Substance behind the ethereal
Fragile-looking works reach for our senses
Kiki Smith uses her materials to evoke the immaterial in a moving exhibit at Barbara Krakow Gallery. She makes drawings on fragile-seeming Nepalese paper, pasted together in a grid. The larger pieces float off the wall as if a breeze blows through.
Smith has always been concerned with the intangible and with the body. That may sound contradictory; it isn’t. The body is the site for everything we feel and sense but may not be able to express.
The drawings in this show consider the layers of unspoken meaning a body can convey. “Message’’ depicts two women, one with her back to the other, exquisitely rendered. The woman in the rear has lines like clusters of straight pins streaming from her eyes toward the woman in front. There’s a tension between the two; at any moment, it seems, the woman in the front will sense the other’s penetrating gaze and turn around.
In “Wave,’’ a stern woman with delicate features looks intently outward, just past the viewer. She sits with her hands in her lap and blue lines whirl over her. Next to her, a radio on another chair emanates red lines, which I took to be sound. What, then, are the blue lines associated with the figure? Her own static, perhaps. The scene is simple, but charged with the woman’s stare, and her loneliness.
For Smith, the paper itself, with its patches and puckers, is an echo for skin, which she works over with lines and collage. “Here’’ shows a nude woman with her back to us. Blue lines, as in “Wave,’’ do a herky-jerky dance around her head. Stars tattoo her arms and back; round marks made by cupping appear on her skin and along one edge of the drawing, as Smith links the skin to the page, and then, with her stars, right to the constellations.
Her hand-colored etchings mix symbolic and natural elements with pattern and abstraction. “My Girlfriends’’ features an eye-like circle radiating with colors above two arcing lines, each with a four-leaf clover at its base. The piece is cheeky yet mystical, a playful, abstracted goddess image. As always, Smith revels in the body’s pleasures, powers, and vulnerabilities.
Freed by destruction Photographer Bill Burke has as much fun as a boy with a BB gun in “Destrukto,’’ his show at Howard Yezerski Gallery. He also makes wonderfully witty nods to art history. Burke’s freeze-frame photos, culled from videos he made while shooting bullets at beer cans, soup cans, cameras, and more, recall the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Harold “Doc’’ Edgerton’s milk drop exploding on impact. The soup cans, all Campbell’s, nod to Andy Warhol. “Bud Nebula,’’ in which the foam from a pierced beer can splatters in a terrific spiral over the dome of a Weber grill, echoes Jackson Pollock. The gorgeous “Chicken Noodle Soup Triptych,’’ in which a soup can takes flight and a mess of noodles bursts out, marries Pop art with action painting.
The show’s signature image, “Camera Prism in Front of Grid,’’ depicts a camera, white glass exploding from the top and the lens, with the word “Destrukto’’ scrawled joyfully beneath it. There’s something gleeful, almost sexual, about all these explosions — they convey an electric line between life and death. The camera can be read as a self-portrait; its destruction might be a tearing down of a personal and cultural icon. If you are not a photographer, it might be easier to relate to “Monitor Triptych Against Grid,’’ in which a boxy old computer monitor takes the bullet. I love my computer, but I took visceral pleasure in seeing this one explode. It felt liberating.
Sally Michel, revealed Sally Michel, Milton Avery’s wife, painted quietly beside him until his death in 1965, and didn’t show her work for another three decades. Michel died in 2003. Her paintings from the 1950s and 1960s are on view at Childs Gallery. They share much with Avery’s: domestic scenes and landscapes, awkwardly skewed figures, a vibrant palette. The associations are unmistakable. But there are some differences.
Especially in her landscapes, such as the moody “Landscape’’ (1953), Michel immersed herself in subtle shifts of tone, laying in one blue beside another, until they accrue into a vital chorus. Green-blue shrubs shoulder into one another beneath a turquoise canopy of leaves; in the middle, pale brown tree trunks and branches break up the sea of blue.
“Blue Vase, Red Blooms’’ (1963) features similar tonal games: The squat vase sits on a gray-blue table against a blue background; even the leaves of the flowers are blue-green. The wine-red flowers feel shadowy against this ground, but at the very center Michel has placed a paler pink one, opening to us, with its paint scratched over — a wild burst of texture and tone.
Her lines have a blunt energy. They do a comical dance, even when contouring a figure. “Rooster and Hens’’ (circa 1950s) captures Michel’s sly sense of humor; the proud white rooster with his florid tail looks accessorized with a red crown and wattle as the hens peck around before him.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemc firstname.lastname@example.org