Barbara Grad, at the Danforth Museum

Some folks carry a high attraction factor, that something that makes them irresistible and noteworthy. In Boston’s art scene—particularly among women artists—Barbara O’Brien has her own version of the Star Wars’ tractor beam.

Those grappling rays of magnetism were in full force today at the Danforth Museum in Framingham. O’Brien, a former curator at Montserrat and at Simmons as well as editor in chief at Art in New England, is no longer a denizen of Boston but a curator at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. She was in town to speak about the show she put together (in conjunction with Danforth’s own curator, Katherine French) of recent paintings by Barbara Grad. The show is on view at the Danforth through November 7th and then heads to the Kemper in February.

“Video Villa” is smart, engaging, unexpected. Sitting in the main gallery space while Barbara spoke was so satisfying since this is work that gains in body and influence the more it is viewed. I knew of Grad’s work previous to this show (she is well known around town and teaches at Mass College of Art) but this is work that feels refreshingly new and exploratory. The “mismatched” pairing of painterly surfaces is an invitation to experience the painterly space in a different way. Each of the composite works defines space on its own terms. These pieces offered me delight and celebration for the sheer pleasures of seeing, breathing, being in that room.

I have heard O’Brien speak a number of times and she never fails to keep her center of gravity in a place of sincerity and soft spoken wisdom. Looking out at an audience chock full of Boston-based artists, mostly women, she spent the first part of her time talking about the challenges of the mid career artist. (She used this wry definition of the mid career artist: The artist who has done everything right, is ready for a one person museum show, then drops off the radar.) This is a process that is frustratingly familiar to many people there, and the energy of pure attention and respect in the standing room only gallery was palpable.

Not insensitive to the vagaries and difficulties that face all artists these days, O’Brien offered a few guidelines that are worth noting:

– Keep up your practice.
– Be ready when the opportunity comes. And being reading means having a commitment to the studio and to the world. They both matter.
– Don’t be afraid to be lost (for some, not living in New York may feel like being lost).
– Be professional persistent—about your work, contacting sympathetic curators and venues, making other connections.

I liked the gentle languaging O’Brien employed to describe these complex and visually satisfying works. With her thoughtful respect for the alchemy and mystery of what happens in the studio, she did increase my appreciation for Grad’s dualistic couplings and the suggestible expansion of these works into larger than life visual experiences. Grad uses shifts in the point of view, from emulating a sense of looking down onto a surface (a topology which can suggest the man made, nature or both) to the invitation to look across the work with an almost a Murakami-like superflat aesthetic. While few of the works in this show are larger than human-scaled, they reside in memory as more expansive and larger than their actual dimensions. O’Brien made a comment about how each charges the air around them. Good way to think about it.

This is a show worth seeing for anyone who seeks after those experiences that can only happen in painted space.

Circumstantial Evidence


(Images courtesy of Barbara Grad)