Arts Review

Eyes on the prize

Ranking this year’s Foster finalists at the ICA

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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The 2008 James and Audrey Foster Prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art was an almighty yawn. This year, the biennial event, which aims to “showcase’’ and “celebrate’’ neglected Boston-area artists, is much better.

It’s bigger, too, which helps: The 2008 version displayed the work of a mere four artists. This year it’s expanded to nine. Some of the work is so-so, it’s true. But having nine finalists at least allows for some variety and the possibility of encountering work that is not carefully molded around a wall label, which tended to be the case last time around.

This year I liked best a short film by Rebecca Meyers called “night side.’’ Meyers was born, like all but two of the finalists, in the 1970s. She is an interloper from the film world. I wish more of her kind would take to the art scene, since the world of video art (as moving images are called when shown in galleries) could do with the stimulus of a few people who know the medium.

At four minutes long, “night side’’ is really just a sequence of steady takes shot on old-fashioned 16mm film, some held for 10 or 20 seconds, some much briefer.

What we see is nothing special: bare branches swaying in the wind; a view out of a window with an inside lamp oddly doubled by the reflection off the glass; a squirrel alert on a branch, its body haloed by a nimbus of light; and various close-ups of snow and ice.

Some of what we see is harder to read: a pocket of light moving against enveloping darkness; a series of blurry close-ups of an illustration of a peacock. The whole thing hovers between a sense of distant, unapproachable beauty and a kind of aesthetic shoulder shrug — a tacit acknowledgment that, in the end, one thing is as lovely — or not — as any other. There is just enough beauty, in other words, and not too much.

It’s a film that will prepare you for winter — and, if you are feeling susceptible, perhaps even for death. It has just the right level of sobriety, detachment, and longing. Watching it induced in me a kind of trance, the exquisite attentiveness of Meyers’s camera demanding a state of similarly heightened perception from me.

(Note: You’ll have only a few weeks to see “night side.’’ It’s one of three short films Meyers has in the show, but since all three are shot on 16mm film, they cannot be played from the same projector in a loop. So the first film will screen alone for several weeks before being replaced by the second and then the third. Check the website for details.)

Although all the Foster Prize finalists live in Greater Boston, only one — Matthew Rich — was born here. Many of the others have been lured from other states or overseas at least in part by academic opportunities. Unsurprisingly, their works tend to conform to certain academic expectations of art, not always for the better.

Moreover, they tend not to call to mind the streets of Boston, but rather more exotic cultures and locales, from Ming Dynasty China to the Peruvian Amazon, from Wyoming to Ohio.

Those last two places are the settings of some terrific large-scale, black-and-white photographs by Stephen Tourlentes, who was born in Illinois. Tourlentes has spent much of the last decade photographing prisons at night. He doesn’t enter these institutions. Rather, he photographs them from a carefully measured distance — from the vantage point, say, of the suburban streets that abut them, or of the other side of some sand dunes on the edge of a desert. In some cases, the prisons would be invisible off in the distance were it not for their security floodlights, which burn so brightly you can almost hear the megawatts clicking.

Tourlentes’s four photographs — they show three death houses and one state prison — put me strongly in mind of “Summer Nights, Walking,’’ Robert Adams’s brilliant 1982 series of nocturnal photographs of outer suburban landscapes in Colorado. I also thought of O. Winston Link’s evocative, artificially lit nocturnal photographs of steam trains.

But of course, by focusing on prisons, Tourlentes lends a pinch of menace and a certain political charge to these other photographers’ visions. He invites us to reflect on more than just his striking effects of light and suggestive pockets of darkness (one extraordinary image was taken in the midst of a snowstorm). We’re confronted with a stark contrast between the intimate, enfolding familiarity of freedom, and the all but unimaginable fact of enforced confinement, culminating in state-sponsored death. Tourlentes’s haunting images can make the line that separates these two states seem vast. But in other moods, it can seem remarkably thin.

What’s inherently silly about art prizes is also, of course, what makes them entertaining. Rather than point out the obvious absurdity of turning art into a competitive sport, I like to get in the spirit of things. So I walk around ruthlessly ranking the finalists (I’m a critic — what do you expect?).

