TINY TOWER A detail from “Distant Mirrors.”

A few weeks back, three artificial islands made of recycled plastic and dotted with little model buildings — houses, a watch tower, an oil refinery, the Tower of Babel — were floated down the Providence River and anchored just south of the Crawford Street Bridge at South Water Street.

"While oil companies reap enormous profits, the profligate and unchecked use of oil has resulted in inequality, global class conflict, and war," writes Ellen Driscoll of Brooklyn, who heads RISD's sculpture department head and produced the floating sculptures (on view through October 24) with assistance from Rose Heydt, Dianne Hebbert, Ponnapa Prakkamakul, and Megan McLaughlin.

DIDACTIC AND ESOTERIC Driscoll’s “Distant Mirrors.”
The symbolism of "Distant Mirrors," as Driscoll calls it, is simultaneously didactic — oil refinery plus Tower of Babel equals we're all screwed because of our oil addiction (Driscoll doesn't mention global warming) — and esoteric. You'll probably need to read signs Driscoll has posted to figure out that the rectangular-ish island represents Providence founder Roger Williams's original map for the first English settlers' 52 house lots and thus our long legacy of rapacious consumption of natural resources. And that second island is shaped like North America plus "shapes representing the oil fields of the leading suppliers of crude oil to the United States: Canada, Nigeria, Venezuela, Mexico and Saudi Arabia." And the third island reverses the outlines of the second.

 For a few years, Driscoll has been creating ethereal sculptures from translucent white, recycled plastic. She often plays with shifting scales, as in a previous sculpture that was a room-sized bridge with a model derrick at one end of the span and at the other end a house on the top of the road deck and clinging upside down beneath a cluster of little buildings around a satellite tower. Often her meanings are mysterious, or vague, but the curious juxtapositions and handsome craftsmanship are intriguing. Here the small scale of her model buildings can be a bit hard to decipher from shore, but her sculptural skill draws you in. And the placement, rippling atop the rolling river in sight of downtown and the old power plant downstream, is a smart move that makes the references to nature and society more apparent and gives the art an extra charge.

The title of "Palimpsestic," the new show organized by Sam Keller and Tabitha Piseno of R.K. Projects in a pop-up gallery in a rundown building at 891 North Main Street in Providence (through October 29), refers to a writing material that has been scraped clean so that it could be used again while leaving traces of its previous use behind. Here it's a way of talking about the art of layering.

The theme is most straightforwardly explored in the paintings of Annabeth Marks of Providence, like the untitled, rough-edged scrap of painted canvas scraped or clawed away like an old wall to reveal bright paint, red and green and pink beneath. Other paintings are loose, geometric abstractions, like The Four Story Mountain I, which features a sort of a triangle shape divided into smaller triangles, with each section filled in differently — a blue and green spiral, red and orange daubs on a black squiggle, radiating black lines dotted with red paint blobs. Marks's paintings have the messy, offhand feel of a lot of stylishly "bad" abstraction these days. They hold together because of underlying compositional structures, like those triangles, and her eye for color.

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