Visual litanies, some linked, some not

Exhibit examines how artists use their collections

At Boston Sculptors Gallery, Hannah Verlin’s “All Eyes Upon Us.’’ At Boston Sculptors Gallery, Hannah Verlin’s “All Eyes Upon Us.’’
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2011

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“Bits + Pieces,’’ a fascinating if uneven exhibit at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery, examines the importance of collections in the lives of artists. The show, organized by curator Rebecca Rose Greene, raises many questions: How does a collection inform art-making? What does a collection tell us about the collector? And what constitutes a collection, anyway?

Jane Blood’s piece, “[Expletive] Tooth’’ prompts that last one. Blood, we’re told in the show’s brochure, was a hoarder. As her home was taken over by stuff, and as her health declined, she couldn’t leave her bedroom. This installation comprises hundreds of notes she wrote to herself, leafleting most of a wall. It’s alarming to take it all in. The references to missing teeth are in the dozens; indeed, the notes themselves begin to feel like stand-ins for her missing teeth.

But to call this an artwork by Jane Blood seems misleading. Did she intend to accumulate these notes and make an art installation with them? Did she recognize what they conveyed about the human condition, through her own agonies? Would she even have seen the notes as meriting the label “collection’’? More likely, someone else saw the notes and ascribed greater meaning to them, so although Blood is the author, she is not the artist. The artist is unnamed.

It takes intention to make a work of art. Billy Mavreas, whose pieces also depend on the accrual of stuff, brings an artist’s eye to the way he presents it. “Jars’’ is mounted on the wall, each jar filled with something different: avocado seeds, balls, corks, and more. They convey accumulation, even an underlying mania (who collects moldy avocado seeds?). But Mavreas sorts them so we can read links from one to the next, and so apply meaning. His visual litany of junk becomes a kind of poetry.

Isaac White’s untitled installation of scores of his own paintings, drawings, and sculptures has a wonderful cumulative effect. His gestures, seen in many paintings of nudes, are brash and choppy, his tones seething, and here they reverberate from one work to the next to create a space alive with his own visual syntax. Nancy Davies refers to age-old practices of gathering hair from dead loved ones, in works made with her own hair — which she collects. In “Between HOME and ELSEWHERE,’’ Davies suspends bowl-shaped, hairy nests from the ceiling. They are sweetly ephemeral, romantic yet macabre.

“All My Dresses,’’ Dana Sherwood’s installation of her collection of antique dresses, is almost a stage set: There’s a sewing machine, and suitcases, a wardrobe, and garments stacked and hanging everywhere. Yet it seems empty without an actor. Sherwood nominally supplies one on the opposite wall in a digital slide show, “Inventory,’’ in which a woman takes the same arch pose in several dresses. But these dresses need a live model.

In another stage-set-like installation, Lissa Rivera creates the office of a fictional, turn-of-the-century sex researcher in “Incantations of a Doll Collector.’’ The set is a mere backdrop for Rivera’s powerfully disturbing collection of videos culled from the Internet of people who like to dress up as dolls. One shows a woman in a swirly blue-and-white skirt with her hands tied behind her back and a noose around her neck. Yikes. Rivera’s material is so charged, it’s hard to integrate it into an art installation. She would have done better to choose one video and dissect it, rather than overpower her audience with many.

Collections are great resources for artists, as “Bits + Pieces’’ demonstrates. It takes great craft and imagination to effectively package them into works of art, and only some of these artists do that successfully.

Using traces of history Collecting and accretion play into shows by Hannah Verlin and Jessica Straus at Boston Sculptors Gallery. Verlin collects traces of history. Her works involved repetitive action, which accumulate into thoughtful, ephemeral sculptures. For “Communion,’’ she impressed the names from graves at the Old Burying Ground in Harvard Square on scores of tiny pieces of edible paper. “Please Eat,’’ reads the label, and so I took the wee memorial to Ruth Dickson, whose dates were unclear, and ate it like a communion wafer.

Verlin loops through history, making palpable yet ethereal ties between the living and the dead. “All Eyes Upon Us’’ features tiny paper boats on the floor, tethered to the ceiling. There’s text on the paper, white on white, impossible to read, but the title list alerts us that it’s from John Winthrop’s 1630 book “A Model of Christian Charity,’’ along with names and dates of 270 shipwrecks off New England. The text in all Verlin’s work reads like chanting or prayer, calling us to remember the dead, and to recall our own mortality.

Straus utilizes old bottles dug up along Boston waterways, and forgotten in a basement before she came by them. Green-blue and cloudy, they already carry history. Straus fills them with carved wood and mounts them in wooden frames. “Wish’’ features a bottle expelling a snake-like form, which coils around the glass, threatening to squeeze, and “Pour’’ sports an arc of blue wooden balls dribbling from one bottle to another. Unfortunately, many of Straus’s wooden frames are simply contraptions, rather than contributors to the art’s metaphors.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at


At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through June 26. 617-426-8835,

HANNAH VERLIN: Knowing Not Knowing


At: Boston Sculptors Gallery, 486 Harrison Ave., through June 26. 617-482-7781,