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Leaving (most of) it up to chance

Jeff Perrott points his art in new directions

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2010

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For Jeff Perrott, art is an investigation into the of nature of existence. He’s a conceptual artist who has dallied in a variety of media to explore topics such as emptiness and chaos. For his painting show at LaMontagne Gallery, “Random Walks in Endless Fields,’’ Perrott deploys an arbitrary system to direct a line across the canvas — he uses a spinner to point the way. After a fixed length, he spins again and the line moves in a new direction. At each shift, the color changes. The result: Colorful spaghetti tangles squirming over and sometimes off the canvas.

Artists have deployed chance in their aesthetic decisions at least as far back as Marcel Duchamp. It’s a nod, in Buddhist terms, to the potency of what arises in the moment. Perrott is no longer the sole author of the painting; he is collaborating with chance. Some would say he’s embracing chaos theory. Others might suggest he’s dancing with God.

But does it make for good paintings? These loopy, drippy works evoke Abstract Expressionism. There’s a tart irony in that; Abstract Expressionists are legendary for being heroically self-directed. They weren’t rolling dice to determine their next move. The sheer painterliness of Perrott’s lines can’t help but imply gestural intention, and there’s a meaty contradiction in that.

Some of the paintings drew me in; others I whiffed by. I expect that’s because luck directed their composition (at least in part; Perrott must have decided where to begin, when to finish, and what colors to use). “RW 11 (Elemenopia)’’ is a wormy snarl of shifting tones; as the loops build up in the middle, they get so entangled that any sense of space is compromised. I preferred “RW 1 (Crux),’’ in which the lines are brawnier and more fluid, and drips rush from them down the canvas, a reminder of paint’s vagaries — and how chancy painting anything can be, whether directed by a spinner or born entirely from the artist’s head.

Perrott has a concurrent show of the same body of work at Morgan Lehman Gallery in New York. Catalog images suggest that the New York exhibit features one large canvas, “Nothing Doing,’’ in which the loops are so dense they generate their own jazzy energy. They overtake the field, and that’s when the sheer randomness of the enterprise explodes into something visceral and commanding. Of course, it’s impossible to judge merely from a catalog reproduction. I wish that painting had been on view here.

Tone poems
Cig Harvey’s mournful color photos at Robert Klein Gallery are ripe with loneliness and rich with tone. The images date from 2003 to 2010, and it’s easy to see the work deepen. Harvey’s earlier photographs (and some recent ones) are self-portraits, in which we rarely see her face; they’re more about absence than presence. She’s deeply engaged in composition, in the shapes that fill a frame.

The early pieces, such as “The Cut Apple and Gingham Dress, Self-Portrait, Clark’s Island, Maine,’’ are bright, but a little too clever. This one shows us just the artist’s torso in her gingham dress, with a green apple half at her waist. In more recent works, Harvey expands her scope to include friends, family, and the landscape around her Maine farmhouse.

The emphasis evident in the self-portraits on what it is to be a girl or woman is more tender when Harvey aims her camera at others. In “Devlin and the Fireflies,’’ a girl who might be anywhere between 11 and 16 stands in the gloaming, attended by bright fireflies. “Emie in the Truck, Rockport, Maine’’ has a round-faced child peering out the back window of an old red Chevy, bright in a snowstorm. She’s in the driver’s seat, and going nowhere — yet there’s the sense, even in her isolation, that the artist sees her, and cherishes her.

Funny and frightful
Space 242, shut down for the last four months after a break-in in the building, is now up and running again with a new security system. Just in time for Halloween, the low-brow art gallery serves up a kick-and-a-half of a show, “Freeky Fright Nights!’’

It’s often funny and sometimes trite, with more than its share of lurid, standard-issue monsters and skulls, familiar ghouls, and comic-book excesses. The best works in the show (of more than 100 pieces) are all by women. Alex Carlson’s cardboard cutouts, such as “Eli,’’ of squat fellows in hoodies with animal skulls leering from their hoods are deftly made and witty. She also has a harrowing drawing, “The Hunter,’’ exquisitely rendered, of a skull dressed in hunting gear, carrying a rifle.

Eliza Brown’s watercolor “Siblings’’ beautifully conveys the chillingly sallow expressions on the faces of this pair, who seem half-child, half-adult. Amanda Clarke’s cut-paper-and-gouache portraits of girls evince a technical wizardry that her somewhat predictable images don’t quite live up to, but she’s worth keeping an eye on. Shannon Orcutt’s paintings unfortunately hyper-sexualize women the way many comic books do, but her painting “Fear of Children,’’ in which a woman runs terrified from a group of angelic little devils, made me laugh out loud.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

JEFF PERROTT: Random Walks in Endless Fields At: LaMontagne Gallery, 555 East 2nd St., South Boston, through Nov. 20. 617-464-4640, www.lamontagnegallery.com

CIG HARVEY At: Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Nov. 6. 617-267-7997, www.robertkleingallery.com

FREEKY FRIGHT NIGHTS! At: Space 242, 242 East Berkeley St., through Nov. 12. www.space242.com