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Her mysterious sculptures activate viewer's curiosity

Sachiko Akiyama's sculpted wooden people won't meet your eyes. It's not that her figures, on view at the Nielsen Gallery, come across as deferential. Rather, the 31-year-old sculptor has created characters so absorbed in their inner lives that they simply don't engage with the viewer the way we've come to expect in portraiture. She uses the slow, meditative process of carving wood to great effect: revealing how none of us can ever truly be seen and known.

The artist, born in New York of Japanese parents, attributes her characters' reserve to a Japanese sensibility. In her artist's statement, she cites that culture's ''belief in attaining knowledge not through action, but through silence, introspection, and passivity." For the viewer, there's a powerful allure in that passivity -- it's a door we cannot open, and we're hungry to find out what's inside.

Akiyama provides hints in the poses and surroundings she creates for her sculptures. Birds show up in many of them, suggesting untamed alter egos. ''Between Dream and Memory" has the artist standing on a block, clutching a heron to her breast. It's a large, unwieldy bird with bright eyes. Although the woman's face is impassive, the image resounds with emotion: fear, fervor, passion.

''Sisters," a smaller piece, shows two women standing so close they seem to have created a wall against the world with their bodies, as if the two are protecting a tangle of secrets. ''Passage" has a woman sleeping on her side. She's been swept off into her own dreams, and we cannot go along. An owl perches on her hip, part guardian, part avatar of the woman's nocturnal adventures.

We can never know the people Akiyama portrays -- and that makes them more fascinating.

Divine comedy
Comedy and desperation are the theme at the Bromfield Gallery, where two deft figurative painters offer up work that pokes fun at the human condition. Carl Mehrbach studied with Philip Guston at Boston University in the 1970s, and you can see Guston's psychological edge and cartoon style in Mehrbach's work, although the younger painter makes greater use of space and volume. Mehrbach's also got a brighter palette and, although his paintings have teeth (quite literally), the works are not as thematically dark as those of his mentor.

Mehrbach's men and women are wide-eyed, worried, and sad. I prefer the figure drawings and paintings to the still lifes. His paintings are more about feeling than about composition and form, so the still lifes don't have the energy you see in a piece like ''Summertime, and the Living Is Easy." In it, a needle-nosed fellow with an impressive set of pearly whites licks an ice cream cone. Behind him, goldfish swim in and leap out of an aquarium. Mehrbach foreshortens the space, which feels wonderfully askew, and that jumping fish hints that something threatening is on the horizon.

Also taking a hint from her artistic forebears, barbara poole paints herself, clad in a nightgown and frantically vacuuming her way through art history. Her paintings hang around a delightful installation. She has created cutouts of the vacuumer, cleaning out under a bed where names of artists are embroidered on a pillow, and beneath reproductions of Picasso and Pollock.

The more she vacuums, the more shards of civilizations she finds. In one painting, a floor breaks open to reveal the Parthenon and Columbus's ships. In another, she cleans her way through a house full of the seven deadly sins. The suggestion is that no artist will ever be able to start with a clean slate. The hapless domesticity adds to the comic pathos and neatly ties high art to housecleaning -- something high art had nothing to do with for centuries.

Leap of faith
Steve DiBenedetto's painting ''Codex Maximus," up at Mario Diacono at Ars Libri, has an unashamed religiosity that harks to the Renaissance. American intellectual society has long eschewed religion; when a contemporary artist evokes religious imagery, it's often to undermine or question it (think of Andres Serrano's ''Piss Christ"). It's gotten to the point where, to be daring and new, an artist has to embrace such imagery rather than poke holes in it.

DiBenedetto impresses most with his painting style: It's a freehand pointillism that suggests coalescence and dissolution. He uses it to show a figure with a whorl of energy releasing from his chest toward a tornado of imagery on the right. In that tornado, you'll spot a couple of small figures in crucifixion poses and other symbols of wholeness and spirit. In the end, the symbolic content is too pat, but the paint application powerfully conveys the immutability and glory of the human spirit.

Sachiko Akiyama: Between Dream and Memory
At: Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., through May 28. 617-266-4835.

Carl Mehrbach: New Paintings and Drawings barbara poole: Nature Abhors a Vacuum
At: Bromfield Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 28. 617-451-3605.

Steve DiBenedetto: Codex Maximus
At: Mario Diacono at Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., through May 31. 617-560-1608.

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