BY DANIEL KANY
At its core, art in our culture is a transformative phenomenon. An artist takes mundane materials like a brush, paint and a canvas and transforms them – almost alchemically – into something with a powerful presence. Art can be critical or confrontational. Or it can whimsically re-imagine its subjects and let us in on fantasies, dreams and utopias. Just to imagine something, after all, is to transform it.
The culture of art struggles with this power – and often lashes back with realism or literalism. On one hand, we want artistic culture to be powerful enough to transform society, but we also hanker for the foothold of recognition.
Many of the most interesting shows on view around Maine this summer – from Estes at the Portland Museum of Art to the Shakers at the Farnsworth – rely on an ironic twist of initial recognition: We think we understand what’s going on at first glance, but the open door takes us somewhere else.
A particularly interesting this-is-not-what-it-seems show is “Of Women by Women” featuring the work of Veronica Cross and Lesia Sochor. It features several “unseen” themes including female sexuality, the relation of range and repetition in garment sizes and, most subtly, collage.
Cross’s exciting and brazenly sexual work comes as a quiet assault on painting. Her cut-outs’ focus on contour ties them to drawing and the braininess that implies, but her content is concerned with the unseen. A nymph, for example, is a silhouetted shape (an absence? a trope?) but the complementary satyr is merely implied by shadows that might be just a tree. It is an image of fantasy as the source of both possibility and doubt.
Sochor’s images take on sewing patterns in a sharply smart meditation on individuality and repeatability in fashion. (She focuses on the grading of patterns – the marks to adjust for different sizes.) Two blouses, for example, appear almost indistinguishable but are labeled “Mother” and “Daughter.”
Cross’s and Sochor’s powerful pairing moves together from something as simple as sewing to realms that explore the philosophical sovereignty of the body.
The most exciting work in this theme, however, is now on view at ICA. “Fair Use,” part of the “Project_” installation, looks like a thoughtful survey of commonly seen architectural archetypes (archetecture?), but is then revealed to be a controversial investigation into copyright. Also at the ICA is an exhibition of paintings by Maine State Prison lifers that raises all kinds of questions about freedom, freedom of expression and cultural conventions. We’ll have to revisit these shows in a future column. They demand a much closer look.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. Contact him at: