Making art, crafting a persona

Photographer follows daughter into her teens

“Eleven (Hydrangeas)’’ by Laura McPhee. “Eleven (Hydrangeas)’’ by Laura McPhee.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2011

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Photographer Laura McPhee’s “River of No Return’’ exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2006 examined the landscape of Idaho’s Sawtooth River Valley. There were luminous scenes of distant mountains and celestial cloudscapes, and a picture of a skinned carcass bloodying the snow. In the midst of it all, McPhee hung portraits of Mattie, a girl negotiating the gulf between ranch tomboy and attractive young woman.

In “Something About Love,’’ McPhee’s new show at Carroll and Sons, she follows her own daughter, Isobel, into her teens, and occasionally shoots other family members. The artist has concocted a visual ambrosia of wild hues, fervid blossoms, and pouty lips. Each piece is collaborative, representing both the artist’s perspective and her subject’s projection, shifting even within one work; each is a montage.

Isobel poses amid flowers and floral tablecloths and shower curtains. The blossoms are an age-old metaphor for youth. The prints, though, speak of artifice - the conjuring that goes into making art, and into crafting a persona, especially when you’re an adolescent.

There’s a languid, self-possessed quality to Isobel’s liquid blue gaze; she knows she is being watched. In works such as “Eleven (Hydrangeas),’’ she engages, eyes closed, then opened, aware of the model’s power. “Ten (Dill)’’ presents a striking contrast. In it, Isobel’s 10-year-old cousin stands amid green stalks and translucent shower curtains. In one frame, she looks out beyond the viewer. In the second, her eyes confront us. She does not flirt or beckon. Where Isobel is in constant give-and-take with the camera (and the viewer), Dill appears to call the shots. The dreamy “Thirteen and Nine’’ is a grid of images shot in a turquoise swimming pool, with flowers floating on the surface. A blue tarp and a patterned tablecloth twist in the water.

In many frames, Isobel reclines against the tarp, eyes closed, draped in blossoms. Isobel’s cousins appear here and there. The bright color and winking light, the flowers, the gravity-free drifting, all add up to a hallucination pulpy with sentiment and possibility. If the works in this show sometimes feel over the top, well, that reflects the inner life of a 13-year-old girl.

Bold strokes John Grillo, a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement in San Francisco in the mid-1940s, is alive and well at 94 and living in Wellfleet. His show at David Hall Fine Art picks up after Grillo left San Francisco and moved to New York to study with Hans Hofmann and sticks mostly to works in a variety of mediums from the 1950s and 1960s. Hofmann taught Grillo his legendary push-pull methodology to create compositional tension, and Grillo’s paintings went from lyrical gestures to structural dynamism.

You see him working both muscles in “Abstract’’ (1953), an explosion of watercolor and gouache on paper. Grillo’s trademark circles from his San Francisco years loop here and there, but there’s greater spatial complexity here, with overlapping forms, and bold strokes and splatters that give the piece terrific, spinning momentum.

“Abstract’’ (1962) shows him at his full power. It’s yellow - he went through a feverish yellow period - with aggressive, broad strokes that push diagonally to the edges of the canvas, layered to create a labyrinth. Still, this is as much about paint as it is about structure. In the center, the strokes narrow, and they are loaded with paint, caked on the canvas. The yellow lightens. Everything intensifies.

A collage, also called “Abstract,’’ from the same year, is a cyclonic composition of yellow, ragged strips of paper, a torn cereal box, a gallery invitation, and at the center, a heaving mass of stained ivory paper. During these years, the threat of atomic annihilation was constant. Grillo appears to be portraying energy itself.

Not everything in the show is so forceful, and some pieces feel mildly derivative, as if Grillo saw a Kline or a Motherwell he liked and strayed from his own vision, which was and continues to be fluid, nuanced, and vigorous.

Gorgeous veneers Ceramicist Judith Motzkin has organized “Smooth & Smoky,’’ a thorough-going exhibit of naked clay at Vessels Gallery. I heard “naked clay’’ and thought, ugh, baked gray pots. But no, ceramicists have all sorts of tricks to create gorgeous veneers without using glazes. Motzkin herself employs salt marsh hay, which combusts as she fires her vessels. Her “Lidded Jar Sunrise Hues’’ is written over with rough, calligraphic lines, made with copper wire left on the clay’s surface. Splashes of lavender, peach, and blue play beneath the lines.

The English ceramicist Jane Perryman brings a minimalist, architectural sensibility to her works. In the lovely “Conversation,’’ a small bowl, white but speckled with dark spots made with coffee grounds, rimmed with black, sits on curved wedge, also dark at one end. Roland Summer coats his vessels with a fine layer of liquid clay, which cracks during firing, creating a smoky crackle pattern over the fleshy curves of a piece such as “Object II.’’

Ceramicists are endlessly experimental, and chemists when it comes to what elements will produce which tones. Without glaze to help them along, there’s more variety in this show than I could have imagined.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

LAURA McPHEE: Something About Love

At: Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 29.


JOHN GRILLO: The Abstract Expressionist Years

At: David Hall Fine Art,

555 Washington St., Wellesley, through Oct. 15. 781-235-0955,

SMOOTH & SMOKY At: Vessels Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 16.


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