back / home


The Boston Phoenix
June 12, 2003

Heavenly creatures
The DeCordova’s must-see 2003 Exhibition


The 2003 DeCordova Annual Exhibition
At the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park,
51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through August 31.

I carried the catalogue of the DeCordova’s 2003 Annual Exhibition around with me for days without looking at it in an effort to honor my rule that a first impression of a work of art should not come through a reproduction. It was tough. The museum’s annual group show, now in its 14th year, has established itself as one of the premier exhibits to introduce the most accomplished New England artists to a wider audience.

Ultimately I did succumb to reading the catalogue’s cover, which lists the names of this year’s participants, and I was impressed. I recognized a half-dozen as some of the most talented visual artists in the Northeast; the others, as it happens, are just as good. This year’s Annual qualifies as a must-see.

The first works visible along a relatively narrow corridor on the second floor at the DeCordova are Morgan Cohen’s sedate, colorful, sexy, and borderline-abstract photographic C prints of ceiling corners, ironing-board covers, drains, and pipes. Cohen is a maximal minimalist: he zeroes in on what most of us regard as the most lifeless parts of our domiciles and discovers grandeur. His frames feel like Henry Higgins presenting Eliza Dolittle in the ball scene of My Fair Lady; they have a kind of aristocratic humility.

I’d seen Cohen’s work before in a solo show at Gallery Naga last year, and I was impressed then by both his technique and his compositional acuity. Not many people can make those recesses where spiders and cobwebs dwell feel libidinous. At the same time, I was a little on guard, afraid that for all their gentle appeal, his spacy, washed-out, triangulated images might become predictable or antiseptic or both.

Silly me. Cohen’s most recent work — nearly half of his 22 pieces on display at the DeCordova date from this year — explores new directions and demonstrates his sharp eye, contemplative attitude, and artistic integrity. He uses light in such a way that, no matter what surface he’s shooting (metal, paint, or porcelain), it suggests human skin. In his more recent imagery, he has broadened his range of color and texture. In one particularly noteworthy frame, Ironing Board, he allows for an almost palpable texture and an asymmetrical pattern of lines.

Also on the second floor, a room is given over to the nine diminutive, kinetic sculptures by Steve Hollinger and a small set of 3-D objects, also by Hollinger, that don’t move. The first items you see on entering the space are Leaf Boxes, a set of meticulously crafted, business-card-size lidless boxes made out of the dried, pressed leaves of deciduous trees. Some stand on the stilts of the leaves’ stems; others rest flat on their leaf bases. All enchant. Looking at them reminded me of the time when, hiking through a field of tall grass in upstate New York, I almost stumbled upon a newly born fawn. Articulate, refined, and vulnerable (a breath could blow them away), the Leaf Boxes serve as an apt introduction to Hollinger’s kinetic pieces. The artist imposes stasis on them in a way that complements the imposition of movement on his other works.

In Bat, Hollinger has positioned the white, gossamer skeleton of a small bat — its wings resemble the veins in a leaf, thin as thread — in a clear aqueous solution. The bat is connected by nearly invisible filaments to a small pole floating at the top of the tank, like the beam connecting a marionette’s strings to its operator. When you press the foot pedal at the base of the stand on which Bat rests, a light goes on behind it, heating tiny solar panels that you can’t see. Slowly, the creature’s wings begin to undulate as the bat rises to the upper portion of its aquarium. It’s magical, in the way that a Victorian music box appears magical — its crude sophistication makes it seem simultaneously antique and futuristic.

Hollinger’s other works include Sentinel, in which an eye rotates in a peephole, Fiddler, in which a miniature man mimics playing an instrument, and Butterfly, a piece that looks like something Arthur Ganson might have made, in which the insect’s wings are set in flight-like motion. His most fully realized creation, however, is Jellyfish. It’s made of wires and glass and God knows what else, and its solar panels make it react to light, so that the clear tentacles of its skirt — weighed down by colorless, crystal disks the size of a cell-phone button — rise and fall in dreamy waves.

The other major highlights of this year’s Annual are also works in three dimensions, by Jennifer Maestre and David Cole. Maestre’s technique is as zany as it is effective; she takes tiny pencil stubs, sharpens them until they could draw blood, drills an infinitesimally small hole through them, and then strings them together to create a kind of chain mail that she shapes into freestanding upright pieces. She plays the pointedness of her pencils’ tips against their flat ends where either the erasers have been worn smooth or the wood itself has been sheered flat to expose the graphite center.

The foot-tall Inanna, for instance, made me think of a cross between a geode and a Venus’s flytrap, with suggestions of vagina dentata; it looks as if it could swallow your hand. Say ‘A’ suggests a tongue sticking out of a mouth with the miniature graphite spikes as needle-sharp taste buds. Maestre’s abstract, discomforting confections — they all imply mutant sea urchins that have been trained to attack — frequently refer to the body, though not necessarily the human body. Springtime Tall Tale looks like an armored penis (armadillo?); Echinimunculus has the shape of a pregnant sloth. Humorous, weird, tactile, and strangely refined, Maestre’s art turns out to be unexpectedly faceted, charged, and complex.

Unexpectedly faceted, too, is David Cole’s installation of a 14-foot-tall (and wide and deep) Fiberglass Teddy Bear woven out of close to a ton of commercial-grade fiberglass insulation. It’s huge, it’s pink, it’s in the form of a teddy bear, and it doesn’t come across as cynical or gimmicky or precious, the way Jeff Koons, for one, always does. Instead, Cole’s massive teddy, in all its ludicrous dimensions and material, suggests a statue of the Buddha — made out of cotton candy. Part prankster and part priest, Cole’s joke gives way to awe.

The one video installation in this year’s Annual, Bruce Bemis’s Mending Mid-Oceanic Rift, shares some of the Jules Verne aspects of Steve Hollinger’s art. Bemis begins with two old-fashioned polished chrome film projectors that run simultaneously. He’s manipulated the machines by adding several spokes to them so that the two film loops must arc over what look like a pair of five-foot-wide Ferris wheels. What’s on the film loops is identical but slightly out of synch, a family swimming underwater in a pool; it looks like a home movie from the ’50s in black and white. Instead of being pointed toward a wall, the projectors are aimed at a bright chrome ball the size of a basketball, with the result that the swimming bodies fill the space of the surrounding walls and ceiling. It’s a delightful work, a celebration of naïveté.

Other good entries in the show include the gender-bending portrait paintings by Hannah Barrett, large, abstract sculptures made of welded spikes by John Bisbee, and the colorful, complicated, abstract installation of shaped boards by Hather Hobler-Keene. Jane Masters’s accomplished, intricate drawings, Lars-Erik Fisk’s reshaping of a Volkswagen into a sphere, and Laura McPhee’s seven atmospheric color photographs taken in Calcutta complete the exhibit.

© Copyright 2003 The Boston Phoenix