“REAL/IDEAL (Turning Utopia Into Reality)” at the Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery is a reassuring show for tense times.
In recent years, Randi Hopkins, the center’s director of visual arts, has elevated the annual resident artists’ exhibition above the level of an obligatory members show, which can be scattershot. This year, curator David Guerra invited 18 residents and 10 guests to contemplate utopia. These artists’ ideals range from personal to philosophical to societal, but they hang together on hope.
I started with Sara Oliver’s soothing sound piece, “Self-topia” — the thud of a heartbeat, gurgles, crackles, and a low, airy moan I could not identify. Turns out the sounds are intimately familiar — they’re all from within the human body.
Several artists share Oliver’s tack. Searching for utopia? Start here and now. Beverly Sky’s fabric collage invokes René Magritte and St. Augustine in a plea to pay attention. David Addison Small’s gray-bearded bear of an angel chomps a cigar in an untitled painting, sitting back with fruit, wine, and a loaf of bread. His inward expression suggests a beneficent figure with strong boundaries.
Other artists critically address justice, economics, the environment, shaking out old ideas to make space for new ones. In “Suspending Disbelief,” Gisela Griffith considers religious fundamentalism’s rigidity by breaking biblical images up into a block puzzle. The finished puzzle would be pat, but the unfinished one, full of uncertainty and contradiction, may better represent life and faith.
Kate Gilbert installs her photo “Untitled (Chinatown Housing)” above rocks and asphalt adorned with gold leaf, moss, and a nylon sack. In the photo, a dress Gilbert wore for a public performance piece about economic inequality has been made into a tent in a deserted lot. Each element here sets off bare subsistence with touches of value and dearness, and the prospect of wholeness.
Utopias are easy. It’s in dystopias such as Gilbert’s that ideals are most cherished.
REAL/IDEAL (Turning Utopia Into Reality)
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Sept. 17. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.