Shock and raw
Video installation bears witness to violence and loss
The video installation artist Denise Marika’s gorgeous new piece “Effaced 1,’’ at Howard Yezerski Gallery, is hypnotic yet jarring. Marika repeats gestures, which makes them ritualistic and opens them to deeper meaning. There’s a suggestion of violence and frantic loss underlying certain passages in the nearly 20-minute work, yet the ritualistic quality and the sheer beauty transform what might be disturbing into a work that is both elegiac and mystical.
Marika, a Boston-area artist who exhibits internationally, has shifted her focus in recent years. There’s always been an element of violence and physical endurance in her videos; as the central performer in earlier pieces, she has used her body as a metaphor for human suffering and fortitude. Lately, her installations have questioned how individuals respond to violence and prodded viewers to be witnesses to loss, rather than passive consumers of her imagery.
Often it is audio that drives “Effaced 1,’’ which features four distinct segments. In the first, we look down into a metal bucket as clothes are dunked and dyed. The water is inky blue. The clothes slosh. The water splashes and reflects light; when it’s spilled on the ground, the puddle mirrors the blue sky.
In the next scene, water laps in a shallow pool along the shore. Gleams of light ripple over it and coalesce into text, barely legible. I made out “people fled.’’ Then we see a body, wrapped in an orange shroud, being roughly kicked along the sand and into the water; we have moved from dunking clothes to drowning someone. From there, we’re in the desert. We hear the thump and rush of footsteps in the sand; they seem to moan. The visual is grainy, speeding about, what someone barely conscious might perceive.
In the final passage, several people scramble and search in a thicket. They’re dressed in white, and they move in slow motion. Sprays of colored powder explode and splatter over their clothes. They look like a single organism, clutching at the soil, digging and scratching for something they never find. Alternately lulling and shocking, “Effaced 1’’ effectively draws urgency out into the eerie stasis it takes on following a trauma.
There’s a second Marika video, “Conversations,’’ made in collaboration with composer John Holland, in Yezerki’s back room. Shot in Cambodia, “Conversations’’ intersperses vintage black-and-white footage from the Khmer Rouge era with images of planting rice and more abstracted visuals. Holland layers throat singing, animal sounds, opera, and patients who have damaged throats speaking through voice boxes. Marika’s visuals and Holland’s soundtrack are both so lush that unless there’s real synchrony, the video and the audio here feel more in competition than in concert.
Back to black Richard Serra, best known for his giant, minimalist public art projects made from sheet metal, plunges into some of the issues his sculptures raise in prints at Barbara Krakow Gallery. The show revolves around a series from the 1980s, in which Serra applied three layers of oil stick through a silkscreen stencil, layering black over black. The result, in a piece such as “Patience,’’ a vertical rectangle with a gently sloping top, is so textured, pebbly, and streaked — and so densely black, that it suggests a monolith, even though it’s only human-size, at 62 inches tall.
The 1996 etching “For Joni,’’ a blotted black box splattering ink within and without, is made with a deeply etched plate, which creates a similarly imposing texture. Again, the black form carries all the weight; the inkblots merely suggest that the box has such mass it’s dropping, and shedding fragments as it goes. With works such as this, the black’s density and the apprehension of touch dominate. Which raises a delicious question: Can a print, flat as it is, ever be a sculpture?
Head to head Mags Harries, another public artist, has the witty exhibit “In Dialogue,’’ featuring a variety of chair sculptures, at Boston Sculptors Gallery, as well as models for public art proposals. Chairs suggest people; two or more imply relationships. “Tête-à-Tête’’ features two ridiculously high chairs, each with a light clamped on the back. An apple suspended between the two rises and falls, the fruit of a collaborative conversation.
“Utterings’’ is a suite of six chairs in a circle. The first is missing an arm; each after that is less and less a chair, until the final one is nothing but four little knobby disks on the floor. This strikes me as a comic metaphor for a meeting, in which a plan is either built or torn to pieces, and in which some contributors are vocal, and others say very little.
Also at Boston Sculptors, Joseph Wheelwright has what begins to feel like the usual assortment of works: faces and figures wrought from stone, wood, bronze, and more. Some are astonishing in the character they convey, but they’re not new. That can’t be said of “Arcimboldo Head,’’ a mighty piece after the 16th-century Italian painter known for constructing portraits from images of fruits, flowers, and more. Wheelwright crafts his from scores of shells, stones, bone, and coral. It’s a feat of workmanship.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.