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[Art reviews]

Monumental
Taylor Davis and Sophie Ristelhueber

BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS

" Taylor Davis "
At the Gallery @ Green Street through November 24
" Sophie Ristelhueber:Details of the World "
At the Museum of Fine Arts through January 21

In ways both palpable and elusive, two new exhibits in Boston — Taylor Davis at the Gallery @ Green Street and Sophie Ristelhueber at the Museum of Fine Arts — demonstrate art’s lasting ambition to be monumental. If one of the hallmarks of art is the way it provides a temple for the human spirit — whether as haiku or graffiti, war memorial or sonata — then, as with actual temples, the notion of size is never far behind.

Temples come in many sizes; Taylor Davis’s meticulous, lyrical plywood constructions at the Green Street T stop in Jamaica Plain belong more to the order of roadside shrine than national cathedral. Davis takes unfinished wood — two-by-fours, packing crates, plywood of the Home Depot variety — and makes whimsical, abstract, human-sized constructions that, despite their roughness and familiarity, feel majestic. They achieve this through some unexpected turns. For one thing, many appear to be dancing. The barrel-chested girth set off by rows of thin, lifted-up legs in Untitled (storage) reads like a rearing horse or a flamenco dancer pulling at her skirt. With its backward-tilting upper half and its 16 horizontal limbs, storage feels both dynamic and stationary, sober and effervescent. The legs appear in sets, like an insect’s or the pairs of tires on a giant truck, and though a few serve to balance the sculpture’s weight on the floor, most are purely expressive. The piece’s animal nature is further suggested by the accordion-like set of planks on its back side, which imply the movement of a bending spine.

Although storage represents Davis’s most ribald kinesis (when it’s not reminiscent of a horse or a dancer or an insect, it becomes a table that has issues with gravity), her other works also address the tension between falling and standing tall, between balance and imbalance, integrity and collapse. Untitled (trough) is a long, open, narrow box (about the shape you’d imagine for storing a sword) positioned on the fulcrum of a plywood pyramid. Although the bleached pine looks lightweight and a mirror at the bottom of the trough adds even more light to the piece, you’re aware that the slightest disturbance could bring on its collapse. The thin slats that buttress the trough and create the sculpture’s sides don’t line up evenly in their descent to the floor. The minuscule ledge that appears to ooze from the base of the one weight-bearing wall also extends unevenly.

One of the ironies of this delightful exhibit is that though each work seems to teeter on the brink of folding in on itself, and the imbalance feels immediate, the tension never registers as dangerous or confrontational. trough could stumble forward, storage could tip like a schoolkid falling backward in a chair, but their clarity and deliberateness — their evident direction and articulated purpose — mean we’re free to enjoy the strangely mathematical gymnastics.

One of the subtlest and most successful works here redirects the daredevil construction into a reflective realm. At first glance, Untitled (pallet) looks like little more than an upright packing crate, the kind you might ship a marble tabletop in. Standing a little above waist high, pallet appears to be missing one of its vertical boards, with the result that you’re encouraged to scrutinize its inner space. When you do, you discover that Davis has lined the narrow and almost imperceptible floor and roof of the crate (as well as the two side walls) with mirrors. Since these are undetectable until you peer into the construction, the effect is like seeing Versailles through a keyhole when you expect to see the interior of a packing crate. And since the mirrors are both opposite and at right angles to each other, the magical transport takes place repeatedly. What had looked contained now appears infinite; what had been predictable proves surprising; what had felt flat-footed becomes balletic.

The monumentality of Taylor Davis’s sculpture is as much a function of chance as of design. For all that she works within formal structures and with traditional materials, her aims are largely iconoclastic — for example, she’s as interested in making plywood behave like cloth as anything else. In one piece, a section of wood has been cut away in a paper-doll pattern, so that pulling at it is like pulling at the pleats of a skirt.

On the OTHER HAND, the French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber sets out for monumentality with the deliberateness of a sharpshooter. Ristelhueber’s images are gigantic and sometimes freestanding, with effects that are alternately cinematic and architectural. The first installation you see on walking into her exhibit is a tremendous vertical wall of 21 photographs, each on the order of four square feet, called Fait ( " Fact " ). In an adjoining room Fait continues on another huge wall with 27 images. In yet another gallery of this exquisitely presented show, you walk among freestanding color scenic photographs, each the size of a moving van; you feel like a Lilliputian.

One of the more cinematic images is of a desolate Central Asian landscape that’s projected from the ceiling in a darkened room, accompanied by an audiotape of ambient sounds, such as wind. Although she doesn’t seem to be after any narrative element, and though her imagery does not unfold over time, Ristelhueber’s pictures register like stills at a drive-in: displaced, immense, and, for their sheer magnitude, demanding of attention.

Ristelhueber intends another kind of monumentality — call it political. The almost abstract, often aerial photos of Fait aren’t variations on just any arid landscape. They derive from her visit to Kuwait just months after the Gulf War. This information is delivered exclusively by the show’s extensive wall text and the accompanying catalogue; the images themselves bear none of the weight of their history. The photographs are appealing in a commercial way — they hint at a tension they never explore. My overriding impression was that they’re pretty, almost abstract: sand burying a pair of shoes; a blanket lifting from a trench; a pattern of glyphs and serrations on the surface of land as seen from a plane.

Discomforting as it is, few of us can deny the confusing junction of beauty and terror in the events of September 11, or the need to keep waking ourselves to the reality of lives lost in the abstracted, televised image. But I submit there is a great and grave difference between (reluctantly) admitting that the terrible can be captivating and alluding to terror to make one’s art seem enhanced. It’s the difference between seeing and exploiting.

In the same room as the 27-image continuation of Fait stands another network of oversized, mostly color photos. These aren’t wall-mounted — in fact, they aren’t mounted at all. Standing upright on the floor, these photos lean against the wall, with some stacked on top of others, so that parts of them are obscured. The effect of denying you access to seeing complete images is to make you want to peek around the sides (but if you try, a buzzer will sound). I admire such boldness and wish more artists embraced, as Ristelhueber does, the prerogative of physically manipulating her audience. Unfortunately, this manipulation feels like an empty flamboyant gesture. The images themselves are uneventful, beginning with a plank positioned between the trunks of two trees and including various shots of yet another forlorn countryside — roiling streams, insufficiently green fields, unpopulated buildings. There is, I admit, a solitary picture of a skull amid the pretty color shots; it registers like a Halloween costume in a store window.

As we learn from the wall text and catalogue, these images, collectively called La campagne, aren’t as banal as they appear. How could they be when the shots were taken of post-war Bosnia in the summers of 1996 and 1997? By referring to war without ever depicting it, by finding abstract designs in landscapes where people recently died, and by making the impact of her imagery hinge entirely on our knowledge of recent brutality, Ristelhueber makes her art come across as a sophisticated version of a Hollywood disaster flick. After September 11, who needs it?

Issue Date: October 18 - 25, 2001