“Curate” can be an intimidating term. For those less immersed in the art world, a “curated” exhibition often comes with associations of exclusivity, snobbery, intellectual rigor, and a level of scholarship that requires prior knowledge, or at least specialized, to understand. While it could certainly be those things, it could also be something much simpler and intensely personal. This is the case with two interesting shows taking place in southern Maine.
‘Our Beasts’ at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York (until June 19), focuses on motherhood, particularly caring for children with special needs. The works that occupy the upstairs gallery are by three mother artists who take up this challenge on a daily basis: Alicia Ethridge, Celeste Henriquez and Martha Miller. Each expresses this difficult journey in intimately personal, poignant and palpable ways – sometimes anguished, sometimes sweet and sometimes fantastical. For all of these women, I suspect their art serves as a vehicle of sorts for adaptation, understanding, and redemption.
(The bottom gallery hosts “Ebb & Flow” and “Hold, Keep, Carry,” related shows by other mother-creators that deal with motherhood, family, and legacies, but without the element of children. with special needs.)
Martha Miller presents large scale charcoal drawings of her daughter, Lisbeth, who suffered a brain injury at the age of 6 and is still having seizures. These are touching works. “Guardians of ICU” shows Lisbeth in her hospital bed, her stuffed toys lined up along an edge watching over her. “The Visitor” is heartbreaking in light of Lisbeth’s story. It’s a portrait of her and Miller, both asleep. We can feel this as perhaps one of the few quiet, calm moments in this relationship. However, Lisbeth’s sleep seems disturbed, and Miller’s expression, eyes closed, is one of total exhaustion.
A congenital heart condition required a heart transplant for Alicia Ethridge’s son when he was just 18 months old. Ethridge’s works, dense, colorful and chaotically mixed (intentionally I believe, to reflect the tumult of emotions of the situation) often show him safe from harm or otherwise protected. In “Snake Pit”, what separates him from writhing reptiles is a huge red hand. Ethridge is influenced by myth, astrology, and animal guardian spirits, so the figure in this painting could be Apollo (protector of the young) or Soteria (who offered salvation from evil) from classical myth. “Mothership” sounds quieter. In it, Ethridge wears earrings as a sign of peace and is flanked by a pair of hinds – symbols of family, gentleness and calm.
Celeste Henriquez’s paintings, however, do something else. Her daughter, Abigail, was born with low muscle tone and atrial septal defect. She was eventually diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability. What is so powerful about Henriquez’s paintings is that many are seen from both the artist’s and Abigail’s perspective simultaneously. It is as if we were listening to a private agreement between mother and daughter.
“Mama Transformed into the Backyard Tree” shows Henriquez’s body forming the canopy of the tree, her arms the trunk, and fingers rooted in the ground. There are so many ways to interpret this, it’s what gives the painting such power. This could be the reality of how Abigail sees or imagines her mother. The trees also act as shield and shadow, roles that Henriquez clearly takes on, and also ones that Abigail might perceive subliminally (a child shielded from the harsh light of reality). The composition puts Henriquez above the predicament – something that could be read as a desire to occasionally detach from the demanding field experience of guarding.
“Mama Swim”, a beautiful small oil, initially appears abstract, just horizontal strokes of thick impasto color. But when you look closer, you see two characters, presumably Abigail and Henriquez, making their way through the canvas. This kind of mother-daughter activity is affecting. As in many paintings, the figures are rendered in a childlike manner, further emphasizing the perspective of Abigail’s still mind. But the thickness of the brushstrokes and the compressed spaces they define also give the impression that they are struggling in a medium much more dense and laborious than water, which makes their effort more strenuous than a swim. relaxed.
Henriquez’s mix of abstraction and figuration also has a magical quality to it. There is no doubt that these canvases inhabit an altered world – a little chaotic, restless and attuned to the ego, yet fantastical, innocent and slightly playful in the manner of fairy tales.
“29 Mainers” at the Kittery Community Center’s Morgan Gallery (through August) features images by South Berwick-based portrait photographer Erin Moore. This show, too, was conceived from a very personal point of view. All images are of black and brown residents of Maine. Moore, who is white, is married to Jermaine Moore, the black founder of an organization specializing in teaching diversity, culture, leadership and team development and coaching. Her investment in the black and brown community is therefore driven by her own involvement as the wife of a black man and the mother of an adopted Ethiopian son and three biological biracial daughters.
There’s work here that feels a bit sentimental (kids in astronaut or Spider-Man costumes that look like something a proud mom would order from a commercial studio photographer). And a few images look somewhat predictable and didactic (a portrait with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation behind a woman with a tattoo of Abraham Lincoln).
“I’m very committed to positive portrayal,” Moore told me. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t feel tense, like a picture of a young black girl flexing her muscles like Rosie the Riveter. His daughter Amaya is depicted in a reproduction of an iconic Black Panther image of Huey Newton seated on a rattan peacock throne. These are impactful because, in addition to being striking, they suggest something we can relate to (in both cases, from memories of the original images) rather than making it explicit.
But there are plenty here that also exude a lot of imagination. Instead of titles, Moore uses quotes from famous black people. There’s Carmen with a quote from Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a photo of a woman with closed eyes wearing elaborate glitter makeup. It’s pretty simple, except Moore’s backdrop for this image is a grid of Carmen’s stunning open blue eyes. The visual effect is that of something seen through a kaleidoscope, a little off-putting, but also very intriguing.
Moore’s image of Claudia, an artist seen through one of her watercolors and accompanied by a quote from Angela Davis, is also interesting in the way she relates the subject to her designs. Ditto for the portrait of the Somali author Abdi Nor Iftin looking out from behind an American flag, with a quote from his own memoir, “Call Me American”. It is effective because the flag represents a very immediate and complex reality for Iftin. (Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, which looks like some distant historical experience tagged on a portrait where Lincoln’s tattoo already says a lot.)
The most formally stunning photo is a portrait of Kaia, a music student and singer, along with a quote from Maya Angelou. She is shot in profile by blowing a balloon through a bubble wand. It has an elegant sculptural quality reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic 1984 portrait, also shot in profile, of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman. These two images reduce everything to emphasize the pure naked beauty of a human form.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]