Head games

By GREG COOK  |  June 10, 2010

Wheeler's six-minute video So She Floats (2010) opens on a woman (Axiom Gallery director Heidi Kayser) with long red dreads and outfitted in a poufy Victorian gown fashioned from plastic bags. An attendant (artist Allison Layton) in a cardigan and jeans connects two plastic hoses coming out of Kayser's gown to a pair of bellows she wears as shoes that appear to inflate the gown.

Preparations complete, Kayser, followed by Layton, strolls regally past an industrial building, a parked truck trailer, and an old storage-tank building before going down a wooded path to a gusty, grassy shore where a round, rough-hewn wooden raft awaits. She removes her dreads, boards the vessel alone, disconnected from her attendant, and paddles with an oar turned to Swiss cheese by drilled holes. (One Man Raft and Holy Oar are on view in the gallery.) The video ends with Kayser seeming to spin in circles and not get anywhere.

IMAGIST POEM: Sloat, like Wheeler, works “to take material that was discarded and revalue it.”

For Wheeler, it's a story about a woman needing another woman's help to keep her dress inflated, to keep from sinking. When she goes it alone, she gets nowhere. For me, the metaphors are confusing: the gown doesn't noticeably inflate, and it's unclear what happens to the raft, since the shots don't include the surroundings. But So She Floats is still an alluring fairy-tale journey enacted with the solemnity of a ritual.

Wheeler is one of the standouts among Boston's conceptual sculptors and installation artists — a crew who include Jane Marsching, Andrew Mowbray, John Osorio-Buck, Jeff Warmouth, Douglas Weathersby, Andrew Witkin, and Joe Zane. Their work is distinguished by rigorously crafted (or at least commissioned or acquired) objects. These pieces tend to be curiously disembodied — rather than drawing attention to their own physicality, they serve as props that redirect us to ideas or stories.

Another member of the roster is Ben Sloat of Jamaica Plain, whose show "This Midas Earth" is at Steven Zevitas Gallery. Sloat seems to be constantly percolating with ideas. His previous show — "I'm Not like the Other Guys," at OH+T Gallery in 2008 — was a Michael Jackson spectacular, with a faux stained-glass canonization of Thriller-era Jackson and — the highlight — a live performance of the Thriller zombie-dance video. It explored the wacky, rich symbolism of Jackson as monster (Thriller), sexy beast, homosexual, hero, pervert, saint. But it was undercut by slapdash craftsmanship, as if Sloat were rushing to get his ideas out.

That's not a problem at Zevitas, where he continues to riff on pop music. The title piece is a record album (The Midas Touch) altered to refer to a Saul Bellow quote about, Sloat tells me, the earth's "capacity to produce and regenerate, which parallels a creative act." Throughout the show, Sloat, like Wheeler, works "to take material that was discarded and revalue it." He presents neon-light clouds, scattered plastic shopping bags molded in the shape of a Buddhist bodhisattva (though good luck guessing that), pixilated enlargements of clouds, and vinyl flowers painted in funereal shades of blue and white.

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