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Two artists, at the edges of nature

Tory Fair’s monochromatic “In the Floor’’ on display at La Montagne Gallery. Tory Fair’s monochromatic “In the Floor’’ on display at La Montagne Gallery.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2010

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Flowers burst out of the walls at LaMontagne Gallery, where sculptor Tory Fair appears to have taken a saw to the pristine borders of the space’s white cube. Fair’s “Portal’’ is a small porthole that swells with cast resin blooms, subtly sparkling with glitter as if sprinkled with fairy dust. And that’s just the beginning. Fair has cast her own body, nude, poised to peer into what might be holes in the walls and floor, and blossoms swarm out and engulf her.

The installation is charming and creepy. The glitter and profusion of flowers suggests fairies have been at work. “Portal’’ implies verdant growth just beneath the surface, and while everyone likes daisies, when they roost in the floorboards maybe it’s an infestation. The figures riff on Ana Mendieta’s environmental pieces of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Mendieta left an impression of her own body in the earth. Fair’s figures are fully present, but being consumed head first by nature — re-appropriated, if you will.

Most pieces are monochromatic. The bubblegum pink “In the Wall 2’’ has the figure squatting, leaning into the wall. Blossoms erupt and cover her like a lion’s mane. In the sooty “In the Floor’’ she lies on her belly, with black flowers blanketing her head. The latter has an ashes-to-ashes mournfulness about it. Throughout, Fair keeps to the edges; the architectural borders of the gallery become a metaphor for the line between nature and society. A woman’s body crossing that line is not a new idea, but Fair’s fresh, nuanced take on the concept, especially her use of flowers, brings humor into the balance, and begins to break down an old dichotomy.

Vera Iliatova populates her moody paintings, also at LaMontagne, mostly with women, who often stand amid pale trees that drop down like gossamer scarves. In “Star’’ the light shifts from lavender to yellow, and groups of people are almost transparent; it’s as if we’re looking through veils of different realities.

At the center stands a sad young woman holding what might be a head shot; maybe she wants to be a star. She is in the woods, but the lighting and the way people stand around a clearing behind her also suggest she’s at a theatrical event. Iliatova’s washes of color and her use of transparency accentuate the protagonist’s loneliness. She’s also clever with space, evoking distance without losing sight of the relationships among her figures.

Puppet masters
“Extraordinary: Puppetry, Storytelling, & Spirit’’ at the New Art Center is a fantastical delight. Giant papier-mâché puppets from Bread & Puppet Theatre overflow from the small stage just inside the gallery door. Ashley Bryan’s puppets made from detritus he picks up on walks along the beach are smaller but no less magical. Look at the homely yet godlike “Natambu,’’ which takes its name from a West African word meaning “Man of Destiny,’’ a horned beast with a head made of driftwood, draped in remnants from corduroy slacks. He’s majestic.

These figures, along with a terrific assortment of marionettes from Julie Zanes, Donald Saaf, and the Bluebird Theatre, all verge on human but incorporate other attributes. Zanes and Saaf’s “The Man on the Moon’’ has a glossy, pale blue face and a clock in his belly. Tolu Bommalata, Indian shadow puppets also on view made of thinly pounded deer hide, sport many heads and arms. All these puppets represent something human, distilled, and heightened so we can recognize it, and maybe laugh.

“Extraordinary’’ also features several puppet theaters, fastidiously fashioned boxed stages with paper dolls on rods, and Jeff Sias’s impressive “Victor Contained,’’ housed in a vintage RCA television and populated with paper characters, a multidimensional set, a velvet curtain, and lighting elements you can manipulate yourself. The theaters and the puppets demonstrate how easy it for viewers to pour their imaginations into stories and figures. Children still put on puppet shows. In the days before television, puppet theaters were more common. They engage the imagination in ways television never could.

Memories of Boston
Argentine artist Santiago Cucullu spent time in Boston in 1992, working as a messenger and listening to punk music. His installation “Pleathers’’ at Emerson College’s Huret & Spector Gallery touches on that experience. Cucullu’s adhesive vinyl murals explode in bright colors on the wall, shifting nimbly from representation to abstraction. The color and pattern in “Muck and Loose’’ are deliberately detached from the representational content: They’re like a banner of concentric diamonds, breaking up images of a spike-haired fellow and other characters, fists, and a tornado of gestures. It’s busy, aggressive, sharp work that sucks you in.

Along with the vinyl murals, Cucullu’s watercolors are the strongest pieces here. “Leathers’’ shows a spiked collar suspended from a hook against a background vibrant with stripes and dabs of color like shrapnel. In videos such as “War Parrot,’’ which focuses on parrots in a cage, the camera revolves in a jerky, handheld manner that can be nauseating, but I found occasionally entrancing. The videos aren’t as well realized, but like the murals, they’re nervy.

TORY FAIR

VERA ILIATOVA

At: LaMontagne Gallery, 555 East 2nd St., South Boston, through May 8. 617-464-4640, www.lamontagnegallery.com

EXTRAORDINARY: Puppetry, Storytelling, & Spirit At: New Art Center, 61 Washington Park, Newtonville, through May 16. 617-964-3424, www.newartcenter.org

SANTIAGO CUCULLU: Pleathers

At: Huret & Spector Gallery, Emerson College, 10 Boylston Place, through May 18. 617-824-8667, www.tinyurl.com/ye7yu7b