The South end’s surprising new warehouse chic

BY RENEE KAPLAN

But for the complete absence of attitude, it could have been a Chelsea gallery opening, one of those early evening gatherings of avant-garde haircuts, art scenesters and chardonnay in New York’s West-side outpost of hip art galleries. Instead, it was a Friday in the South End. At 450 Harrison Avenue, close to the South Boston side of the South End, down a desolate, industrial-looking street of warehouses and parking lots, a red brick loft building was burbling with art chatter and the splash of jug wine in clear plastic cups. The building houses several small galleries among its many office spaces, and this past Friday evening they were all hosting openings.

Women in tight jeans and little tops clicked their way down the concrete staircase in between the galleries on the first three floors. Shaggy-haired boys with cross-chest messenger bags chatted with intellectualoid girls in conceptual skirts. And a skinny, wrinkly, over-tan German collector lady in funky John Galliano boots – evidently she was just back from Saint Barth’s and so pleased to make the openings – seemed to know all the gallery owners.

The art itself was all contemporary and eclectic. Thanks to many of the featured artists being in attendance and being introduced around by their dealers, people were actually looking at the art. Upstairs at the O_H+T Gallery, two dramatically different painters share a two-room loft space. Carolanna Parlato’s abstract acrylic paintings look like technicolor fractals on neon backgrounds. They evoke the rainbow reflection you see in gasoline puddles, strangely geometric refractions depicted in high-clash color combinations: fuschia, brown and aqua; ochre, sky blue and orange. Decorative but unsettling in their abrasive color contrasts, they feel like something organic and familiar that’s been distorted and charged with toxic color.

In the other room, Bradley Rubinstein’s three large canvases are more quiet, yet much more disturbing. In one of them, the flower at the top of a spare stem actually represents a woman’s head. It is a two-dimensional face with hollowed eyes that looks like it’s been stenciled on to the top of the stem in black paint, like some cruelly decapitated head on the tip of a spear. The image is placid and spare – dark stenciled shapes on an off-white background – but macabre, like a horrible memorial to some woman’s violent death.

Down the hall, at the Allston Skirt Gallery, Sean Foley’s paintings and wall sculptures evoke a different nightmare, more cartoonish and surreal. In his canvases, a nasty mixture of abstract and representational shapes – phallic extensions, bulging eyes, cartoon claws, gore splatters, organ-like blobs – all whirl together in a frenetic swirl of gray and black against white, like the animation stills of an X-rated Robert Crumb cartoon. The feel is fun and noir, and very art school, but the scene in the gallery itself was more interesting. Maybe it was the smaller gallery space – none of the galleries here are larger than a few average-sized rooms – but people stood elbow to plastic wine cup, with much checking out of each other through arty black-framed eyeglasses, and without a whole lot of space to view the art on the walls. Happily, Foley’s graphic works didn’t really need much more distance for viewing than the German collector’s boots – black and white and orange newsprint on suede – which seemed to be getting a lot of attention.

The show in the downstairs Bernard Toale Gallery is the most curated of the galleries’ exhibits. Called “5 Fictions,” it features five different artists in five different mediums, each exploring the idea of the portrait. The title’s unsubtle reference to fiction alludes to all the work of construction and commentary going on in what we think of as a genre typically representing reality.

In Rico Gatson’s “Klandles #3” sculpture, a dozen candles in pastel shades in the shape of Klansmen busts stand aligned on the kind of rustic-looking white wall shelf with decorative beveling and color-painted details that you might find in a country kitchen. It is sweet, domestic and fiercely ironic, a subtle portrait of hypocrisy and insidiousness. The show also includes a beautiful photograph by Jocelyn Lee of an older female nude with slightly sagging breasts and belly who, though depicted in the unmade bed of a cheap-looking motel room, looks improbably innocent and serene, as though indifferent to whatever age and circumstance might impute to her. With only five pieces, the small show is loaded with meanings about the power of portraiture.

And if that Friday was any evidence, the dozen small galleries that make up the South End’s burgeoning art scene are also proof that even Boston is loaded with meanings about the power of warehouse chic and eccentric art collectors. Such a scene, who knew?

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