Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons is disappearing from her art. The Cuban-born, Boston-based installation and performance artist has long made large-scale Polaroids, corollary to her other work, which she shows at Howard Yezerski Gallery. In her last show there, Campos-Pons was still at the center of her images, but she had her eyes closed.
With eyes shut, she went from being protagonist to being a vessel for her viewer's experience of the work. In her new exhibit, we see her in profile or with her back turned toward us, we see just her hand, and finally, just the suggestion of a feminine figure. This retreat makes way for the viewer to fall even more deeply into these exquisite photographic assemblages.
"Elevata," a grid of 16 large-scale color Polaroids, fills the back wall of the gallery. You could drown in the vivid, pulsing blue of the piece: It is photos of paper scribbled over with watercolor and gouache. At the top left, we see the back of Campos-Pons's head, upside down, her black braids reaching and swirling, drawing lines right down to the floor. Blue circles made of pulpy paper bubble the scene.
The whole suggests we're gazing into a limpid pool. The lines the braids trace from frame to frame unify the work. Look carefully, though, and you see images repeat at wildly ranging scales.
The telescoping, the repetition, and the whole versus the strange selection of the parts make for a wonderful tension within the rapture of color and line. The artist's head at the top is no anchor, as it might be, but a trapdoor into this world. The other pieces in the show rely on the tools of ritual -- beads, costume, flowers -- to cue us into unearthly experience, and that works, too. "Elevata" uses the tools of painting, and it's transcendent.
The city from above Photographer Nicholas Nixon is best known for his portraits, but back in the 1970s he took a series of black-and-white images of Boston cityscapes. Recently he has returned to that terrain; he has a show of them up at Bernard Toale Gallery.
Unlike the earlier photos, landscapes marked by a horizon, these images have no sky. Nixon manages to get high above the city in the most unlikely spots and capture the sheer urban density of parkland, skyscraper, and construction site. They're the work of a master: crisp to a fault, alive with nuances of tone and texture, compressing miles of space into a skip of the eye.
"View of the Hyatt Hotel" shows an intricate layering of the grids of buildings downtown, cleanly segueing one to the next, brick to glass to concrete. "View of Park Street and the Massachusetts State House, Boston" leapfrogs from the Common over the State House dome, across the Zakim Bridge, all the way to Chelsea rising in the distance.
The clarity of the photographs plays up the city's density, even if it's a surfeit of trees blooming at the corner of Beacon and Charles streets. "View of State Street Bank" was shot at dusk; the buildings appear lit from within as the soft gray of night falls, and we can see people at their desks, paintings on the walls. Nixon's Boston bristles with life. His city photos are no less fond and humane than his portraits.
Toale compliments Nixon's straight-up photography with Penelope Umbrico's "Honeymoon Suites," a conceptual piece showing up our desire to take photography for reality -- and how that's milked for commercial ends. Umbrico blows up the images she finds in brochures for honeymoon vacations, specifically the scenes out the hotel windows. It's the kind of detail most of us take for granted, but it's loaded with content: the colors are hot, the seascapes serene. Plenty of passion and clear sailing ahead, they seem to say. To which Umbrico replies, don't believe everything you see.
Bird's-eye view Ann Craven has two luscious large-scale paintings of an eastern bluebird up at Mario Diacono at Ars Libri. For Craven, a painter's painter, birds have proved over the years to be an opportunity to explore tone, composition, gesture, and material. For this reason alone they're worth a visit: the delicate brushwork at the breast, the clean lines of the claws.
But there's more at work here than beauty. Craven paints the same bird again and again. She duplicates paintings if she's got more than one show going at once. The element of reproduction conflates Andy Warhol's penchant for mass production, the student's copying a master, even cellular replication. And it all satisfyingly flies in the face of the hallowed ideal of the unique art object, which is so often associated with painting.
Craven copies her birds from photos. She sets them against grounds that refer to nature -- here, they're laced with hollyhocks. In "This way No This way (Aut Aut)" (the title is a reference to the philosopher Kierkegaard), Craven sets mirror images of the same bird against the fuzzy red and green of the hollyhocks, on a vivid pink ground. The pink is a more traditional background for portraiture, but here, it pops off the panel; it deliberately competes with the vitality of the bluebirds.
The two sides of the painting are imperfectly symmetrical; the gestures from one side enter into a dialogue with those from the other. Craven's works have a painterly grace, but almost despite their beauty, they're high voltage.
(Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons: Elevata; At Howard Yezerski Gallery; 14 Newbury St., through Feb. 10; 617-262-0550; www.howardyezerskigallery.com.)
(Nicholas Nixon: New boston Views and Penelope Umbrico: Honeymoon Suites; At Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 14; 617-482-2477; www.bernardtoalegallery.com.)
(Ann Craven: This way No This way (Aut Aut); At Mario Diacono at Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 4; 617-560-1608.)