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Messages from the natural world

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2009

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For the South African printmaker Kim Berman, landscape is a metaphor for homeland. She has portrayed the high plains around Johannesburg, her hometown, as the ground for conflict and resolution for nearly 30 years. Her landscapes have addressed apartheid and its end, the advent of democracy, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Dislocated Landscapes,’’ Berman’s latest body of work, is a gorgeous and smoldering series of prints focusing on riots that erupted in Johannesburg in May 2008. Over several weeks, the violence - aimed at Africans who had immigrated to South Africa from other countries - spread to other cities. Scores of people were killed. In Johannesburg, migrants were moved to refugee camps on the outskirts of the city.

“Dislocated Landscapes #1,’’ an etching with monoprint, sets the tents beside a trench lined with a barbed wire fence. Berman magnificently layers tone to create moody passages; the trench is black, glinting earth, a maw opening in the ground, perhaps a chute to hell. The sky looks smudged with soot, yet just along the horizon, there’s a sliver of peachy light, a suggestion of hope.

Berman pairs that tent-city landscape with one of South African orchards devastated by fires in June 2008. Farmers attempted to save ravaged trees by blunting their limbs and painting them white, to protect the naked wood where bark had burned off. In the monotype “Alien Orchard II,’’ those trees flail like pinned ghosts against the brown-gray ground, which Berman has made brittle with scratches.

The metaphor is clear: The earth has been scorched. Smoke still rises from the embers, in the orchards and the refugee camps. But there’s the suggestion that something can be salvaged, and that after devastation, a new crop may grow.

Under a spell
There’s something disturbing about Robert Amesbury’s gouache drawings in his show “Under Glass’’ at Carroll and Sons. He brings a modern aesthetic to the Victorian preoccupation with collections. He writes in an essay in the exhibition brochure that after Queen Victoria agreed to use chloroform during childbirth, butterfly collectors employed it to suffocate their prey. The age that produced Darwin also produced a slew of amateur naturalists. Aquariums became the rage. Small worlds were captured under glass in “an unbroken spell,’’ Amesbury writes.

In his neon-bright, crisp, and often wildly detailed works, Amesbury examines the spirit of that spell. He plays with scale. He traps butterflies and sea creatures under glass. In “Cricket Cage,’’ two glowing pink-and-purple insects perch on the outside of a wooden cage that houses a brown cricket. Either the cage is tiny or the cricket and his luminous visitors are enormous.

“Double Doyle’’ has a couple of beetles perched on an open book, in which the illustration portrays a fairy being towed through the air by several butterflies. The larger beetle is as big as the book itself. Another volume below appears to be a work by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Amesbury is technically terrific; his gouache drawings are vibrant eye candy - the more layered with detail, the more dazzling. One large piece, “The Blue Butterfly’’ is such a dense thicket of flowers, it threatens to overwhelm, and that’s exactly what Amesbury needs to do more often: create an undertone of threat. His ideas here intrigue, but their execution is too fey and sweet. That modern aesthetic he employs? It’s Walt Disney’s. Give the cricket in “Cricket Cage’’ a top hat, and he’s Jiminy Cricket; the bugs around him twinkle like Tinkerbell.

Cuba connection
The Boston Printmakers and Laconia Gallery have teamed up to mount the impressive exhibition “Making Connections: Contemporary Cuban Printmakers,’’ featuring work by 93 artists. The works in this show are in many ways typically Cuban, grappling with life on the island and disconnection in ways that are steeped in surreal imagery.

Look at Aliosky Garcia’s “El Profeto (The Prophet),’’ in which a man’s head is a thatch-roofed hut, with a tongue sticking out the front door. It’s a bold, black-and-white woodcut, at once homey and nightmarish. In Sandra Ramos’s etching “La maldita circunstacia del agua por todas partes (The Damned Circumstance of Water Everywhere),’’ the contours of Cuba become those of a woman in a green translucent dress, her body pinned down by red royal palms, which are the national tree of Cuba.

Ibrahim Miranda also works with the map of Cuba, screen-printing directly on it in “Untitled (Havana).’’ In black, a songbird flies away from a crown of thorns; in red, a monstrous serpent coils; text on its head reads “Habana.’’ The message is that of courage, sacrifice, and threat, all conjured from the Cuban cartography below.

Dania Fleites Díaz’s elegantly drawn, deeply surrealist “El Islote de Circe (The Island of Circe),’’ made with drypoint on Plexiglas, shows a pair of cat’s eye glasses formed from cracked driftwood. One eye has been shrouded with a spider’s web; the other has a hinged door, and what looks like a circular saw. The wooden glasses sit on an island in a dark sea. It’s a fascinating picture of decay and wisdom, of insight and also blindness. That may address life in Cuba, but it also captures the human condition.

KIM BERMAN: Dislocated Landscapes

President’s Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Nov. 13. 617-879-7333, www.massart.edu

ROBERT AMESBURY: Under Glass

Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 28. 617-482-2477, www.carrollandsons.net

MAKING CONNECTIONS: Contemporary Cuban Printmakers

At: Laconia Gallery, 433 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 22. www.bostonprintmakers.org

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