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Two new exhibits at the BMoCA stress the roles of women in art.

Addison's decision to juxtapose traditional female nudes by male artists with the pluralistic approach embraced by the women in the rest of Muscle appears to set up a straw man: tradition-bound men contrasted to radical and experimental women. It's really not like that in the art world, though, since in addition to the categories identified by Addison there are others, including traditional artists who are women and lunatic-fringe artists who are men. In a way, the four nudes seem to be a part of a different show, with the much larger women's section being totally distinct.

Turning away from the wall of nudes, Addison has placed "Sysiphe Sport," a 1997 granite, leather and metal sculpture on a stand. He views this sculpture by Czech artist Jana Sterbak as the centerpiece of the show. The sculpture is a gray granite boulder to which Sterbak has attached leather straps with buckles. The straps are the sort seen on backpacks. In fact, she turns the rock's natural shape and varied color into a metaphor for a backpack.

Addison uses the implication of the burden of the granite backpack to express what he calls "the eternal burden of life which women carry." His observations of this sort, often with political messages or art historical tidbits, have been placed on cards hung next to each piece.

"Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, acrylic painting.
"Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, acrylic painting.
Untitled sculptures by Matt Mullican.
Untitled sculptures by Matt Mullican.

Proceeding to the north half of the gallery, we come upon another sculpture, "White Basket," by Annabeth Rosen, from 1994. It's a pierced ceramic bowl in the form of a crown. Beyond is a striking color photograph, "The Sisters," by Tina Barney, from 1989. The subjects are two well-dressed older woman both looking at some unknown object below the bottom of the frame.

Immediately to the left of the photo is one of the real standouts in the show, "Untitled Red," a 1994 oil-on-canvas by Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz. The painting is a small vertical in which de la Cruz has pulled the canvas away from the stretcher bars, which are revealed in the top half of the painting. On the lower half, the canvas, which is entirely painted in a rich tomato red, is stretched conventionally at the bottom and gathered at the top. In this way, the artist questions the flatness inherent in painting. Interestingly, however, she uses a monochrome, an approach popular with minimalists and color field painters, the greatest champions of flatness.

Further down the wall is another artist who is questioning flatness while using a flat painting style. "Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, is a 1999 acrylic on a flexible sheet that has been hung from a wall-mounted rod like a towel from a towel rack. One side of the sheet is visible at the top, and the other side is visible at the bottom. The upper part is painted yellow with vertical stripes in red and green; the bottom a bluish black with horizontal stripes in vibrant colors.

In the south half of the gallery is a large, multi-panel painting from 1993 by Jennifer Bartlett, titled "Alphabet Four." Bartlett uses enamel on steel tiles. Sixteen of the tiles have been arranged in a four-by-four grid, with a single tile hung below on the left. The shapes and lines look crisp and clean from a distance, but up close, each form is made from a gestural daub of pigment. The painting, an abstract, looks like a map, but on the lone tile hung below the grid, Bartlett has painted -- inexplicably -- an expressive portrait of a cuddly rabbit.

Heading back to the front of the West Gallery, viewers see an elegant conceptual piece crammed with biting political commentary. "Golden Yella Girl" consists of three toned-silver prints combined with type by Carrie Mae Weems. The title, paired with the three identical photos of a little African-American girl, raises the issue of racism within the black community, a consistent theme for Weems, one of the country's most famous African-American artists. The piece refers to light-skinned blacks, but the little girl in the picture is dark-skinned.

More personal and less political is "Self-Portrait With Swimming Coach Charlie Sava," an enamel-on-canvas from 1974 by the famous Bay Area figural abstractionist Joan Brown. The painting incorporates many abstract devices, including the serpentine black line on the blue-green color field that provides the painting's background. It's obviously meant to symbolize the pool. In the foreground, Brown has placed herself next to and slightly in front of her much larger coach. Their faces and torsos are cartoonish yet painterly in the gestural simplification Brown uses to convey them.

To put it bluntly, Muscle lacks tone. But even if the underlying concept, whatever that may be, fails, there's still a lot of good work on display.

Addison's other show, A World View: Works by Matt Mullican, in the East Gallery, is as cogent as Muscle is confusing. Admittedly, it's easier to make sense in a solo show than a group show, especially since Mullican's work in prints, sculpture and painting are all manifestations of the same idea. Mullican uses a simple set of shapes, mostly circles, spheres, squares and cubes, and from these he creates an idiosyncratic iconography for things like heaven, hell, life and death. Fortunately, a guide to this iconography is available in the gallery.

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