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The Boston Globe
June 13, 2003

Spikes, bears, and a ball
DeCordova Annual unveils some surprising,
thought provoking, and entertaining works


LINCOLN -- The teddy bear measures 14 by 14 by 14 -- feet. It looks cuddly enough, all pink and fuzzy, but don't get too close. It's made of hand-knit Fiberglas, not a material you want to snuggle up to. The ''Fiberglass Teddy Bear'' is by Providence-based artist Dave Cole, who also does bears in toxic materials including lead.

I wasn't familiar with Cole's work, nor with the work of the majority of the 11 artists in the 2003 edition of the ''DeCordova Annual,'' before seeing the show. That, to me, makes it a success: Discoveries are fun, especially when they're as high quality as these. This is the best I've seen of these yearly takes on regional art, a series started in 1989. The curatorial team who put the show together -- Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, Nick Capasso, George Fifield, and Francine Weiss -- must have had fun, too. The only restriction on the ''Annual'' is that it has to exhibit work by contemporary New England artists. From then on, the curators become kids let loose in a candy store. They can pick any artist, at any career stage, working in any medium. Theoretically they could have a show of 11 women artists working in autobiographical video sculpture, all from the same state. It hasn't happened yet: The curators' tastes vary.

Cole's message is that a symbol of childhood comfort can turn sinister, that the world we inhabit is dangerous. The huge teddy is, then, the opposite of Jeff Koons's gargantuan ''Puppy'' sculptures, benign and intentionally banal.

Cole's teddy is one of the showstoppers in this ''Annual.'' The other is a corridor's worth of wallpaper by Jane Masters, another Providence artist. Her inspiration was a children's TV show she watched while growing up in England, a program she calls ''gently psychedelic.'' The background color of the DeCordova paper is straight from the hallucinogenic '60s -- a screamy chartreuse. The abstract imagery on it looks to be made of delicate wire coils that suggest sea creatures swimming along. On top of the wallpaper Masters has hung little scratchboard drawings with similar motifs. They're in black and white, and the contrast with the wallpaper is like the contrast of the early days of TV with big-screen Technicolor.

There's a related contrast in the work of Boston-based Heather Hobler-Keene. (While the artists in the ''Annual'' aren't chosen because of correspondences in their work, some generally emerge by happy coincidence.) Hobler-Keene makes reliefs on inch-thick board. The colors are vivid; the shapes resemble the parts of a jigsaw puzzle about amoebas. On one wall are rectangles with shapes cut out of them or eating into the edges. They're on the attack, moving in. On two opposite walls, they've been liberated from the square and fly around with exuberant independence, unfettered by geometry.

The lone painter in the show is another Boston artist, Hannah Barrett, but you couldn't call her a painter in any conventional sense. She uses oil over digital montage, but it's her creepy compositions you notice rather than her media. One of many artists currently concerned with genetic engineering and its possibly freaky results, she uses images of her parents, taking them apart and reassembling them so they're hybrids, neither male nor female, set against a ''Leave It to Beaver'' living room that only underscores the notion of sci-fi human experiments.

Boston-based Laura McPhee is part of another art-world trend: photographs of unpopulated ruins, viewed head on, blunt and silent. Hers were shot in India, and in addition to the crumbling plaster, peeling paint, and general decay of once-grand buildings, her imagery includes the window of a sari shop and a meat market that looks as if no health inspector had ever been near it. One of the pleasures of her work is the unexpected incursion of Western culture, which sneaks in here and there.

McPhee's color photographs are crammed with detail that echoes the overcrowding of India -- even if there aren't any people in her pictures. There aren't any in Morgan Cohen's color photographs, either, but his subject is tranquil emptiness. Corners of rooms, subtle in hue and shadow, are completely uncluttered. Cohen's real subject is space itself.

The other five artists work three-dimensionally, although in some cases it would be a stretch to call them ''sculptors.'' Your first reaction to ''Volkswagenball,'' by Lars-Erik Fisk, who is based in Burlington, Vt., is likely to be a laugh. The idea of a car already known for its goofy shape being rolled up into a nonfunctional ball is hilarious. Among other things, it makes windshield wipers come across as batting eyelashes. Underneath, though, is some serious thinking, about the sphere as the perfect shape, and, because the artist didn't have to invent it himself, also as the ultimate ''readymade.''

Concord artist Jennifer Maestre transforms hundreds of sharpened pencil tips into small abstract sculptures in sagging, bulging, soft shapes that belie the material they're made of. They're porcupines in sculpture, with the kind of self-contradiction also found in Cole's teddy.

Working with the rudimentary elements of film, Gloucester artist Bruce Bemis trains two projectors onto a shiny silver garden globe that bounces old footage of underwater swimmers onto the wall. Converging from both sides, they disappear in the middle, as if en route to some mythical underground grotto. This is a haunting, multilevel installation, with the crackling sound of the projectors standing in for the ocean's roar.

John Bisbee, the Brunswick, Maine, artist who has just won the Rappaport Prize awarded annually by the DeCordova, works with 12-inch metal spikes, subverting their original purpose, bending them to suit his. His three-part installation consists of two pieces on the floor and one on the wall that looks eager to jump off and join them. In the wall piece Bisbee transforms the spikes into a grid of tangled brambles that jab their way into space. One floor work is also a grid, this one a calm, orderly series of interlocking diamond shapes. Low to start with, they gradually decrease in height as they make their way across the floor, a surprisingly subtle effect for such a big, bold piece. Bisbee's a latter-day Minimalist who proves that mode still valid -- even fresh.

Were I giving out an award based on this show, it would go to Boston artist Steve Hollinger, whose tiny kinetic sculptures suggest the contents of a Wunderkammern -- a cabinet of rarities. His are in glass boxes, as they would have been in an 18th-century chamber of wonders. An ethereal bat skeleton, a roving eye, a concoction that looks like a wiggly legged jellyfish are among his star creatures.

My favorite is the butterfly mounted atop a cigar box, as incongruous a combination as the varied contents of a Joseph Cornell box sculpture. The butterfly's iridescent wings separate, then come together only to part again, ever undecided, like spouses constantly considering a divorce. While Hollinger's delicate contraptions aren't cutting edge mechanically, they are pure magic.

This story ran on page C13 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.