Good behavior

Looking for the renegades at this year’s DeCordova Annual
By CHRISTOPHER MILLIS  |  May 17, 2006

TEN WINDOWS: Joe Johnson depicts a marriage of proximity and distance, intimacy and alienation, symmetry and disruption.

Restrained playfulness and a certain decorative sensibility are the outstanding attributes of this year’s DeCordova Annual Exhibition, an event that began life 16 years ago to showcase the work of New England artists at various stages of their careers. The 2006 show presents 13 artists, mostly in the early middle stages of their creative lives (my guess is the average age hovers around 36), who work in media ranging from traditional painting and sculpture to high-tech interactive electronics. There’s even a video of an improvisational monologue in which Christopher Gray free-associates with the small, yellow, abstract wood sculpture he’s made.

As is so often the case with group shows that are not organized by theme or in any other formal way, the big and the splashy tend to dominate while the small and the subtle go overlooked. The curators appear to have addressed that issue: if the work’s small, there’s an abundance of it. More disappointing is the confined emotional range of much of this year’s Annual. I had the sense of being in a primary-school classroom on parents’ night. An overarching tidiness and look-what-we’ve-done formality told me I was there to admire, not engage. Little that was gritty or tense or raw — including Jon Sarkin’s room chock full of R. Crumb–like graffiti-influenced drawings (too many names of modern masters written beside the druggy cartoons) — got past the decision makers. We’re left with art by and for the well-behaved.

That said, a few renegades hint at an edgy underside. Joe Johnson looks down from the roofs of city buildings to take 40-by-40-inch color photographs. He’s set himself a difficult and interesting task: to shoot architecture that’s charged by human presence without including much in the way of people. He succeeds by taking nighttime photos of apartment complexes without a flash, so that whatever light we see suggests occupancy. Ten Windows, 2004 is both his most populated picture — there’s a probable body in one window, a possible body part in another, and, of all things, a miniature skeleton on the ledge of a third — and his most captivating. He makes us shameless voyeurs, not only by goading us with the nebulous human elements we have to struggle to identify and make sense of (who keeps a skeleton on the other side of a drawn shade?) but also by messing with our expectations. The title implies a predictable grid formation and uniformity, not to mention the likelihood of a visible building. Yet by cropping the photo as he has and by angling the camera to catch an exterior wall perpendicular to the one we face, he’s ensured that no two windows will measure in identically. And the building itself exists only as pure blackness. Ten Windows is an arresting marriage of proximity and distance, intimacy and alienation, symmetry and disruption.

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