Boston just gets better and better as a place to see art, thanks to the explosion of galleries in the former warehouse building on Harrison Avenue, where a dozen operations now reside and more art space is being developed. The once downtrodden neighborhood has become a destination. First Friday, the monthly openings those galleries stage, is a hot scene. This can only be good for artists and the art market.
Harrison Avenue galleries often host surprising and cutting-edge exhibits. But if a list of this critic's choices for the 10 best shows of the year can be used as a gauge, Newbury Street still offers the lion's share of substantive and challenging art. Here, in no particular order, are my standout gallery exhibits for 2003.
Good installation art doesn't get into galleries too often, because it's a hard sell, but this year saw two wonderful installations by local artists. Denise Marika's "Bisected: Body Projections" at Howard Yezerski Gallery surrounded the viewer with video projections on steel and fur of the artist dropping and lifting her head. It was trademark Marika: a hypnotic study of struggle, accompanied by a soundtrack of gasps and sighs, elegantly and starkly portrayed. Esther Solondz's "They Left Their Clothes by the Water," an installation of salt-encrusted shoes, clothes, and basins at Gallery NAGA, poignantly and elementally plumbed innocence's loss and the grief it evokes.
Ambreen Butt followed her knockout show of paintings inspired by Persian miniatures at the Worcester Art Museum last spring with an exhibition of new work at Bernard Toale Gallery. Using traditional techniques and painting on layers of translucent paper, Butt relates complex, subtle parables of humanity's ambivalence about power and freedom.
The Boston painter Catherine McCarthy had her first local gallery show in eight years at Yezerski. "We Walk on Jewels" powerfully wove together different styles of storytelling and seeing, using text, Japanese 19th-century-style painting, and lush abstraction to present meaty allegories touched with humor.
Porfirio DiDonna died in 1986 at age 44, but the Nielsen Gallery's survey of his paintings dramatically laid out his evolution from strict formalist to exuberant expressionist. He clearly went from trying to control the paint and his process to surrendering them, and so moved closer to glory.
Legendary minimalist Sol LeWitt offered an entirely different approach to the sublime in his show of gouaches and models for large-scale sculptures at the Barbara Krakow Gallery. LeWitt has worked widely with cubes in the past; recently he's rounded those sharp edges and started designing domes. As ever, he works modularly, building or nesting dome over dome, but the effect is radically different from the imposing monumentality of the cube structures. The domes evoked interior space and prompted reflection; they were receptive and inviting, rather than boldly declarative. Surrounded by the soft colors of his gouache paintings, they made the gallery a contemplative space.
Jacob El Hanani is one of the great draughtsman of our era, as his show at osp gallery demonstrated. El Hanani repeats minuscule gestures -- a line, a loop, a signature -- thousands of times in one drawing to create a subtle, shimmering overall pattern. The increments are as mighty as the whole. Utilizing an ancient Jewish technique called micrography, El Hanani wrestled with contemporary art questions such as the riddle of figure and ground, and visually evoked the passage of time.
Photographer Don Eyles and sculptor A.M. Lilly joined forces at the Fort Point Arts Community Gallery to mount "Unfolding Geometries." Eyles exhibited large-scale black-and-white photographs of construction, presented in grids that accentuated the abstract lines and planes of subject matter. They delightfully complemented Lilly's steel kinetic sculptures, which were also made up of clean lines and planes but moved like a feather in the breeze.
Richard Ehrlich's velvety color photographs of an abandoned diamond-mine community in Namibia, shown at Miller Block Gallery, startled with their beauty. Sand drifted disturbingly through doorways and over floors in these works, which pointedly called to the carpet the trend in contemporary photography to shoot simulacra (see James Casebere's photos of flooded buildings). Ehrlich shoots unmanipulated reality -- freshly, directly, and hauntingly.
Finally, metalsmith Mariko Kusumoto's exhibit of miniature cabinets and curiosity boxes at Mobilia Gallery was rich with magic. A bright treasure turned up behind every door in these boxes, each no bigger than a standard dictionary. The hands-on experience of discovery provided a childlike thrill: This was art you could touch, open, play with. And each work seemed boundless in its display of metallurgical techniques.