‘Fertile Solitude’ Flourishes at the Boston Center for the Arts

“Fertile Solitude” at the Boston Center for the Arts creates an immersive experience complete with art that appeals to every sense. The visitor's experience can encompass everything from smelling rain and cigarette ashes to touching withered 1950s magazines. These varied interpretations of solitude seek to redefine what it means to be alone. “It’s fine art in a very accessible way and a subject matter we all can relate to,” says Elizabeth Devlin, the exhibition’s curator.

The gallery features works by 15 artists, including Harvard’s own Annette R. Lemieux, senior lecturer in visual and environmental studies. Devlin says she selected some pieces, such as Cig Harvey’s “The Screen Door,” for their individual merits, and others for the dynamics between them. Oftentimes, she let artists create pocket environments that visitors can move through within the gallery. Those environments include various depictions of solitude, such as a painting of a goldfish bowl, detailed photos of the moon and sun, and a 1950s boy’s bedroom.

Hao Ni’s exhibit, “Night Sculptures,” stands adjacent to the entrance and consists of art constructed from cigarette ashes, raindrops, fried rice, and more. “With everything we do and see and experience, there’s always something lurking behind, like this ghostly presence, so there’s a lot of reference to ghostly figures in the show because nighttime is dangerous,” Ni says. However, his work takes inspiration from everyday actions such as eating, smoking, driving, and drinking. “What’s haunting is mundane, everyday things,” Ni says. When asked about how his work relates to the theme of fertile solitude, Ni again references the monotony of modern life with which people have grown tired. “The loneliness comes in when you’re just thinking about and dealing with the things surrounding you,” he says.

Lemieux’s piece also interacts with humdrum actions. She found inspiration for her photograph in a Philip Guston painting called “Painting, Smoking, Eating.” She calls her own black-and-white photograph “Bad Habits.” Lemieux says that she wanted to recreate the painting not only because she relates to Guston as an artist but also because the painting captures an all-too-familiar feeling. “It’s that moment when someone is alone, thinking, or probably worrying,” she says.

Her piece shares a space with an eclectic group of multimedia works, including those of Erin M. Riley, which consists of several hand-woven tapestries depicting scenes from porn films. A public display of such a private, tabooed subject aims to reflect a kind of public loneliness that Devlin says she finds intriguing. Devlin herself mentioned experiences such as going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, only to stand in a crowded room, unable to enjoy the art in solitude. She selected Noritaka Mimori’s photographs of a 1972 capsule hotel in Japan for a similar reason; the project, “1972,” also captures the clash of public and private. Devlin describes the hotel as a place of living in isolation together, similar to the way in which visitors take in the art at her exhibit. Devlin says the maze structure and intimate spaces of the show inevitably create individual experiences but also promote mingling as conversations arise regarding the pieces.

Moving out of Lemieux’s space, Devlin uses the sound of a fountain, sculpted by Piper Brett, to draw spectators toward the center of the gallery through a maze of other rooms. Devlin describes Brett’s piece as anticlimactic because people will expect some grand finale at the source of the sound, only to find a small, underwhelming recreation of the Belgian fountain “Mannekin Pis.” Rather than conclude the labyrinth, the fountain pushes spectators past it toward three more rooms. On the right sits the most interactive exhibit: a bedroom in which visitors are encouraged to open drawers, look under pillows, and browse photo albums. The claustrophobic space and dim lighting create a heightened sense of solitude as well as intimacy with the art and other visitors.

Fertile Solitude will be at the Boston Center for the Arts from Oct. 14 to Dec. 18.