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Gallery as Environment

By Samuel J. Shapiro, Contributing Writer

The Boston Sculptors Gallery smells like horse. Using such pungent materials as earth, manure, and hay in her show “Postcards from the Field: Contemporary Pastoralism,” Nancy Winship Milliken transports visitors to a muddy New England pasture immediately upon their cracking open the gallery’s door. Hung as a multi-sensory installation that exposes visitors to the world of husbandry, Milliken’s sculptural work draws unexpected parallels between farming and visual artistry. “Postcards from the Field” demonstrates how artists can transform commercial galleries into environments in a manner that most museums rarely do.

“To the Barn and Back,” a 16 foot-wide matte print with a thick band of leaf-encrusted mud running through its center, looms over the gallery’s short staircase. To create the work, Milliken laid the canvas on the ground and, to simulate the rhythm of the farmer’s routine, repeatedly walked down its length on trips to an oxen barn, constructing with her boots a thick line of mud. Coming across as a clever riff on Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage’s 1953 “Automobile Tire Print” and seemingly rejecting that work’s mechanical gesture and removal of the self, “To the Barn and Back” turns the gallery wall into a site of agricultural tradition.

Hanging adjacently is “Field,” a 20-foot relief of hay-saturated netting. Looking like an unraveled hay bale, “Field” intimately buries viewers under a material that is often only glimpsed off the side of the road. Notably, the work’s dimensions vary each time it is installed, allowing the piece to remain just as alive and responsive as the organic material from which it is assembled. Milliken comments that because her materials are susceptible to changes in the weather and seasons, “time becomes an active element in the work,” which initiates the same continuous dialogue between man and nature that largely defines farming. Taken as a whole, “Postcards from the Field” can be seen as a sculptural deconstruction of landscape painting, engulfing viewers in the sights, textures, and smells of a pasture rather than simply presenting a window onto one.

A few buildings down from the Boston Sculptors Gallery, Galatea Fine Art is a commercial space currently showing “Justin Freed: The Waters of Life: A Refuge,” an exhibition that demonstrates the environmental installation gone wrong. Whereas the immersive atmosphere of “Postcards from the Field” is effortlessly composed by the material qualities of the works themselves, “The Waters of Life” is the artist’s heavy-handed attempt to force immersion upon viewers. The press statement claims that Freed’s “refuge is being curated to fulfill the human need to spend time in a place that is both aesthetically rewarding and emotionally satisfying.” However, the abundance of screensaver-esque digital framed photography and the kitschy “original soundscape” instead craft the ambiance of an electronics store showroom.

In addition to painting the walls deep blue and lowering shades over the windows, Freed attempts to submerge the gallery with video monitors showing rolling waves and marine ecosystems. The numerous media present in “The Waters of Life”—including four fingerprint-marked framed digital photographs of the ocean, two “physical constructions” (videos of waves projected onto shoddily erected panels of undulating wood boards), and audio tracks of bird sounds—serve to distract viewers rather than set them at ease. At times, the show can be superficially therapeutic, but it certainly does not deserve the status of refuge. This shortcoming, however, may not entirely be the fault of the artist, since Galatea Fine Art’s glass walls allow sunlight to flood in from the hallway, undercutting Freed’s attempt to darken the space.

At Kingston Gallery, “Jane Lincoln: All About Color” presents an entirely different approach to crafting an environmental presence. Hung in the intimate central space of the gallery, Lincoln’s 13 small sculptural paintings made of acrylic on paper and hardboard are optically exhilarating. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s “Strips,” each piece is comprised of stacked, varyingly wide horizontal bands of intense hues. Unframed with harsh, hard edges, the geometric compositions are razor thin and held about three inches away from the wall by clear plastic pins, allowing them to hover in space. Lincoln painted the back of each piece in buzzing monochromes, which cast colored shadows on Kingston’s white walls. Standing in the small rectangular gallery, one feels swallowed up by these floating, shadow-casting colors. Though not immersive in the sense of recreating a particular environment, as “Postcards from the Field” is and “Waters of Life” attempts to be, “All About Color” is immersive as a visually stimulating sensorial experience.

Commercial galleries are especially suited to installing environmental exhibitions, as the works on display, often by a single artist, create a homogenous character that permeates the space—both literally and figuratively coloring the white cube. Because the 17 galleries on and around Thayer Street are geographically concentrated, one has the ability to continuously open doors into new artistic atmospheres, which is thrilling, even when an atmosphere is largely created by manure.

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