At Gallery NAGA through September 29.
Work by Ri Anderson, Walter Crump, Mardozo, and Jesseca Ferguson, at Lillian Immig Gallery, Cardinal Cushing Library, Emmanuel College, through October 4.
When the oldest arts organization in America announces its first-ever juried photography exhibit, it’s time to pay attention. The Copley Society, that venerable Back Bay institution, has over the last century and a half ranged widely as a presenter of American fine art — from avant-garde to advanced geezer, from cutting edge to soft in the middle. With ” Manifest 2001, ” its group show of contemporary New England photographers, the Copley Society is back, Lazarus-like, rising from the damp ashes of its afternoon sherry to a place of assertive importance in contemporary art. Look now, ’cause it’s alive.
Juried by the cognoscenti and including a rewarding number of insufficiently recognized artists based largely in and around Boston, ” Manifest 2001 ” will likely go down as one of those shows that people will refer to years from now. It’s the hub of the Hub: so many of its artists appear in coterminous area shows, the exhibit is like a sampler of surrounding venues. From Boston to Provincetown, from major Newbury Street galleries to smaller academic spaces, the talent of ” Manifest 2001 ” points in multiple directions. It’s a hub with sturdy spokes.
Like all successful group shows, this ambitious, engaging, eminently thoughtful exhibit is an hors d’œuvre in place of a meal. Presenting 42 works by 35 talented artists, ” Manifest 2001 ” never takes you beyond the handshake stage. You meet lots of artists you’d like to get better acquainted with, but they all leave before you can sit down and talk with any of them.
Worse, Morgan Cohen gets lost in the crowd. Cohen takes color photographs of — get this — the corners of rooms. Ceilings, to be exact. Spare, muted, triangulated shapes that are at once ethereal and quotidian, transcendent and earthy. Cohen speaks in feathery, self-effacing whispers; his photos are so demure that were it not for their frames, they’d be almost indistinguishable from the walls behind them. And yet he makes you realize all that’s been missing from the overly celebrated minimalism of Agnes Martin. The sensuality of his shading means that shadows read like erogenous zones, suggesting tender, luminous creases of skin. And each image is contemplative, balanced, austere; if the Buddha were a shutterbug, these are the pictures he’d take.
In ” Manifest 2001, ” however, Cohen has just a solitary frame — and with no bright egg yolk, no triptych with orchids, no outré lighting techniques, his pencil-thin abstraction is easily overlooked. But if you cross the street to Gallery NAGA, you’ll find a number of his works: he stands out in the sadly crowded ” Camera Work, ” where he appears along with David Prifti, Mary Kocol, and Robert Siegelman (the front room is given over to Sam Earle’s ” Tattoo Paintings ” ). Here you can appreciate the connections his photos make across the frame, his expressive reach within a drastically reduced color palette, his ability to find compositional variation within extreme confines of the visual field. What seems pale at the Copley Society takes on grandeur at NAGA.
Walter Crump’s solitary pinhole image is also in danger of getting overlooked in the Copley Society’s downstairs gallery. You have to walk past Camila Chaves Cortes’s Union Guys at Casting Basins, a work of such shameless (and deserved) bravura — construction workers rendered as ladder rungs as they labor between two closely adjacent buildings — that you mightn’t mind the photographer’s ridiculously oversized signature at the bottom. You also have to ignore the uncomfortable, ineluctable seductions of Rosemary Porter’s Radishes, a giant iris print of white daikon radishes that, towering and upright, is held together by the blue girdle of a rubber band; it’s no less imposing than the pyramids at Giza. Finally, on a back wall, off to the left, there appears Crump’s gently sepia-toned, seemingly antique From Chelsea Park, a snake’s-eye view across some desolate stones to a desolate waterway that terminates in a desolate horizon of a few buildings.
The good news is that Crump is one of four artists featured in Emmanuel College’s ” Pinhole Madness, ” one of the least hyped and most important exhibits this fall in Boston. There you can take in his dizzying architectural views and cityscapes (centering on Boston), which read alternately as whimsical and studied, forlorn and sociable. Crump devotes his talents to the exaltation of the humble; the banal and the pedestrian appear magnified, transformed. The point at which the Green Line’s E trains exit onto Huntington Avenue becomes a surreal passage to an otherworldly kingdom. A network of cables in Northern Avenue Bridge suggests a crown of thorns. Even the reduced skyline of Bent Roxbury looks like an image taken through a reed that’s being used as an airhole through which somebody’s secretly breathing. ” Pinhole Madness ” also includes powerful contributions by Mardozo plus photos by Jesseca Ferguson and Ri Anderson.
Back at the Copley Society, you might be grateful that Paul Weiner is limited to one work: his Collectibles is a portrait of such psychological and stylistic extremity that it’s hard to imagine more than a couple such images at one time. A middle-aged woman (whose haircut refers to but does not suggest youth) sits on a settee overrun (lap, ceiling, furniture surfaces, floor) by Victorian dolls. She’s crazed, and the lighting’s crazed — the room and its contents suggest a jack-o’-lantern. Weiner’s flash photography imparts an orange glow, as if everything in the room were lit from within. The effect is calculatedly, uncomfortably ominous.
Then there are the two exquisitely rendered panoramas by Roland Smart. Above his elongate and otherwise unprepossessing horizontal pictures, Smart has superimposed a particular kind of etched glass. Its effect is to obscure all other parts of the photo except for what you’re staring at directly. As you pass each frame, it obscures itself. I look forward to Smart’s refinement of this daring technique in the service of his imagery.
Eva Hidvegi Demjen, Susan Haas, Jen Kodis, and Steven Traficonte have also made powerful contributions to ” Manifest 2001. ”