Building art in Somerville and the South End

by Randi Hopkins

"MAKING ENDS MEET: AN INSTALLATION IN SIX PARTS," At the Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, through January 21.

"BUILD," At the Somerville Museum, through December 22.

It's beginning to look a little bit like Christmas at the Mills Gallery -- a very weird version of Christmas, that is. The gallery's large picture window on Tremont Street is humming with activity like the holiday windows at Macy's, but the view into the gallery reveals not Mr. Claus and the elves but a tiny train traveling along the gallery floor on its tiny track, busily pulling several cars filled with thick blobs of squeezed paint. The train is part of an expansive installation by artist Mick O'Shea called Artworld, and beyond the train, an entire miniature village is visible. If you peer in, you can view the whole of the gallery floor, and looking deeper into the gallery you can see a sprawling world of objects that are projected, suspended, draped, and propped, all the result of a self-described "curious experiment" initiated by Mills Gallery curator Shelly Bancroft, whose exhibition "Making Ends Meet" is the 13th and last show she will organize here before moving on to pursuits outside Boston.

Bancroft invited each of six artists to create a semi-autonomous sculpture or installation that would relate to the works on either side of it. The definition of this relation was left loose; artists could make a direct, physical connection, or they could interact with each other's work in less corporeal fashion. Either way, your attention is drawn to the areas between the individual works, and you're encouraged to be aware of how the works interact. "Making Ends Meet" also makes apparent something that in our minds is usually just peripheral or subconscious. We always see art in a particular context -- it's influenced by the work hanging nearby, by its frame or pedestal, by the noises in the gallery, and by the way the work is plugged in or lit.

Mick O'Shea has constructed his world almost entirely out of things that artists find readily at hand, like paint tubes, announcement cards, and linseed-oil bottles. His art-centric references can be specific (train-yard boxcars emblazoned with the logos of publications like Artforum) or abstract (an array of cut-paper ovals strewn across part of the installation refers to color-field painting). He toys with scale by having his mini train run through similarly undersized neighborhoods but also past "real-size" objects that are interspersed around the town, including cans of paint and potted plants. O'Shea's art world is complex, dynamic, self-absorbed, and eternally in motion -- not a bad likeness.

Connected to this installation at one end, Bruce Brosnan's Fold also plays with scale and art history. Brosnan presents a skewed wooden structure reminiscent of a collapsing Sol LeWitt sculpture, or maybe a Joel Shapiro version of a Sol LeWitt sculpture. The corner behind his sculpture is painted with large geometric shapes in bright blue and green that are separated by crisp, unpainted white strips of wall. The wall painting looks like an oversized city plan or a hard-edge color-field work until you realize that it lines up with the funky wooden structure, that it was created by tracing the shadow of the sculpture onto the wall at a steep angle and meticulously painting in the spaces outlined by the shadow. O'Shea and Brosnan have connected their works by placing O'Shea's small picket fences around three of the five legs of Brosnan's sculpture, incorporating the sculpture into the artful town.

Daniel Stupar's found-object sculptures connect to the other side of O'Shea's town, via empty bottles topped with whirling tin colorwheels/pinwheels. Stupar adds his own bottle to O'Shea's collection (it's turned on its side and strapped to an old toy-car chassis), and he extends the idea of the train track by placing red fishing line along the floor leading to his central sculpture, a raft constructed in part from found wood, an old roller skate, and a fishing reel. A length of snow-tire chain (talk about historical references!) joins this to an ascending antique tricycle -- altogether it's a pleasantly tactile object invoking mobility and immobility. Sharon Louden counters the husky nature of Stupar's sculpture by hanging knotted tangles of pink antenna wire from the ceiling of the gallery. At one point, several clumps gracefully drop down to meet the flying tricycle. From a distance, her work recalls sculptor Sheila Pepe's installation in this space last year, yet Louden's is distinctive in her buoyant use of space (in this case, creating a sense of jellyfish seen from below), her use of repeated and related forms, and her use of clunky plastic material.

Linda Price-Sneddon's installation is made entirely of materials from the craft store -- pompons, yarn, and plastic embroidery grids connected with what looks like blue silly putty. In her hands, these trendy, lowbrow materials morph into delightful wall drawings, and into hanging and freestanding sculptures. Her pipe-cleaner sculptures in particular involve complex forms that bring to mind a 3-D Brice Marden drawing. Traci Wile connects with Price-Sneddon's work by camouflaging surveillance cameras in the pompons and twine and projecting live images onto monitors hung elsewhere in the gallery. The fun of looking for the cameras, matching them up with their monitors, and following the colorful cables that are both the power source for Wile's work and a wonderful parallel to Price-Sneddon's work adds to the theatrical, participatory nature of this exhibition.

It is to Shelly Bancroft's credit that "Making Ends Meet" encourages you to look for connections -- and the more you look, the less it seems to matter whether the connections are intentional or coincidence.

ACROSS TOWN, at the Somerville Museum, another intriguing exhibit poses questions about how we construct and inhabit our environment. Over the course of the 20th century, most of us have found that our surroundings -- from our national parks to our living rooms -- are always mediated by human activity. The psychology of the spaces we occupy, as well as their physical characteristics, has fascinated artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, who made large-scale cuts directly into houses, splitting them in half or exposing their internal wiring and heating systems, and Rachel Whiteread, who casts the interior spaces of buildings, then peels away the buildings, leaving ghostly blocks of captured interior space.

It's precisely because the Somerville Museum has functioned as the repository of several of Somerville's architectural treasures, including a freestanding staircase-to-nowhere that takes up a sizable portion of the main gallery, that it's such an apt context for "Build," a show of work by five Somerville artists who draw our attention to porches, workshops, houses, power lines, gardens -- all human-made structures that surround us daily.

The exhibit was curated by artists Robin Mandel and Rachel Rush, each of whom received a recent Somerville Arts Council grant. Mandel is a sculptor, and his works tend to set dualities into motion: he'll juxtapose wooden two-by-fours with cast concrete, polished surfaces with untreated ones, stitched fabric with found boards. He also mixes formal concerns with emotional ones. In Like Home, a shingled, roof-like form is attached to/supported by a wooden structure resembling the generic outline of a house. Home as external protection (the roof) is thus connected to the "idea" of home (the outline), which may be more open-ended, less protective. The physical connection between the two elements makes explicit the distance between idea and actuality.

Matthew Brackett's oil paintings appear realistic and straightforward -- at first. One shows a muscular guy with a goatee leaning forward in a carefully rendered workshop. The man is lifting his hammer, which catches a glint of light from an overhead source. He's about to hammer one of the boxy wooden boots he is wearing. Has he built himself into his own construction, become his own project? I don't know, but the image is compelling.

Rachel Rush's colored pencil drawings of power lines and their supporting structures capture beauty in these ubiquitous interruptions to our view of the sky. Her etched monoprints, in which drawing is layered over aerial views of farm land, exhibit a jazzy, unsentimental take on the rural landscape. Sculptor Kathleen Finlay's sculptures are deconstructed environments, small home-like structures with their parts aggressively cut through and exposed. Painter Theresa Spadafora incorporates the imagery of the urban landscape in her work, achieving an attractive effect with encaustic and pigment.

"Build" provides a varied look at its topical topic, and a rewarding one.

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