Art review: The Abby Shahn exhibition responds to the need to be moved by art, in person

“A Field of Blackbirds”, by Abby Shahn. Photo by Kyle Dubay

I needed to see art.

Weary of the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, mourning our universal loss, I, like everyone else, was slowly trying to adjust to our new normal. Then came the double punch of the torturous murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, followed by the president’s incendiary response to nationwide protests demanding an end to our country’s systemic racism. The undercurrent of anxiety over the coronavirus was suddenly replaced by a torrent of emotions that alternated between outrage, disgust and despair. After three months of visiting online exhibitions, my desire to rediscover art in all its physical power suddenly felt much stronger. I wanted to sit with. Reflect. To connect with our deeper humanity in the transcendent way that the best creative expressions offer.

“Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” had been on my mind since it opened at Portland’s Speedwell Projects in mid-March, only to close days later due to the statewide shutdown. Shahn moved from New York to Maine in the late 1960s, situating himself in rural Solon and maintaining an intentional distance from the artistic establishment and the influence of current artistic trends. From this perspective, 80-year-old Shahn has created work that is difficult to categorize. Her paintings are political, but unlike those of her father, the famous social-realist painter Ben Shahn, they are not overtly political, with the younger Shahn preferring the ambiguity of abstraction to her cultural commentary/protest. Often using titles as an entry or point of reference (“Katrina”, “Dogs of War”), Shahn sees her art as a record – a way, she says, to “bear witness” to the torments of our time.

“Ghost 1”, by Abby Shahn Photo by Kyle Dubay

I thought about it as I put on my mask and walked into Speedwell, slipping in while the gallery assistant took out the trash. For a few seconds, I reveled in being alone in space; then I looked up and was shocked. Right next to the door was a wall of “Ghosts”, a series of 30 small impressionist paintings on paper. The simple, atmospheric silhouettes are unframed and taped to the wall in a group, each huddled group trapped in its own 11-inch by 15-inch purgatory notebook page, but connected to the others. By labeling them generically “Ghost 1”, “Ghost 2”, etc., Shahn hopes “each viewer adds their own meaning, their own ghosts”. (Shahn’s friend Mark Melnicove did just that, pairing a poem with each painting in a book published in 2018.)

The ghosts I brought with me in early June were not the same ones that would have accompanied me in March. Breathing a little uneasily into my mask, I thought of the nearly 400,000 people worldwide who had already died of COVID-19, the patients who spent their final weeks on ventilators. I thought of George Floyd, who went 8 minutes and 46 seconds with a knee compressing his neck. And how could the black ghosts on the show not remind me of other black lives taken by the police or white men seeking justice? Watching these pieces online couldn’t prepare me for the visceral shock I felt watching them.

Shahn’s “Faces” initially elicited a similar reaction, primarily due to its installation. Stuck together on the walls like “ghosts,” the groupings of 20 large and 19 small portraits evoked the all-too-routine media images we see in the aftermath of tragedies, rows of headshots, victims of mass shootings or plane crashes, pandemics or police brutality.

“Big Face 10”, by Abby Shahn Photo by Kyle Dubay

As I spent more time with these works, I engaged with each individually, drawn to their varying moods and degrees of representation (while some contained recognizable facial features, others were purely abstract), and the gestural streaks and vivid color expressionists that often define Shahn’s painting practice. These faces breathed life, had stories to share; socially distant, I wanted to hear them.

Although Shahn may not view his art as a political call to action, his war paintings are the art of protest in its most primitive form. Faced with “A Field of Blackbirds”, Shahn’s mural diptych on the Kosovo war of 1998-1999 (“Kosovo” means “blackbird” in Serbian), I immediately thought of Picasso’s “Guernica”, representing the agony and fear during the Spanish Civil War. Shahn’s work is decidedly more abstract, but the frenzy and dislocation are strikingly similar. “Blackbirds” even features a sister image to Guernica’s flying woman: a face carried by two overlapping birds in restless flight.

(Seeing this piece amid Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the country, “Blackbirds” — featuring a bird that sometimes symbolizes oppression — again seemed to speak to the news.)

With its swooping birds and disembodied, outstretched arms, the triptych “La Siren” again evokes “Guernica” in its intense anguish, but with vibrations of color and compositional rhythms reminiscent of Kandinsky’s apocalyptic paintings. Both pieces display the best of Shahn’s expressionism. Both pieces display the best of Shahn’s expressionism.

“Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” also features the prolific artist’s explorations into other media as a means of political commentary, including papier-mâché globes of varying textures – some dry and cracked, others delicate and papery. and adorned with wasps’ nests – hanging from the ceiling, and painted and glued accordion books that gallery owners can handle, the most satisfying reason to wear gloves since the pandemic began. Started in an alcove, Shahn’s most recent experiments use a mixture of copper and vinegar that looks like rust. Three ‘rusty’ globes hang above a pile of similarly corroded objects in the center of the space – wired telephones, an articulated artist’s mannequin, random debris – while ‘rust apparitions “semi-figurative gazes from the walls, mythical observers (or, perhaps, mystics) of our cultural and cosmic dissolution.

It may have been my tired state of mind, but the exhibit setup was overwhelming and overloaded. One of Shahn’s bright expressionist paintings found its way into the alcove, encroaching on the otherwise monochromatic space; “You’d Forget Your Head If It Weren’t Strapped to Your Shoulders” and “Dogs of War”, two large, impactful works that are important in Shahn’s oeuvre, were pushed away from the gallery window, a mullion separating the latter and blocking any opportunity for a frontal view. Jocelyn Lee, founder and director of Speedwell, should be commended for her efforts to bring more attention to this extraordinary artist, who has not had a significant exposure for 15 years. But “Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” is too ambitious; such energetic work requires more space.

After leaving the exhibit, I took off my mask and took a deep, grateful breath. I also cried briefly. Art can so often express what otherwise seems inexpressible, can connect us when other forms of communication fail. Some may protest in the city streets, others paint in the woods. But, at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat.

And we have to testify.

Stacey Kors is a longtime writer and arts editor who lives on Peaks Island.

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