Art Review: Two Portland Shows Challenge What’s ‘Normal’

The first dictionary entry for “queer” defines the word as meaning “strange; strange.” As we know, this word has taken on many other meanings, depending on who uses it and what it is intended for. Two galleries are currently showing work that gives us the opportunity to contemplate the many ways in which this word is used, and why we categorize anything as “strange or odd”.

In press materials for “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” at Speedwell Projects (through December 23), curator Faythe Levine describes the work on display, all by LGBTQ artists, as “a visual tissue of our love collective, rage, resistance, healing and grief – amplifying the multitudes of ways that homosexuality can exist.At Zero Station, we have “Surfacing” (through October 29), which highlights the work of three emerging artists from the Maine: Jarid del Deo, Meg Hahn and Mali Mrozinski.

Scrolling through “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, I kept thinking of an essay I had read many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, the British-American conservative gay writer (a concept I I still consider – dare I say? – strange, if not oxymoron). Sullivan was trying to assess the contributions that homosexuals made to the world. He ventured a few ideas, but, if I remember at least, it came down to a sense of style, both aesthetically and in terms of joy of living.

Good god Andrew, I thought, is that really the best you can do? No one would accuse “Eyes” of being a polished and elegant working assemblage, though there’s certainly joy and affirmation in much of it.

Years later, when same-sex marriage became federally legal, I heard a more satisfying (to me) explanation. A spiritual teacher I knew spoke of the optimizing force of the universe, which helps move humanity along the continuum of unity, tolerance, and acceptance. This optimizing force was bringing about a new awareness not only of our non-binary LGBTQ brothers, sisters and families, but also further exposing the fallacy of “otherness” in general.

Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan, “A Brief History Of How Music Made Me Queer”, 2022, embroidery floss and beads on fabric, 18″ x 28″ Photo by Luke Myers

The embroidery work of Maine-born lesbian and feminist artist Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan, for example — “A Brief History of How Music Made Me Queer” — certainly references her sexual orientation. But on a deeper level, it’s an embodiment of what she called her “too much,” an effervescence that was often treated as an inappropriate obsession during her youth.

It’s a terrific piece of work, replete with musical references to, among others, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Tim Curry on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and imagery and lyrics from bands as diverse as Pink Floyd, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janis Joplin and David Bowie. Despite the title, many of these references are not specifically gay or straight. On the contrary, they are appreciated by many beliefs, colors and convictions.

Shoog McDaniel, “MerKiss”, 2021, 10″ x 15″ Photo by Luke Myers

“Queer” has of course been embraced by the LGBTQ community as a way to turn the stigma of the word into a statement of pride and power. Shoog McDaniel describes himself as “a queer, non-binary, fat Southern photographer and artist living in Gainsville, Florida.” Their out-of-focus photographs of portly bodies – swimming, kissing, sleeping on top of each other – have a celebratory feel to your face that erases any trace of the shame that society tries to heap on the people its limited “mainstream” thought views being overweight.” McDaniel sees plump fullness as beautiful. It is one of the show’s most successful works.

“Eyes” is unequal in quality, which could be an intentional challenge to our perceptions of what constitutes beauty, talent and “art”. Luzaka Branfman-Verissimo’s work is concerned with how the stories of overlooked people – people of color, gender nonconforming, etc. – are told. One method they use is to break up the words illogically and overlay them with obscuring patterns, as in a painting whose message we ultimately decipher as: “Our kinship is a sacred ritual of vital lubrication.”

Luzaka Branfman-Verissimo, “Collective survival, part three: our kinship is a sacred vital lubricant”, 2022 acrylic paint, flash, wood, hardware 48” x 24” x variable dimensions Photo by Luke Myers

This piece is intriguing because of the interactivity of the working forces as we try to figure out what it says and what it means. But others resembling sandwich boards painted by amateurs (again, perhaps intentionally) are less appealing.

Natasha Woods and Marcello Martinez’s “Lavender Country” video is essentially a profile of Patrick Haggarty, the producer of 1973’s first all-gay country album (the film’s title) and, according to him, the first person to be kicked out of the America Peace Corps for homosexual behavior. It’s an interesting subject and it has a nuanced perspective on the roots of country music. It’s accomplished, but essentially a 13-minute talking head documentary rather than an art video.

STRANGE VIEWS, UNEXPECTED MATERIALS

“Surfacing” is unconventional in a different way. For Jarid del Deo, “strangeness” manifests itself in his offbeat perspectives and compositions, as well as in his choice of subject matter. One could say that his paintings are “queer” in the sense of being idiosyncratic, even eccentric, queer. “Night Moves,” for example, is a view from the back of a truck hauling logs down a highway. It gives off that off-putting feeling you get when you’re behind one of those tractor-trailers, as you imagine one of the tree trunks sliding off the bed and through your windshield.

Jarid del Deo, “Night Moves” Photo courtesy of the artist

It’s not what we might think of as the usual topic. Yet its everyday – almost mundane – theme still manages to be beautiful in its geometries, its twilight light and the way the rings of each trunk are lovingly rendered to telegraph their uniqueness.

“Zuma” and “Brown Haiku” look like ironic twists on traditional still life in their decidedly improbable combination of objects seen from above. In “Zuma”, we see what looks like the cover of a book about the Lakota chief Crazy Horse, a yellow tape measure and two stones (one possibly obsidian, the other possibly a chunk concrete with green paint on it).

In “Haiku”, he assembles a green stone (jade? emerald?), a twig and a dish of pine cones. The two sets of objects appear randomly – perhaps consciously naively – arranged. They both seem to affirm the “ho-humness” of normal, but in doing so, they end up inviting us to think more deeply about objects without charm and featurelessness and, perhaps, with more respect.

Mali Mrozinski, “Your weaving is broken: I will never fix you” Photo by JE Paterak

Mali Mrozinski’s textile works can be very touching. “Your Weave is Broken: I will never fix you” initially seems soothing, with its monochromatic natural linen colors and organic shapes. But as the meaning of the title unfolds, we can feel it like a person’s heart torn apart and mended again and again during their passage through life. In our tumultuous times, we might even come into contact with our own feelings of constantly being torn apart and put back together.

“Distressed Flag” (diptych) is a circular-shaped piece that hints at a target rendered in earth tones, while below is a square of varying shades of black fabric that looks as formal as a painting by Josef Albers. Looking at it through the prism of its title lends depth to the beauty of the dual works, which suddenly seem like stand-ins for First Nations people (the earthy, sandy circle) and people of African descent. Each is contemplative and elegant on its own merits, but the possibility that each could also represent an experience of brutal displacement lends a certain melancholy.

Meg Hahn, “Cold on Hot” Image courtesy of the artist

Meg Hahn seems to want to shake up the formalism of the grid. Almost all of her paintings consist of a matrix of a harlequin lozenge pattern into which she introduces a variety of interventions. Often the intervention looks like a deliberately random color treatment of individual diamonds that disrupts the regularity of the grid.

But often there are more jarring intrusions. In “Cool on Warm” she cuts the panel vertically with a line of dark blue dots, which string together other shapes – circles, ovals, rectangles, triangles. Or she will overlay the harlequin grille with another shape, as in “Window Overlaps”, which indicates an arched two-panel window with an incongruous cerulean dot two-thirds from the top margin.

That’s not to say we have to like anything about either show. But in their own way, these artists ask us to question the impulse that gives rise to our positions on what is normal versus abnormal.

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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