In the Harvard world of abbreviations and acronyms, the name SoWa may not turn heads. In the art world, however, it practically screams its allusion to SoHo, the New York neighborhood that once was epicenter of the art scene.
SoWa stands for “South of Washington Street” and refers to the part of Boston’s South End neighborhood that has recently become a hip galley scene; it centers on a dozen galleries in a converted warehouse at 450 Harrison St. but is quickly spreading through the formerly industrial area.
On the first Friday evening of each month, the galleries coordinate their openings, and the place teems with artists, art lovers, and fashionable Bostonians.
450 Harrison has been completely gentrified, and the picturesque snowdrifts, wrought iron railings, and pristine yellow flags belie its former industrial function. Further indications of its newly upscale status are the three artsy houseware stores that are situated among the galleries.
The entrances to the galleries are on Thayer Street, a brick-lined alleyway off the busier Harrison Avenue. The lights are on, and the doors are open at 7 p.m. on March 4, a Friday.
Inside, people check out the art, chitchat with the artists, and grab a cup of wine and some pretzels and Twizzlers. It is as much a family affair as a night on the town; children under 12, strangely abundant, are everywhere underfoot.
The galleries are sometimes emptier than the throngs outside would suggest, but there seem to be as many people here genuinely contemplating the art as enjoying the accompanying reception.
The Locco Ritoro Gallery, on the upper level of the complex, features an exhibition by Utah-based painter Janet Shapero, called “Luminous Passages.” The works resemble paintings, but instead of canvases, Shapero has painted what appears to be window-screening; applying the paint in different thicknesses allows her to let more or less of the screen’s texture come through. The screens are marked by bright colors and rectangular designs, but an all-over marble pattern prevents them from being overly geometric. The exhibit runs through March 26.
At the Bernard Toale Gallery, Carl Fudge has a show called “Camouflage,” also open through March 26. His square screenprints of military camouflage—redesigned, bright, and oddly patterned—hang in rows. They look computer-generated, like the pixellated version of an unidentifiable object.
Among the dozen other galleries, there are some that showcase artists working in particular media, such as the Boston Sculptor’s Galleries, and others that contain photography, painting, and mixed media pieces all together. But alongside the standout work, there are mundane, unimpressive pieces, like the series of two-colored figure outlines at the Allston Skirt Gallery, which are unsophisticated and repetitive.
The single best work, a painting, hangs at the Samson Projects. Entitled “A Blaze of Glory, Flame Red Double Knit,” it depicts, on a shiny canvas, two women in red, their bodies cropped from mid-thigh to collarbone. The detail is luminous, close to photographic; each wrinkle in the outfits is executed with finesse, while the bodies of the women are mysterious and elegant. It calls into question the status of the faceless females without making the statement on feminine identity and body image too obvious.
That is, until the single best interaction of the night occurs. Two overdressed twenty-something women––if someone dressed in lime green can be called overdressed––stand in front of “A Blaze of Glory.” The artist, a short, blond man, probably 30, walks towards them from his post in the corner.
“Um,” he says seriously, “Could I take your picture in front of my painting?”
He situates the giggling, flattered girls in front of the faceless red women, snaps a digital picture and smiles. Though his intentions, artistic or otherwise, are unclear, the sincerity of his desire to interact with visitors is part of what makes the ordinarily fickle gallery scene so worthwhile here.
Closing time rolls around; the galleries begin to empty out.
As the banter dies down, a nearby gallery visitor refers to New York.
“I’d say Newbury is Madison, Fifth, Lex., and the Lower East Side rolled into one. This––Harrison Avenue––is definitely more Chelsea.”
Like the SoWa name, this is a comparison, albeit inaccurate, to New York’s art world glory is an attempt to glorify Boston’s own attempt. It is well-intentioned; an effort to prove what anyone currently leaving the gallery has realized tonight—that the South End has viable, vibrant art. But in comparing itself to New York, the comparison marginalizes the uniquely Bostonian atmosphere––the pristine New England version of a warehouse, the non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider, and the puritanical 8 p.m. closing time.