Early works and fine figures
Showcasing a Boston Expressionist
It’s an ominous scene: A city square under a lurid red sky with dark gray clouds. Stray sheets of paper fly through the air. Men in fedoras pull their hat brims down and their collars up. One man is lifted right off his feet by the weather. It’s “The Big Wind,’’ a muscular, apocalyptic painting Anne Lyman Powers made in 1961, on view in “Anne Lyman Powers: Mid-century Expressionist’’ at the Childs Gallery.
Powers, now 88 and still painting, fits squarely with a group of mid 20th-century artists known as the Boston Expressionists, including Karl Zerbe, Jack Levine, and Hyman Bloom. At a time when the art world gloried in abstraction, Boston Expressionists stuck doggedly to representation; they believed only representation could capture the plight of humanity.
This exhibit features mostly early works by Powers, who came of age during World War II with a keen social conscience, and studied with Zerbe at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Several paintings lean heavily into surrealistic allegory, as Powers skewers the folly of ambition and willful debauchery.
In the bleary bacchanalia “The Dancing Bear’’ (1950-1952) partygoers look sozzled and spent as the top-hatted bear toots on his harmonica. The 1948 painting “Nero’’ takes on the same theme, with the lithe emperor squinting at his wine glass and gripping his violin as the sky heats with flames. The stories are a little pat, but the technique is strong.
Sometimes the allegory goes over the top. “The Three Fates’’ (1970) depicts robed, implacable women gesturing operatically, orchestrating destiny. The sky behind them swirls with too many colors. It’s all a little comical. But it hangs in a brilliant pairing with a later work, a second, more subdued “Three Fates’’ (1983), portraying suburban ladies chatting on a patio.
This artist’s great skill is figuration. The encaustic “Three War-Time Farmers With Scythes’’ (1955) brutally portrays the warrior farmers standing back to back as if to defend their land. They are haggard men. The hollow cheeks and strong, bony feet of the one in the middle are artful and heartbreaking. Works such as this, more than the all-too familiar cautionary tale of Nero, spell out the costs of power placed in the wrong hands.
“Proteus Party’’ is interactive: Step on a pedal and Alvin and the Chipmunks pipe through a speaker upon which the seeds lie. The sound makes the seeds shiver and jump. “In the Shadow of the Beloved’’ has seeds huddling in the shadow behind a poppy pod as a pronged clamp threatens from above. “The beloved,’’ Szegedi explained, “is anything that makes you feel safe.’’ Of course, the poppy pod could be destroyed in an instant, and the seeds are not safe. The sculpture, and the exhibitions as a whole, are a sharp inquisition into the power and fragility of assumptions and beliefs.
The photographs enlarge the tiny seeds, and the results are weirdly gorgeous and abstract. In “Motivational Force, Square,’’ several of the veined, bulbous seeds mix with molten metal on a bed of blue Velcro. A green square laid over the image rivets attention at the middle. The square is part of two coding systems that Szegedi uses throughout the exhibit to demarcate and organize the work; they direct the viewer’s experience.
Even without the videos, it’s evident that Szegedi is a deep-thinking and playful artist — and, when it comes to poppy seeds, a benign and loving god.
In this body of work, he takes a photograph of a head in profile, then uses just the outline and repeats it toward a shrinking point. The result is like a fan or a shell; the form undulates along folds originally denoted by brow, nose, mouth, and chin.
Most of these are in black and white. In “4 Heads,’’ individual patterns overlap, with two faces directed upward and two downward. They become so abstracted the humanity is nearly gone; rather, they shimmer like Op Art. In a few color pieces, such as “Multi-Heads’’ — an eye-popping abstraction in green, berry-red, and more under thick Plexiglas that plays optic games with the image — the pattern is so complex as to obliterate any facial reference. The works thrill the retina, but the approach feels gimmicky. Gilbert’s more straightforward photos had more heart.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Boston Expressionist artist Jack Levine.