If Meyers is my number one, I put Tourlentes in a tie for second place with Fred H. C. Liang, who left China when he was 12 and came to the United States via Canada. Liang combines Eastern and Western idioms to eye-catching effect. His work here includes a decorative, free-form version of traditional Chinese paper cutouts that combine elaborately detailed drawing with screen printing. Resembling a rococo or Song Dynasty interpretation of a world map, the thing sprawls across two walls and onto the floor, where the patterns, which include the glimpsed forms of Chinese zodiac animals, are imposed on a reflective surface.

Titled “Dream of a Thousand Springs,’’ it’s seductive without quite transcending its own prettiness. Better is Liang’s “Untitled (Nushu),’’ a paper accordion book on a plywood plinth that stretches up 10 feet toward the ceiling. Cut into each page are Chinese symbols based on “nu shu,’’ a recently rediscovered secret language invented and used by women in southern China. The form of the piece is deeply satisfying, and the sense of buried secrets rising and expanding into open air charmingly poetic.

Matthew Rich paints on paper that has been cut into geometric shapes and taped together again. He’s a terrific artist, but I can’t rank him higher than fourth because two of his three works here are entirely forgettable.

The third — called “Spiral’’ — is a knockout. A kind of funky hexagon made up of yellow, green, brown, and orange shapes, it rides the wall with cheerful insouciance. Rich’s paintings could easily come off as severe and hard-edged riffs on the mid-career work of Frank Stella. But his aesthetic feels more personal. It marries geometry and color with an improvisatory impulse that embraces accidents, asymmetry, and a degree of messiness. But sometimes, this appealingly laconic side comes across as lackadaisical, and that’s the case with his two other works, “Triangle’’ and “Intersection.’’

Five to go and I’m running out of space. Evelyn Rydz’s fastidious drawings in graphite and colored pencil on doubled sheets of Dura-Lar are technically excellent, but oddly kitsch. She draws refuse washed up on the beach, adding color to the trash while keeping the surrounding natural environment a washed-out gray. The more ambiguous of these — “Blue Foam With Barnacles,’’ for instance — are the best. Whenever Rydz makes her subjects too obvious, something is lost. We’re left with nothing to wonder about, only details at which to marvel.

Robert de Saint Phalle has two enigmatic sculptures on display. “Double Handling’’ combines a modified ICA gallery bench with a large pane of glass pitched at a precarious angle, coated in reflective material, and punctured with a jagged hole. “Dress Rehearsal’’ combines steel poles with cloth. Both pieces have something wild and unnerving about them. But the ethereally draped cloth that features in both is imprinted with a still from a film made by de Saint Phalle’s cousin, Niki de Saint Phalle, who was a pioneering feminist artist in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

The gesture grates: It may be intended as an homage, but it comes across as nepotism, and adds nothing of value to the work.

Daniela Rivera’s “Accidental Memling Gul (or Oriental Rug)’’ involves a dazzling display of trompe l’oeil painting, but it’s a classic example of academic art: overwrought in both form and concept, dutifully pressing all the right buttons, not actually increasing anyone’s insight into anything.

With his large-scale color photographs of the Peruvian jungle, Eirik Johnson tries to tart up unremarkable imagery with presentational gimmicks: an accompanying audio (jungle sounds) and a timed lighting system allowing us to see only one of the three photos at a time. The photographs are fine, but no more.

Amie Siegel’s 20-minute film, “Black Moon,’’ is one of the more intriguing entries in the competition. Set in a dystopian future, of which present-day California does a sterling imitation, it’s a remake, of sorts, of Louis Malle’s 1975 film of the same title. It combines long tracking shots of suburban exteriors with footage of a gang of glamorous women in military fatigues carrying assault rifles, scoping out abandoned buildings, running through eucalyptus forests, and sleeping in empty swimming pools.

All of this is captivating, to be sure. But it descends into bathos when one of these amazons picks up a fashion magazine lying in the desert and, leafing through it, finds a photo shoot showing her and her buddies in scenes from the recent past, then the very recent past, and then the near future when — guess what? — they’re all dead.

An appropriately postmodern response to this existential whirlpool might be to flash forward to the Foster Prize award announcement, at which the assembled throng is soberly informed that “Black Moon’’ would have won had Siegel not left Boston to move to California, thereby disqualifying herself. But at some point the silliness has to stop.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At: Institute of Contemporary Art.