There are many well-known art venues in Portland that regularly appear in this column. But smaller, quieter spots off the beaten path are also worth seeking out. Two of them have been around for a while, but have new shapes.
Ocean House Gallery & Frame, operated out of Cape Elizabeth for many years, has just moved to an attractive new – and much larger – space in the Knightville area of South Portland. Owner Graham Wood presents “MP Landis – around, about” until May 14.
Mayo Street Arts closed before the pandemic to build a wheelchair-accessible entrance and, while closed, mounted its exhibits in the former Nissen Bakery building on Washington Avenue in the East End. The first show of its “new old” digs is Kifah Abdulla’s “Art – Arabic Calligraphy – And Me” (until May 26).
It would be an exaggeration to say that these shows are related. However, the two have one perceptible thing in common, which is the tightrope they navigate between gesture and an underlying organizing principle or order.
Michael P. Landis, a Pennsylvania-born painter who moved to Maine in 2015, says his work has always been about “the dialogue between process and artifact, doing and done.” This process consists of imposing a certain order by deploying an easily visible grid below the surface, either in the form of incised lines or slightly raised. I don’t know how Landis gets to this last one, but it looks like it’s kind of a wide mesh covered in paper and covered in gesso before he started applying color – mostly blues – on it.
There are obvious references to skylines, ocean and sky in many works, such as “mp13.12”, “mp13.13”, “mp13.14” and “mp13.15”. These digital titles suggest their serial nature and, in fact, they are variations on a similar theme, with some appearing as if the ocean were in the foreground and the landmasses (represented by black or gray brush strokes) and the sky in the distance. Others, like “mp13.15” with its white foreground, could be snow with landmasses and sky beyond.
A painting like ‘mp13.10’ however does not conform to this idea, appearing instead as something more abstract, although its blue tones and sense of movement still seem to indicate water and, perhaps, foam. Paintings like this also convey a sense of greater, more mysterious depth, and because of this, are more seductively appealing (all the works feel sensual in their materiality).
Another in this vein is “18.32”, a triptych that reveals greens and blacks through gaps in the blue layered cover. Its centrifugal energy evokes a vortex that suggests ocean blue holes or occasional whirlpools. All of these paints have a soothing, liquid effect. The underlying grid, in its immutable regulation, creates a very subtle sense of tension to this fluidity. This tension comes from the constant back and forth between rigor and freedom, stasis and movement.
The friction becomes even more charged with two larger Wood works hung in a hallway: “21.28” and “21.29”. They basically consist, like the others, of the underlying grid and blue and gray backgrounds. But above them, Landis has built levels of repeating circular shapes (in “21.28” they are rendered in blue, black, red and beige; in “21.29” also, but also in a more complex way, obscuring glimpses of green, red and pink under blue and gray backgrounds).
The contrast between square grid and round shapes, layer upon layer of circular shapes and tantalizing glimpses of other colors enliven these paintings. They feel vibrant and alive unlike other paints, which is not a criticism of other paints at all. These simply have another, more energetic presence.
The calligraphic or graffiti quality of “21.28” and “21.29” is, coincidentally, a fitting sequel to Abdulla’s acrylic paintings at Mayo Street Arts. Abdulla is from Baghdad, Iraq. As a young art student, he was exposed to an Islamic art movement called Hurufiyya, which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and used traditional Arabic calligraphy – a strictly rule-bound art form – but l recontextualized according to the principles of modernist painting. Early ancestors included Princess Wijdan Ali (Jordan), Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan), and fellow Iraqis Jamil Hamoudi and Jawad Saleem, among others.
The precepts of Hurufiyya live on in the works of young contemporaries like El Seed (Tunisia), Fereydoon Omidi (Iran) and Khadiga El-Ghawas (an Egyptian whose real name is Khadiga Tarek).
The effectiveness and distinction of the works of these artists depend largely on the repetition of decoratively or structurally recognizable calligraphy. El Seed superimposes the figures to create a matrix which he fills with bright colors. Omidi paints thick forests of calligraphy, layering the letters on top of each other in a frame for his tone-on-tone paintings. And Khadiga El-Ghawas retains the legible form of the figures, but fabricates them using light – in the form of neon projections or sculptures.
A few of Abdulla’s paintings share some of the inspirations of these artists. “Beautiful Vision”, for example, has affinities with the work of Omidi. And some, like in “The Poet with a Dream”, come across clearly as a script (almost like something Glen Ligon or Christopher Wool would paint if they were writing in Arabic). Since I don’t read or speak Arabic myself, I can’t know if these paintings communicate anything legibly. But by maintaining the visual integrity of the lettering and their connection to the language and the message, these paintings seem almost “readable”.
In most works, however, Abdulla separates himself from his colleagues by pushing calligraphy almost to illegibility and complete abstraction. He doesn’t quite get there in “True Love Is Medicine” and “Searching for the Elixir of Life”, where the “calligraphy” appears almost like hieroglyphs. We want Abdulla to allow his abstract impulse to fully inform these works. Instead, it adds symbols like hearts or arrows that bring us back to the representation and, in combination with the titles, redirect us not so subtly to messages that can seem a bit cutesy and contrived (curiously, the titles are different on the Abdulla site, where they lack this sentimental suggestibility).
But in paintings like ‘Longing as a Storm’ and ‘Faith’, the artist leaps headlong into abstraction and, in doing so, creates powerfully gestural works. The figures here are virtually obliterated, but discernible enough to take these paintings out of the canon of Western gestural abstraction and give it an individuality of its own. In fact, “Longing” visually takes us far enough east to suggest modern Chinese ink brush painting.
There are two unfortunate circumstances that cloud the success of “Calligraphy”. One is the show’s date-only aspect. While it can’t be avoided (it’s a staffing issue in the age of the pandemic), I don’t know how many people will plan ahead in this way. As the only place in Portland showcasing art based on a Muslim cultural background, it’s worth checking out.
Second, the architecture. Mayo Street Arts is located in a former church, which means heavy woodwork and stained glass. The deep blue of the walls is a terrible foil for the colors of Abdulla’s paintings. Other visual distractions are exits and a concession stand window. These constrict wall space, forcing some paintings to hang on top of each other or higher than optimal eye level. If Mayo really wants visual art to be a core part of his lineup, he might consider giving the entire interior a coat of white or black paint (woodwork included) to lessen those distractions for the artwork on display.
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]