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It spirals out of sight: Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s White Stag.

It’s Monumental

By Nadine Wasserman

Material World

MASS MoCA, through Feb. 27, 2011

Bigger is not always better. But in the case of MASS MoCA, big is often the way to go. Material World is a perfect fit for the unruly spaces that make up the second and third floor galleries of this institution. Dictated by their previous lives as industrial areas, these galleries are made up of an incoherent warren of dark and oddly shaped rooms of varying size and ceiling height. The exhibition takes advantage of these architectural quirks by displaying work that takes into consideration the design, structure, and historical function of the building.

It is best to approach the exhibition from the metal staircase that leads from the entrance of the galleries up to the second floor. Going this way ensures your first “wow.” Tobias Putrih’s Re-projection: Hoosac is immediately noticeable to the left. Made of immensely long strands of monofilament that span the full length of the gallery, the piece is spotlighted in the middle to create a halo effect. Inspired by a beam of light as well as by the nearby Hoosac Tunnel, this installation uses a simple, everyday material to create a visually stunning piece.

In a similar way, Alyson Shotz’s Geometry of Light, two galleries over, uses strands of wire hung with plastic discs and glass beads as a study in light and shadow. Like Putrih, Shotz explores perception as well as materiality. Both artists are interested in the way each of their respective installations changes depending upon the vantage point of the visitor. The reflective materials in Shotz’s installation shimmer and sparkle while casting dynamic shadows on the walls and floor. Through her work Shotz considers the mutable boundaries between solid and space. The work conjures thoughts about the visible and the invisible, the substantial and the immaterial.

Whereas the pieces by Shotz and Putrih float ethereally in their respective spaces, Orly Genger’s Big Boss breaks through a wall and tumbles heavily and forbiddingly onto the floor. Forced to go around it, visitors are confronted with its mass. Painted bright red, it is dynamic and triumphant. By knotting 100 miles of rope using a crochet stitch, the artist has made a normally flexible and pliable material strong and impermeable. The piece dominates the brick, wood, and metal architectural elements that surround it.

Across the room, White Stag competes for space. Here the collaborative team of Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen has also managed to transform a flexible and modest material into a monumental form. By twisting and manipulating paper they have created a forest of trees that appears to grow through the ceiling, into the floor above, and out through the roof. The white and ghostly limbs and roots meander and twirl anarchically throughout the space. It is impossible to resist crawling underneath and around and over them.

Almost seamlessly connected to the top level of White Stag, Dan Steinhilber’s Breathing Room reminds visitors of the intangible. The piece shifts and billows around the viewer, which brings to mind some sort of sublime internal organ. Its amorphous shape is sometimes expanding and sometimes collapsing based on air currents created by fans.

In opposition to the buoyancy of Breathing room is the nearby Lightning Generation by Michael Beutler. Situated in a gallery that was once an electric laboratory, this installation references man-made industry as well as the handmade. Comprised of tall, shiny columns made from bent aluminum, these hulking shapes, stacked precariously about the room, are both ominous and enticing.

While most of the work in the exhibition is participatory in that visitors can move in and around the installations, the pieces are meant to be more theatrical than interactive. Eli Levenstein’s Reading Room, however, is the only installation where visitors can actually manipulate certain elements in the room. Unfortunately, it is the least compelling work in the show.

The overall sensory experience of the exhibition is what makes it so beguiling and because of the tactile quality of much of the work included, it may be hard for visitors to keep their hands off. And it would be hard to blame them. But just in case the work gets much abused, you might want to see it sooner than later.

Peripheral Vision

Gabe Brown: Collect the Sun

R&F Gallery, Kingston, through May 22

In the painting Collect the Sun, a diminutive boat floats through an abstracted green ocean attached to a line from which emanates multicolored teardrop shapes. It is hard to look at this painting without thinking about the oil spill that is threatening the Gulf of Mexico. Gabe Brown’s paintings are full of references to nature and the man-made. Her show is a perfect fit for spring when thoughts turn to renewal and we celebrate Earth Day.

Brown’s paintings are layered with images of birds, mushrooms, plants, cellular structures, geological formations, and vivid curlicues. Combining wide brushstrokes, thin lines, and solid geometrics, Brown creates mysterious allegories that mix both abstract and realistic elements. The tone of her work is whimsical but with an underlying message. It is clear that while her paintings are about process they are also about the environment and biology and the fragile and miraculous balance of life.

—N.W.


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