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Out and About at MassArt & SMFA

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This afternoon I took a short ride on the #39 bus to the Fenway to check out four shows at MassArt and the The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Overall I was really happy with the experience, and even though the quality of the work ranged from undergraduate pieces to A-list art stars, the work on the display in the Fenway is definitely worth the trip.

SMFA's "2008 Student Annual" is, like many student group shows, a wildly diverse and eclectic mix. Standouts (for me) were Gillian Schroeder's "Untitled (Snowflakes)" installation and Georgie Friedman's "Antarctic" video. But with 70 artists, I recommend a trip to SMFA for the full impact of this show.

At MassArt's Doran Gallery, my old friend Colin Owens has a solo show of photographs titled "Mission Hill: The Fluidity of Neighborhood". This collection of 30 (or so) images traces a sort of history of Mission Hill, and explores this contradictory neighborhood with a eye that is both loving and critical. Owens images are occasionally formal in an extreme, almost scientific way, while others are delicately messy and offer real insight into the people and history of his subject. Many of the images use the Basilica as their point of departure, either as subject or site for the image. One image features votive prayer candles while another shows the iconic belltower framed by blooming trees; still another presents an almost-standard-issue shot of the Boston skyline from the Basilica, yet contains so much bright blue sky that one can imagine Owens looking upward and outward rather than down to the city below. Even better, as I was leaving the gallery I turned to my left and saw that imposing church looking down on me and understood why Owens chose the Doran Gallery for his solo show: there is no more appropriate place for his work.

Across Huntington Ave, also at MassArt, two more great shows await. In the Paine Gallery, "Selections '08" features work by 10 MassArt faculty. There is no real curatorial unity within the show, and pieces by various artists sit in odd juxtaposition to each other, yet the quality of the work and the compelling impact of many pieces kept me engaged. Here's the list of artists: Christopher Chippendale, Nancy Cusack, Taylor Davis, Michelle Handelman, Donna Rae Hirt, Steve Locke, Laura McPhee, Abelardo Morell, Cauleen Smith, and Joe Wood.

In the Bakalar Gallery is "War Stories", curated by Lisa Tung and featuring photographs and an audio installation by Nina Berman, prints by Jenny Holzer, and 10 video pieces by David Thorne, Katya Sander, Ashley Hunt, Sharon Hayes, and Andrea Geyer. I'm still formulating my thoughts on this powerful and intense show, and plan to write a full piece for the next Big RED & Shiny, but my quick impressions are that I am glad someone is making work like this, and I hope people are willing to spend time with the work and experience it in-depth. Having spent over an hour with the work I feel like I have just started to penetrate its complexity. Even as this is my second viewing, I am already planning a third visit -- there is something so compelling about the stories presented in this show that I want to know them all intimately, and I feel it would be a disservice to the artists and their subjects to not see every minute of the 3-4 hours of video (by my estimation) in "War Stories."

A short overview, for those who can't make it to MassArt to see the show, goes like this: Nina Berman's photographs of soldiers disfigured by the war in Iraq, and their stories on placards next to the images, will haunt you forever. For me, they do more than talk about the individual soldiers that have fought (and are still fighting) our current wars; they talk about all soldiers in our history and force us to question when, and how, those physical and psychological scars manifest themselves. They make me think of my own grandfather, as well as his brother, who saw the horrors of Pearl Harbor, of Nazi concentration camps, of war. When, if ever, did they recover from those sights?

The 10-channel video work "9 Scripts from a Nation at War" is far more than I can talk about here, and I only encourage people to visit and hear the stories for themselves. As for Jenny Holzer's "Redaction Paintings" I don't have a lot to say. The few in "War Stories" are compelling, showing the strangely corporate attitude of our government officials toward mass killings and waging war, but simultaneously devoid of any strong emotional impact. Their recent display at Barbara Krakow Gallery perhaps softens their impact, but I doubt that I would have felt any stronger about them had I never seen them before. However, their cold and calculating texts certainly serve to enhance the intensity of the other works in the show, and I appreciate Tung's curatorial decision to include them as a reminder of the forces behind the "War Stories" in question.

MassArt has some great work up right now, so hop on the E-line or the #39 bus and head over to the Fenway. Plan on an extended stay, though, because there is a lot to see and think about.

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About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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