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Behind every image

Artist Bas’s dreamy photos suggest memories, emotion

An untitled photograph from José Ramón Bas’s show at Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art. An untitled photograph from José Ramón Bas’s show at Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2010

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In his spare time, Spanish photographer José Ramón Bas makes toys. That won’t surprise visitors to his dreamy, haunting exhibition at the Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art. His photos, shot with a low-end plastic film camera, often depict children. They’re a poetic chronicle of childhood’s immediacy, and its dispossession.

Bas travels to poorer sections of Senegal, Cuba, and Brazil with his toy camera. His images, in both black-and-white and color, are blurred and shot with leaked light. The ones he doesn’t crop are haloed in shadow. They feel intangible, like memories slipping away, but still anchored to intense emotion.

Bas pours resin over them, so each one becomes a thick block, capturing the ephemeral in a solid object. He also writes and draws on the prints. The writing was probably inspired by an earlier project, also on view here, comprising century-old postcards passed down through his family. He suspends them in columns, creating translucent walls and a maze of images. These, too, with their handwritten personal sentiments, feel like vestiges of intense moments lost to time.

Bas’s drawings and writings on his work chart and narrate the images beneath. All the works are untitled. One depicts the water’s edge in an overexposed shimmer; a dark blur of a boy holds a ball at the bottom. Bas has circled him. Other figures lurk behind, but the boy is the protagonist, under a bleached white sky in which the artist has scribbled clouds. The drawing turns a snapshot into something sweetly mythic; this one made me think of “The Little Prince.’’

In another, Bas joins a shot of kids playing foosball on a corner with a close-up of the foosball table, under which he has scribbled a dark shadow. The inky scribble adds an element of animation to the photo. He draws a line between the two prints, and brackets the whole with a drawn landscape — mountains on top, buildings on the bottom, and there, a silhouetted figure. That figure echoes one in the first photo, a shadowy man approaching the unsuspecting kids from around the corner —and with that neat stroke, Bas imbues his dusty idyll with threat. Of course, threat of one kind or another is a constant to poor children. Bas, in these photos, cherishes how they keep on playing anyway.

There’s a delightful and odd little show also worth a look at the Roxbury gallery: Susan Burbidge’s black-and-white images shot in 1973 at the Purity Supreme supermarket in Newton Highlands. Burbidge, who is not a professional photographer, was 18 when she took these. They’re both sad and comical: one image reveals an old woman’s legs from the rear, the seams of her stockings crooked over her sensible shoes. In others, shoppers in rain hats glower. At the time, many of these images might have been considered throwaways — they are blurry and askew. Now, they capture their era.

Some things cheeky “Cadmus, Tooker & French, and Other Magic Realists’’ at Childs Gallery is a romp with a mournful undertone. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker were narrative realist painters when Abstract Expressionism dominated the art world. They made their mark with an almost classical idealization of the figure, painting in egg tempera. Look at Tooker’s “Un Ballo in Maschera’’ (1982), depicting a woman holding a mask away from her face, bathed in the rosy glow of candlelight. Both mask and woman are sad. Two men lurk behind her, one disguised by his cloak. It’s a perfect image, lovingly rendered, and nothing about it seems safe or right.

Cadmus could be cheeky. There’s an etching here of his famous, raucous painting “The Fleet’s In!’’ (1934), a compositional whirligig of reeling drunk sailors in tight uniforms flirting with a host of women and one neatly tailored fellow. The expressive details are extraordinary.

Beefcake is a big topic; Cadmus and French were lovers, and many of these images dote on the male form, such as Cadmus’s “Male Nude (Jon Anderson)’’ (1972), a beautifully foreshortened drawing, looking down over the twisting shoulders and pivoting hips of a walking man. There are black-and-white photos by George Platt Lynes, some of Cadmus, French, and French’s wife, Margaret, cavorting on the beach in Provincetown, in which Lynes displays a choreographer’s eye for the body, and “Nude Torso (Robert L. Schafer)’’ (1954), an unabashedly erotic shot of a man in jeans lounging against a graffiti-scrawled background.

It’s hard to resist, given this context, reading not only a homoerotic element into some of these works, but also the struggle of being gay in mid-20th-century America. French’s 1948 tempera piece “Raw Glass Between’’ shows two male nudes at some distance from each other. The closer one is masked in shadow; the one far away, with his back to us, is bathed in light.

I don’t know whether painter Edward Laning was gay. His painting “The Attic’’ (1951-52) depicts shenanigans in an attic studio, which could be taken as a metaphor for the artist’s imagination. It’s a party, and in the center, a muscular fellow wraps himself around the torso of a classical male statue. Then again, maybe it’s just an artist’s expression of his passion for Greek sculpture.

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

JOSÉ RAMÓN BAS: Once Upon a Time: A Collection of Memories Recovered From Elsewhere SUSAN BURBIDGE: Grocerysak: Purity Supreme, 1973 At: Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art, 2164 Washington St., Roxbury, through Dec. 30. 617-442-8204, www.hamillgallery.com

CADMUS, TOOKER & FRENCH, AND OTHER MAGIC REALISTS At: Childs Gallery, 169 Newbury St., through Dec. 31. 617-266-1108, www.childsgallery.com