When Dennis Kois became director of the DeCordova, in 2008, he decided, beginning with this year's show, to revamp the format, turning the event into a biennial, mixing established artists with emerging talents, and putting the selection in the hands of a single curator (this time, the DeCordova's Dina Deitsch) instead of a team. The changes pay off with one of the best DeCordova round-ups in ages.
Regier's rocket is part of a retro-futuristic strain — a sort of Internet-age nostalgia — that pervades the show, from scary aliens and geodesic domes to sparkly crystals and utopian rainbows. The 17 artists also provide minimalist process art and mordant takes on global warming and government power. The most common denominator is spectacle, from psychedelic movie theaters to glittery paintings to Pope.L's purposely abrasive absurdist video of chickens pecking at a model of a capital dome.
The futuristic strain includes a pocket-sized retrospective of Otto Piene, an art-and-technology pioneer who retired to Groton, Massachusetts, in 1994, after two decades as director of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. He's best known locally for his Sky Art projects — mainly stunts with giant balloons. They're referred to here in a documentary video showing his 2400-foot-long rainbow arch of helium-filled tubes soaring into the air at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics and his giant orange spiky flower floating above the DeCordova in 1982. One gallery holds his Fleurs du Mal (1968-'70), a menacing spiky black plant sculpture that stiffens and slackens as it inflates (with an obtrusively loud fan) under a strobe light. The take-away is that a full-blown Piene retrospective is overdue.
The same goes for Paul Laffoley, an esteemed Boston visionary artist whose paintings resemble TV test patterns or electronics diagrams for generating mystical transcendent experiences — though, personally, I prefer my visionary experiences to look less like technical manuals.
Greta Bank of Portland infests gallery walls with glittery drooling cartoon alien orifices. Laurel Sparks of Boston continues to impress with her gooey glam rococo abstract paintings based on chandelier motifs. Bostonian Georgie Friedman's Dark Swell projects rushing lines onto a room-filling white fabric arch that resembles the barrel of a terrific surfing wave. Friedman is one of the most exciting new-media artists in the region, using technology to capture the forces of nature. Yet this crashing wave doesn't feel as ecstatically explosive as I expected it to.
Xander Marro, a co-founder of the Providence feminist art collective Dirt Palace and a major player in that city's poster explosion of the late 1990s, presents The Great Balcony (view from), a giant, fantastic sculptural relief featuring stuffed-animal houses, a dodo riding a boat, a lady riding an invisible horse, screenprinted clock-head people, castles, and clouds crying crystal tears. And as if that weren't enough, she's built a plywood hut painted with psychedelic beasts and diamond patterns. Inside, you can watch her 16mm film "Born to never throw anything away," which combines animation with a tour of the knickknacks of a house, the whole thing cut into staccato shots and set to a Velvet Undergroundy soundtrack. It's like getting an all-access pass to the secret childhood hideout of your dreams.