Two of the most important works of art in American history were propaganda images by Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere.

Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre had no equal in fanning the flames of outrage throughout the colonies. Franklin printed his image of a severed snake (the inspiration for the Gadsden flag) with the words “JOIN, or DIE” in 1754 during the French and Indian War. When Franklin formed a private militia of 10,000 men to defend Pennsylvania, the British Colonial governor Thomas Penn was mortified, and labeled Franklin “a dangerous man.”

Clearly, Penn’s concerns about the subversive Franklin were justified.

While tyrants have long celebrated themselves through works of art, they have also feared the subversive power of art. Hitler seized art he saw as “degenerate.” Stalin also seized art, and jailed artists for making abstract paintings.

Xander Marro’s “Cursed New England” is a show about the subversive culture of witches. As an exhibition of visual art, it’s not that strong; however, “Cursed” is much broader than an art show, and Marro deftly taps into powerful cultural undercurrents.

Superficially, “Cursed” features props and objects relating to a series of five video projects Marro made with bands from different New England states. The music ranges from progressive folk (Maine’s Village of Spaces) to neo-industrial punk, and can be heard at a listening station shaped like a giant head from an old phrenological drawing. (The presentation is really cool, but not designed for a crowd.)

The most art-exhibition-like part of the show is a long wall on which 12 framed photographs are displayed. Stills from the video (shot in 16-millimeter color) of Omnivore’s “My Psychic Abilities Have Become Grotesque,” the images tend to mirror the symmetrical imagery of Marro’s prints and drawings. They don’t overwhelm as photos, but they reveal the massive potential energy addressed by Marro’s project.

And that’s what “Cursed” is all about: Exposing a mother lode of subversive feminine energy in our cultural undercurrents. On these terms, “Cursed” is wildly successful.

The first impression of “Cursed” is a set of large video props — a pair of pointy-headed mountains with their raw, plywood backs exposed to most of the gallery, and a hilariously fun white spider costume with high heels, the show’s feminine leitmotif. This can give the impression the show is nothing more than the stuff used to make a set of videos, but a few minutes of patience washes that away.

In fact, the back wall of Space’s new gallery area is Marro’s “Devil Mask Photo Booth,” where viewers are irresistibly invited to put on one of the 18 stretchy cloth masks, photograph themselves and email their photos to the artist, who will “use it in a movie.” Not only does this play up subversive potential and the technological dynamism of culture, it also begs questions about giving your image to someone who identifies with witches.

My favorite art in “Cursed” are Marro’s drawings and screen prints of women and female anatomy, such as the “Fallopian Faucet Fauna,” in which the magic of female “plumbing” is exalted by hearts, smiley faces and two turtle doves.

The figures look like illustrations from old catalogs, but with an eye to updated oddity. Some of the works have a wheat-paste poster quality to them that reminds us of Marro’s connection to the Dirt Palace art collective and the political subversiveness of the wheat-paste art movement in general. (P. S. — Don’t forget to really look at the satanic wallpaper.)

Marro’s tiny treatise (“Witch!”) is an interesting and compelling blend of history and manifesto, which makes it very clear that while “Cursed” acts like theatrical fiction, it’s for real.

Willing to be straightforwardly subversive, “Cursed” is a powerful bit of feminist culture.

IN TUNE WITH VISUAL ART

While Space Gallery is probably my favorite cultural institution in Portland, its focus on live performance and film has kept it from being a great venue for visual art — until now.

Not only does Space have a new white-cube gallery space, recent renovations have started making the main space more amenable to visual art.

The current show in the main space comprises four large paintings by Brooklyn artist Maya Hayuk, including a brilliant wall-scaled weaving she made at the Skowhegan School this past summer. The gallery has rarely had such a strong show so compatible with performance.

Hayuk’s largest painting mirrors Marro’s symmetrically feminine imagery. While the similarity seems accidental, it begs a feminist reading of Hayuk’s psychedelically fluorescent work. Between the female imagery, the weaving and the pop references, it’s a great fit, and it makes Hayuk’s work look like a club-oriented pop smackdown of AbEx’s oversized machismo.

You certainly don’t have to be a feminist to enjoy these shows, because both are fun as well as ambitious.

It’s a good time to go to Space Gallery. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

dankany@gmail.com