension between security and isolationism, in the neighborhood and in the world.
A silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, called ''immigration 2004," shows the statue in front of a closed house gate. In ''safe from you," lawn gnomes shoulder golf tees like rifles, and stand like sentries at another gate. In another image, ''golf people," pert golf togs suggest a community uniform.
Fernandez uses the gated community to show where fear can take us, but you don't have to live in such a neighborhood to crave security. We all do. We just need to be awake to its its threats. Fernandez rings the alarm.
There's a sweet little group show of abstract paintings in the rear gallery at Allston Skirt. Sharon Kaitz's gesture-laden canvases, streaked and layered in warm tones, are so rich you could bask in them. And Daniel Chen pulls a neat trick with his untitled painted grids. He squeezes acrylic paint onto wax paper and borders it with black tape. One black-and-white grid buzzing with this hands-on style hangs on the wall. For the other, he has peeled off the paper and hung it on a single thumbtack, like a shirt on a hook.
Dotting the eye
Masako Kamiya continues to make paintings that bristle off the surface, and -- as her show at Gallery NAGA indicates -- her color sense is getting both more refined and more daring. The artist creates dots in colored gouache on panel and slowly builds upon each, dot by dot, creating stalks up to a quarter-inch tall. The texture is at once alluring and creepy.
In the past, Kamiya has made canvases that looked like three-dimensional sprays of confetti. Here, each piece has a tone. ''Facade of the Winter" is at first glance white, but a pale green seems to hover over the surface. Look close, and you'll see dabs of green, yellow, and blue. ''Maroon Hours" is a retinal knockout -- nubs of yellow, orange, fuchsia, and purple generate a maroon so stoked it pops off the wall. All the pieces push you back and draw you in.
Like Kamiya, Sam Earle has a labor-intensive formula: He transfers images in hallucinogenic layers onto doors, which he studs with nails. In his show at Gallery NAGA, each door has a theme: stars, eyes, matchbook covers.
Earle has been working for many more years than Kamiya. This work feels more like a retread than growth in a new direction. It has the same pulse, the same carnivalesque colors and sense of oversaturation, that his work has demonstrated for more than a decade -- though here each piece has a different theme, and in past shows he's concentrated on a single theme. It's not the theme that needs to change. It's the format.
Art made with found objects often has an earthy, nostalgic feel. Not Ruth Daniels's pieces in ''Numb," her show at bf Annex. Daniels recycles plastic shopping bags. She cuts them up, places the scrap between sheets of vellum, pushes the plastic through the upper sheet with a pin, and twists. The result is soft and ethereal, like an angel's skirt wafting in mist.
The strongest works feature a single piece of plastic, accentuated with pigmented gel. In others, such as ''Twisted III," Daniels sets smaller shreds of plastic in a grid; they look like a colorless butterfly collection. One series features pigmented gel in a grid; the vellum softens the effect, creating a sense of spacious interiority.
Magda Fernandez: Home Sweet Gated Home
At: Allston Skirt Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through April 30. 617-482-3652; www.allstonskirt.com
Masako Kamiya: New Paintings and Sam Earle: Scrap Paintings
At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through April 23. 617-267-9060; www.gallerynaga.com
Ruth Daniels: Numb
At: bf Annex, 450 Harrison Ave.,through April 30.