Bay Windows -
By Shawn Hill
'Sam Earle: Tattoo Paintings'; and 'Camera Work,' an exhibit of work by Morgan Cohen, Mary Kocol, David Prifti and Robert Siegelman, both at Gallery NAGA, Boston, through September 29. "Camera Work" is an interesting group photography show in the gallery's back room, the work of four divergent artists spread over roughly 3.5 walls. It works because each is so different. We're given four unique examples of the broad current range of what can be done with a camera.
Morgan Cohen's monotone "Corners" is at one extreme. The artist takes a painterly approach that makes corners of white rooms into abstract, minimalist statements. Each corner is simply that, a ceiling juncture of three planes. However, in luminous white (w/subtle tints, towards blue in one, towards pink or yellow in others), the non-events of these corners become paramount. One curves, another recedes, a third seems to flow and shimmer, as if seen through fog. With the least sort of means, Cohen has achieved alluring elegance.
David Prifti covers found pieces of wood and steel with photographic emulsions. His images look antiquated, not just because they're blowups of antique portraits in sepia tones. Combined with his worn, weathered surfaces, they virtually define nostalgia. Distant voices from lives long stilled.
Mary Kocol is the most straightforward of the photographers here. Her urban and suburban scenes are relatively uncluttered with conceptualism. The focus is simply on composition and point of view. A Somerville backyard in winter is all boxy, homely angles under blankets of thick snow. "Woman Opening Umbrella, Tokyo" focuses on the light coming through a flowered parasol. In "View from Fire Truck Ladder" we teeter precariously over a scene of firefighters and hoses uncoiling within a regimented, orderly parking lot.
Robert Siegelman treats his wall like a surface on which to unfold images as if from a photographic journal (we saw one such earlier this year in a group show at Hallspace Gallery). Here the images are varied and unhurried, calmly spreading along the wall to take up asymmetrical provinces, grouped more by technique than subject matter.
Siegelman's newfound fascination with digital prints is on evidence here, among Polaroid collages and transfer prints. Some works are framed, some are merely taped or tacked to the wall. All relate in some way to Siegelman's consistent homoeroticism; male nudes, most often alone, in various states of undress and arousal. One compelling segment shows the artist himself, just his face, in five panels. He seems to flicker in and out of ecstatic focus.
Earle's big break
Sensuality and abandon is also prevalent in the painting show in the front gallery, the latest from Sam Earle. "Tattoo Paintings" are just that, dense collages of tattoo motifs, mostly based in the East Asian aspect of that tradition.
We see dragons, lanterns, geisha girls, samurai warriors, and children. All are blended together, overlapping, in a dense, colorful tangle similar to the "sleeves" and other full body coverings achieved by some of the most devout tattoo wearers.
This show comes out of Earle's own traditions from the past decade. Where once he painted on doors, he now uses differently sized panels that recall the doors' silhouettes. Where once he named each work after the address from which he appropriated the door, now the street names refer to tattoo parlor addresses in Boston and New York.
The biggest break is in texture. Earle has abandoned the grid format in these all-over works, cutting out each image meticulously along its contour. Rows of tacks that used to hold the cards he once arranged as a painting surface now map out organic curves and whirls and spirals. The idea of each image or motif having its unique frame or box of space (used in past series focusing on children's blocks and flowers) has been abandoned, as has any semblance of a flat, polished surface.
These panels bulge and swell as if over layers and layers of appliqué. They're lumpen, swollen, mottled and uneven. This is the least elegant, the most cruddy (and, in that way, gestural) of Earle's shows thus far. There's a pleasingly non-perfect, very human quality here.
Of course, as in any Earle show, if you buy one painting, you've bought the entire concept. Virtually indistinguishable from each over, each painting seems like a mere slice from a larger, infinite patchwork. Earle takes "all-over" to the extreme, never using a central or focal image for a panel. This time, it's all about surface, and that surface is like skin.