Harrowing portraits, the edge of innocence
After painter Henry Schwartz died in 2009 at 81, Gallery NAGA hosted a memorial service for him. Schwartz was a second-generation Boston Expressionist, a deft portrayer of nightmare and neurosis. He had stopped making work in 1991, except for obsessive, pattern-filled erotic drawings. At the memorial service, NAGA directors Arthur Dion and Meg White showed a half of a diptych they had found in storage, hoping someone would know about the other half.
In time, they found the second half, also deep in storage, and the entire magnificent thing, “Untitled (self-portrait with muses),’’ which Schwartz painted in 1975, is the centerpiece of a small show of his never-before-exhibited works up at NAGA.
In it, a boy sits below a single, glowing light bulb, wearing shorts, a green shirt and an orange tie. He contemplates six or seven nude women who tower over him (so this painting is not suitable for reproduction in a family newspaper). They are a disturbing mix of wraithlike and voluptuous. Rib cages, hipbones, and shoulder blades protrude, but there’s still an erotic charge to these women, whose heads loll and knees knock. Their skin, gray and iridescent, suggests that they are ghosts.
Schwartz’s use of color in this dark painting is inspired; even the shadows are full of orange and green, and the atmosphere is almost tactile, as if imagination has its own muddy feel. The boy’s muses, and their mingling of sex and death, bring us right to the edge of innocence, and the hope and horror of losing it.
The painter’s other works are smaller, all harrowing portraits. “Tapiola (Sibelius),’’ made in 1991, is painted on velvet, but it’s nothing like, say, an Elvis Presley portrait on velvet. This, all in grays that ruffle against the black ground, shows the Finnish composer with eyes closed. It could be a death mask; it looks wreathed in crinkled fabric. The face appears to coalesce out of shadow and light. Another ghost.
Benjamin Evans, who graduated just last year from the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University, has an installation like a theatrical set up at NAGA, and two moody black-and-white photos depicting the characters who might inhabit it. “Coffee With Just Milk’’ takes us into the home of a couple, Benjamin and Judy Benson, circa 1991. There’s a People magazine from that year on a rack beneath the telephone, touting Paula Abdul as “Hollywood’s hottest newcomer.’’
The Bensons’ marriage is in trouble, as we can discern from listening in on a phone conversation. You can see it by paging through their wedding album, sad to say. Placing us in their bedroom, Evans makes his fictional couple’s difficulties visceral to the viewer. The installation packs a punch. At the same time, the artist could take a lighter hand with his clues, and let the aura of an uneasy marriage seep in, rather than knock us over.
Brian Zink is a minimalist with pizazz. His show, “Assembled,’’ at Howard Yezerski Gallery, is deceptively straightforward and clean: Using Plexiglas, he lays out geometric patterns on panels. They buzz and pop and shift. They’re not paintings, but they explore one of painting’s conceptual edges, between object and picture.
We interact with the object on a physical level: It’s a boxy panel that protrudes a bit from the wall, with a shiny surface. The picture engages the imagination: Is it just a pattern? Does it depict space? “Composition 2662 Red and 2026 Black’’ is a checkerboard made of trapezoids. The diagonals hint that the picture goes beyond the surface; abutting trapezoids resemble the faces of a jutting or receding cube.
Zink makes several works using the same pattern with different colors. A zigzag of turquoise and black rhomboids over white looks as if it’s floating; the same zigzag of white and green over black looks flatter, grounded. There’s a wonderful clarity to these pieces. Looking at them enables us to witness our synapses firing, as we leap conceptually between space and surface.
A different kind of map
Robin Mandel is a sculptor, but his sculptures have often explored the intangible. So it is with “Everywhere and Nowhere,’’ now up at Laconia Gallery, a light-and-shadow installation with sculptural components. Mandel projects light through holes he has cut in steel plates, making puddles of light that squirm over the walls of the gallery.
He has affixed more than 800 mirrored arrows around the edges of the light pools. Each arrow casts a black shadow and a pale gray reflection. Sometimes light hits an arrow and throws a reflection a distance away. Bright arrows, dark arrows, and the reflections of arrows fly and point everywhere. It’s dazzling and a bit mind-boggling.
Since before I could read, I’ve followed directional arrows. I believe they are pointing me somewhere. Most of these ones point to the edges of blobs of light, but there are so many that it becomes cacophonous: “Look here! Look here!’’ It’s important, then, to get up close and follow - not where the arrows point, but where they reflect. It turns into an entirely different kind of map, one that charts shadows and projections, a map of the imagination itself.
HENRY SCHWARTZ: Unexhibited Paintings BENJAMIN EVANS: Coffee With Just Milk At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Jan. 28. 617-267-9060,
BRIAN ZINK: Assembled At: Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 7.
ROBIN MANDEL: Everywhere and Nowhere At: Laconia Gallery, 433 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 29. 857-222-0333,
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