Art review: Space, ICA mark anniversaries with exemplary shows

Landon Newton, “Ordered Liberty”. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

Two Portland institutions are commemorating anniversaries this year: Space and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design.

“Assembly” at Space reaffirms the collaborative and experimental approach to art that has characterized the organization for 20 years. “Conjuring: 25 Years at the ICA” is historic (no actual art on display) made up of old catalogs, advertisements, and other materials, but the concurrent spectacle “A Fresh Greeting Is Heard” is a rich and rewarding visual experience.

All run until September 18.

Just inside the space is an array of potted plants. It’s not a leafy welcome to the gallery. In fact, it’s a mini garden of abortifacients – herbs used since classical antiquity (ie 1,000 BC) to terminate pregnancies. The walls around are covered with 102 pages of the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

It’s the work of Landon L. Newton, who explored this territory long before the latest court ruling. Frankly, there could hardly be a more compelling argument for ensuring safe access to abortion than this article, titled “Ordered Liberty.” Clearly, women have sought to terminate their pregnancies, for whatever reason, for millennia. It never became a problem in this country until the 19e century, when Connecticut banned the procedure after acceleration (when motion is detected in the uterus) in 1821.

Newton’s pointed question: If women have been willing for more than 3,000 years to undergo extreme herbal treatments – the high doses of abortifacients required usually cause liver and kidney damage and even death – how does the Court Supreme Court again condemn women to these potential dangers? Who’s playing God here?

Emily Carris-Duncan tackles something similar with quilted pieces, the fabric of which is colored with abortifacient dyes such as rue, tansy and indigo. But it also uses a solution derived from iron of 19ecentury-old slave chains, and the quilted works are made in collaboration with High Pastures, a “nonprofit interdisciplinary studio and retreat space dedicated to supporting the work of marginalized creative practitioners in Vermont,” according to a plaque mural.

These aspects of the work extend his commentary to a wider cultural sphere, linking the making of the work to slavery, traditions of black quilting circles, so-called “women’s work”, and issues of invisibility of women in the art world.

Quilt forms also appear in the offerings of E. Saffronia Downing. She draws clays from the sedimentary deposits of the regions where she lives and/or works and uses them to create glazed clay sculptures (here in the form of star patterns from traditional quilting). The components palpably convey the physical presence of the earth in the form of thick slabs of clay soil that crumble and crack. Yet the glazed areas connect the creator more closely to this land, creating a rich dialogue about the interrelationships of the natural and built environments, the land and the people who inhabit it. The shape of the star quilt also links the work to some of the same themes that Carris-Duncan explored.

Erin Woodbery, “Illuminators for the Geological Beyond.” Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

The environment is at the center of Erin Woodbrey’s original installation, “Illuminators for the Geological Beyond”. The jerry-rigged effect is intentional. It is made up of what appears to be human detritus: scrap wood, a bottle of detergent, a clothes horse, a candle, a blue florist’s vase, etc. But some items – the detergent bottle, the shorts, the flip flops – are actually cast from clay. Other items are natural detritus (a pile of eggshells, sun-bleached whelks, a stump of wood).

It provokes a reflection on what is brought into the world and then thrown away, as well as on the destination of all this. The passage of time is also inherent in this discussion, which makes something useful or not, relevant (read: timely) or obsolete. Lighting in the form of old floor and desk lamps, aluminum clamp lamps and other sources can shine steadily or oscillate between bright and dark, adding a visceral sense of fragility between our concept of permanence and impermanence.

This inevitably raises the question of extraterrestrial life of course, which is the subject of research based on the artist and writer olivier [sic], which in the back gallery invites us to write about our own UFO experiences and bring books about them to contribute to a possible library of extraterrestrial literature. The underlying message, however, is one of otherness: what is truly foreign?

MCXT installation at Space. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

The art of MCXT – a creative partnership between Monica Canilao and Xara Thustra – is about celebrating and empowering marginalized communities, from BIPOC and LGBTQ to “bodies with different abilities” and the “economic community”. It manifests itself in an explosive display of colors, graphics and clothing. Her most exuberant piece is the “In Your Dreams Coat,” a garment that combines appliquéd satin fabrics, florals, crochet, costume jewelry, beads, sequined pop culture imagery, fringe. It is a joyous microcosm of the inclusive orientation of Space.


“A Fresh Greeting” at the ICA features four artists who deal with nature in their work – its wild (and indomitable) power, its perpetual state of transformation, its almost frightening lushness. Allison Schulnik’s “Moth” video is simultaneously strange, beautiful and uplifting. Ostensibly, Schulnik has chained 1,540 works in gouache on paper to follow the constant metamorphosis of plants and a strange moth, all to the mournful music of Erik Satie.

It’s about more than nature, of course. More broadly, he meditates on the nature of reality and the constant spontaneous creation of everything from nothing. During its three minutes, no element remains static. The works blend into each other in an edgy, vibratory visual style that seems teeming, alive and prolific – shapes arise and change from second to second, reflecting the dynamism of the universe. Schulnik’s sensibility is akin to the romantic movement’s vision of the sublime, where nature and creation are by turns ecstatic and ravishing, terrible and even demonic.

“A Fresh Greeting is Heard”, installation view with art by Leon Benn and Lauren Mabry Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design

Leon Benn’s paintings are fertile and primitive hymns to the plant world’s unstoppable determination to repeatedly prove its dominance over humanity. The flora here still grows through the cityscape. Like nature’s coordinated assault on the human order – weeds, strangling vines, pollen proliferating more growth – Benn’s painting process is multi-layered. He dyes sections of his linen surfaces and uses acrylic washes, oil paint and oil pastel to mimic this profusion.

In two works in the back gallery, mushrooms, dandelions and leaves seem to grow from the surface towards the viewer. This effect is enhanced by Benn’s background, a depth of field that simulates a blurred photograph – buildings in one, a moth or a swooping butterfly in the other.

The sense of plants as predators – creeping, engulfing, suffocating – permeates Hannah Secord Wade’s paintings. Brush and trees seem to close in around these scenes to conceal a latent danger. In “Feast of the Unknowing”, an outdoor meal was cut short. A chair has tipped over, a glass has spilled its green liquid on the table and is dripping on the floor, a participant’s slippers lie on the grass in the foreground. “What happened here?” we request. The bushes surrounding the event have witnessed something but remain eerily silent.

Finally, I’m not sure how Lauren Mabry’s ceramic work relates to any of these themes, except, perhaps, in the visual representation of profusion, of something gone completely wild. But they are oddly fascinating. Mabry creates ceramic shapes by leaving cavities in them which she fills with glazes. In the kiln, these glazes melt and ooze from the cavities like taffy in long, dripping ribbons that sag on and around the lower parts of the forms.

She essentially creates sculptures with glazes, a feat in its own right, not least because in these multicolored drops, each hue retains its integrity rather than bleeding into adjacent colors. His technical skill is puzzling and thrilling. It also integrates other processes such as monoprint transfer. Their innovations go far beyond our concept of ceramics as a craft material that is somehow “inferior” to “fine” art.

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]

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