Postcards from the edge

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2009
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Long before the Internet, ham radio operators built a buzzing web of communication around the world. Artist Cindy Bernard's grandfather, Bill Adams, got his license to operate a ham radio in 1923 and kept in touch with operators in distant countries until his death in 1999. Each contact was confirmed with a postcard, called a QSL card - QSL is ham lingo for "I hear you." Adams kept the cards, creating a treasure trove of documents that, incidentally, chronicle 20th-century geopolitical history.

More than 100 of these cards are in "Deleted Entities 1925-1996," the centerpiece of "Silent Key," Bernard's poignant exhibit at the Boston Center for the Arts' Mills Gallery. Laid out chronologically and geographically, all the cards come from regions in which the system of government has changed. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and colonized regions in Asia and Africa are represented here.

Bernard has arrayed the cards in a grid, leaving blanks to signify places Adams didn't reach in a given period of time. The result reads rhythmically, visually capturing ham radio's Morse code stutter.

The pictures, symbols, alphabets, and old typescripts tell their own stories. A card from the Soviet Union in 1964 shows Sputnik emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle, hovering over an image of the moon taken by the Soviet interplanetary station in 1959. A 1948 card from Angola (Portuguese West Africa) depicts a white man in a pith helmet pointing a rifle at a leaping tiger. These pictures were often the attempts of individual operators to artfully represent their countries, but through the lens of time they conjure bluster and stereotypes.

"Silent key" is the term used when an operator stops transmitting. For "Portraits," Bernard has blown up some of the grainy passport-style photos that grace a few of the cards and titled them with, among other things, the operator's name and the date he or she died. If the last is unknown, the title reads "Silent Key, Unknown." These put human faces on the communication. In one short, graceful video, Bernard shows us the bungalow at the street address of a New Zealand operator who communicated with Adams in 1934.

The overall effect - right up to a comical cache of erotic postcards Bernard found stashed among Adams's QSL cards - wonderfully evokes the community of individuals who kept in touch across social and political divides, through revolutions and upheavals throughout the 20th century. Interestingly, despite the ease with which the Internet connects people today, ham operators are still going strong.

Line dance
"A line is denial of all inertia and paralysis," reads wall text in "Opening Lines," an exhibit investigating that singular gesture at the New Art Center. The text quotes literary critic Northrop Frye in his book "Fearful Symmetry."

The dynamic show, organized by Susan Goldwitz, is a joy to behold precisely because it keeps moving, as lines often do. Goldwitz has assembled a terrific mix of some of the region's best artists and artistic legends such as Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Rich ard Serra.

LeWitt and Martin set the foundation. Martin's 1973 silkscreen, the pure, meditative "On a Clear Day," features pale gray horizontal lines, like a sheet of composition paper. LeWitt's eight silkscreens "Arcs From Sides or Corners, Grids & Circles (S-11)" (1972) deploy different formulations of those precisely drawn elements coalescing into shimmering patterns; obsessive, almost mechanical technique achieves something transcendent.

The show leaps through a startling variety of materials, from the little plastic ties that make up the cinched tube shape of Tina ManWarren Roche-Kelly's gossamer "Wingspan" to the 12-inch spike nails curled into the daunting thicket of John Bisbee's "Cradle." Michael Beatty's gorgeous sculpture "The Trouble With Painting" has metal elbow joints holding undulating lengths of pale wood; the result looks like logic attempting to contain grace.

Always, though, the exhibit returns to drawing and painting. The gyrating loops in Catherine Carter's "Coil V" work in acrylic and spray paint seem generated from the mist surrounding them, and David Moore's "Ceide Field #27," another deep nest of swirls, in gouache on paper, makes dark tones luminous.

In "Opening Lines" the most basic of themes sets the stage for the most vital of exhibits.

Moving books
The photographer Olivia Parker's mystical confabulations at Robert Klein Gallery begin with old texts: an Ethiopian book of curses, a child's manuscript, and tribal books from Southeast Asia, among others. Working with a digital camera and further manipulating her images in Photoshop, Parker imbues these texts with light; they glimmer.

"Diagram Master's Book" features an accordion-fold book; the inside cover sports a grid of pips and Xs, and we glimpse hints of more grids and glyphs within, at the edges of pages. Where the book opens, light coalesces and seems to seep from the pages.

The photographs will resonate with anyone who has ever been lost in the pages of a good book. There's something alchemical about reading, or making sense of any kind of symbol, and Parker captures that magic.

CINDY BERNARD: SILENT KEY At: Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery, 539 Tremont St., through Feb. 15. 617-426-5000,

OPENING LINES At: New Art Center, 61 Washington Park, Newtonville, through Feb. 22. 617-964-3424,

OLIVIA PARKER At: Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Feb. 21. 617-267-7997,

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