In 'Artadia' show, local artists share the spotlight
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2008


"Artadia Boston 2007" is both something to be proud of and oddly disappointing. Artadia, a nonprofit founded by investment banker Christopher E. Vroom in 1997 in response to a decline in artist fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, convenes juries locally who sort through hundreds of applications to choose award winners. Visual artists in San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston have all been bolstered by Artadia support.

Last year, Boston was added to that list, and work by 10 award winners can be seen in "Artadia Boston 2007" at the Boston Center for the Arts' Mills Gallery. We know many of these artists and see their work often. Bringing them together in a show that, like most juried shows, has no themes or guideposts doesn't put their art in the best light. In fact, this mishmash of an exhibition does them an injustice. Still, they're some of the finest artists in Boston.

The works don't cohere, but each has its power. I never thought I'd see Gerry Bergstein in an exhibit with Jane Marsching. Bergstein, a dean of Boston painters, offers a riotous collage that busts off the wall and into the viewer's space, representing the fecund compost heap of his imagination, with snippets from artists from Michelangelo to Matt Groening.

Color theorist Josef Albers would love Marsching's playful but dark abstract video, in a landscape format with two bars of constantly changing color denoting predicted changes in the earth's temperature. Her soundtrack is an aria made up of headlines about global warming.

There's social conscience at work here. The National Bitter Melon Council and John Osorio-Buck often bring their work into the street. The first stages events with the bitter melon, a fruit used often in Asian cooking, to spark community. Osorio-Buck wittily explores issues of housing and sustainability with his portable kiosk, from which he can serve soup and have a small, solar-paneled greenhouse to grow vegetables; he could sleep there, too.

Everything deserves examination in this fractured show. Vaughn Sills has been shooting photos of African-Americans' gardens for at least 20 years, each jammed with meaning and magic. Stephen Tourlentes's photos of prisons look eerily like shots of the Emerald City, glowing and inviting from a distance.

Hannah Barrett's paintings conflate male and female features and recall 19th-century portrait photography; they are deadpan and disturbing. Xiaowei Chen's dense, masterful ink drawings marry humans and plants.

Mary Ellen Strom's beautifully meditative and mildly political video "Four Parallel Lines," made with Ann Carlson, echoes Walter De Maria's 1968 earthwork, "Two Parallel Lines." It forsakes the tart humor we know from Strom and Carlson, depicting four men identified in the show's catalog as day laborers drawing lines in the sand with planks along a Pacific beachfront, only to have them washed away. I did not see the work of the 10th award recipient, a performance piece by Helen Mirra.

The Artadia jury has tapped a vein of artists in Boston who deserve national recognition. If only there were a better way to exhibit their work together.