By GREG COOK  |  February 20, 2009

The territory Miller is working reminds me of Ad Reinhardt's 1950s and '60s paintings of squares and crosses in slightly shifting variations of a single color (blue, black, green, violet). The extreme subtlety of the color gave the Reinhardts a quiet transcendental hum. Miller hasn't nailed it yet, but her drawings could be headed toward a busier and more buzzing version of that kind of color jolt.

At Judi Rotenberg Gallery (130 Newbury Street, through March 1), SHEILA GALLAGHER of Jamaica Plain presents her first Boston exhibition since she showed at the Institute of Contemporary Art as one of the finalists for its 2006 Foster Prize. Gallagher is known for technical feats in multiple media — her ICA show included paintings made from smoke, a video, and (my favorite piece in that show) a wall of live flowers, with built-in irrigation, that vaguely formed a picture of a cloud and grandly evoked the particularly middle-class sublime of wedding corsages and trickling desktop Zen fountains.

Here she offers new paintings of a horseshoe crab and a sea urchin made by staining the canvases brown, blue, black, and green with smoke. The images are just okay. And the neat-o trick of how they were made doesn't register because it's not apparent from the pictures themselves.

In two other works here, I'm told, she aims to contemplate the spiritual in everyday life. Her video SOS features blue smoke and the voices of Buddhist chanting mixed with catalogues of daily tasks: call mom, get groceries, fold laundry. Daily Calendar Mandala turns scans of her datebooks — which list appointments and to-do lists — into a six-foot-wide mandala. But her cataloguing of the mundane duties of daily life doesn't transform them into something special. It just feels like data processing.

Also at Rotenberg, DARREN FOOTE of South Boston (the fiancé of Rotenberg director Kristen Dodge) fashions oak and poplar into trompe-l'oeil mutant furniture. A chair has crumpled. Wooden "rays" from a table lamp bend the top of a table. A pair of chairs standing next to each other seem to have been wounded on their abutting sides by some mysterious menace that's melted the seats and spindles down to jagged edges.

His standout sculpture is Bulb. A bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling appears to have been shattered and the shards scattered across the floor. Foote has carved and assembled it all from unpainted poplar — right down to the curling filament inside the cracked bulb. It's stained wood, so you always know it's wood, but the verisimilitude of the shapes is so convincing that your mind keeps insisting it's a real lightbulb. Foote is still figuring out how to imbue his how-did-he-do-that sleight-of-hand with rich meaning, but his craftsmanship is astonishing.

MICHAEL ELLIS of Boston also demonstrates his mastery of craft, with photorealist paintings at Anthony Greaney Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue, through March 28). One looks like a blow-up of a postcard of a mountain range. (It's actually from a photo taken by Ellis's brother.) Up close it seems to have been painted mainly with lots of grayed blue and green horizontal and vertical brushstrokes, but step back five feet and it becomes a crisp photo.

Another painting, this time rendered in soft areas of color, replicates a photo from Ellis's art-school graduation party at his family's Weymouth home. It seems like a mundane still-life snapshot of a half-eaten cake, paper napkins decorated with balloon motifs, and paper plates saying "congratulations" and printed with graduation caps. What gets me is the TV remote sitting at the right — a precisely observed detail that identifies the scene as early-2000s middle-class.

There is melancholy here, but mostly the images are so distant and buttoned up that they leave me cold, even as I marvel at Ellis's sharp observation and painting chops.

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Related: Art in the air conditioning, 2009: The year in art, Two sides of life, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Michael Ellis, Michael Ellis, Judi Rotenberg,  More more >
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