At first glance, the art on view at the Art Gallery at the University of New England in Portland seems remarkably disconnected.
In one corner of the upper floor, a bass drum thumps mechanically like a heart beat. Boom, boom, boom.
On another wall hang three long rectangular black boxes filled with charcoal and black paper quilled to resemble botanically correct plants.
Just down the way, another artist dangles human hair braided into a giant rope that drapes from a buttress made from apple wood.
Visually and aesthetically, they feel disconnected. But look closer, and one will see they are linked by a conceptual thread that suggests a cycle of life. Eventually, the drum will stop beating. The plants will die. The hair has already been combed from the scalp.
These pieces — by Alicia Eggert, Lauren Fensterstock and Diana Cherbuliez — represent continuum and pattern, and are part of an ambitious new exhibition at UNE, “Maine Women Pioneers III.”
The exhibition will unveil in four phases through next summer. The first, on view through Dec. 16, is subtitled “Vanguard” and features avant garde, experimental and innovative works by nine women who explore ideas using mixed media, conceptual installation, performance and video elements.
In addition to Eggert, Fensterstock and Cherbuliez, other artists in this show are stalwarts of the contemporary art scene in Maine: Susan Bickford, Amy Stacey Curtis, Lihua Lei, Julie Poitras Santos, Carrie Scanga and Ling-Wen Tsai.
Britta Konau, former curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, makes an argument in her catalog essay that women are uniquely qualified to lead the way to the future because they are comfortable working in new media. Traditionally, that has meant photography — Berenice Abbott is a good example.
In the 21st century, that means video and performance art.
PUSHING THE MEDIA
“These new disciplines come without the ideological baggage of male-dominated tradition and thus supply a level playing field,” Konau writes. The nine women “engage in mostly non-traditional media and often make work inter-disciplinary, participating in the current trend of abolishing specialization in a particular medium. All of them are extremely innovative and constantly push their media, and themselves, to further the dialogue that art of today is.”
It’s coincidental, perhaps, that they live in Maine. Their vision, experience and practice, Konau argues, are of national and international levels.
The “Vanguard” exhibition certainly supports Konau’s arguments.
The show feels fresh, witty and probing. It is less about visual stimulation and more about connecting people with ideas and concepts.
Tsai uses her feeling of “in-between-ness” as a Taiwanese artist living and working in Maine in her communal piece “Sitting Quietly.” She arranges stools in a small circle, each with a sound-canceling headset. Participants are asked to sit quietly. The headsets cancel the noise of the drum and human chatter, and encourage a contemplative state.
What happens in that contemplative state is less important than finding it. It is about finding balance, control and isolation in a communal setting.
Poitras Santos uses two levels of the gallery for her piece, “twist: when one wonders what.” The piece includes objects, video, sound and performance. The dominant element is a snake-like tangle of black ropes that is unraveled by a performer perched on a stool. She wears a black-feathered jacket.
When the performer is not present, the rope sits unattended, the jacket hanging. As the rope is unwoven and undone, its inherent tangles become comprehensible and orderly.
Eggert, who teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, explores time. In addition to being an artist, she is a mechanical engineer. Her kick drum, which she’s titled “Pulse Machine,” works mechanically, and is programmed to beat like a heart until it can beat no longer.
Eggert turned it on on June 2 in Nashville, and it is designed to beat like a heart, at 60 beats per minute, for as long as a human heart should beat inside someone born in Nashville that day — 78 years.
“Some people find it really pleasing,” said gallery director Anne Zill. “It drives other people crazy.”
WHAT MATTERS IS THE EXPERIENCE
Bickford creates an immersing art environment using new and old technology, including motion sensors, video, animation and old-school analog devices.
Her piece, “Torndado,” encourages visitor participation. Our presence activates or alters the visual images and audio soundtrack that the artist has created.
The actual images really don’t matter. Bickford has altered them to the point where you’re never really sure what you are seeing or hearing. What matters is the experience and how it feels to be a part of it.
The inspiration for her piece was the death of her father last May. She started with the last photo of him, taken on New Year’s Day, dissected it in Photoshop and “made a moment of it.” His image is unrecognizable in the piece, but his presence is there.
To Bickford, this piece is about the cycle of osmosis and things in transition. It’s about spirit, chaos and order. Just after her father died, Bickford began a residency at Maine College of Art, where she graduated in 2001. She developed this piece during her MECA residency.
Bickford, who now lives in Newcastle and teaches at the University of Maine-Augusta, said the artists developed camaraderie and community during the installation process.
She knew many of her colleagues before they were selected for this exhibition, but they developed deeper bonds during the days leading up to the opening when they shared gallery space and had time to talk.
In their conversations, the artists agreed that they felt a certain pressure to excel. The gallery took a chance with this show, grouping progressive women artists who like to push things.
“We really wanted to do something that was truly vanguard,” Bickford said. “It was hard not to feel some pressure. We were incredibly honored. When someone puts you in a show with women pioneers, how can you not be honored? It was truly inspirational.”
This is the third time UNE has hosted a Women Pioneers exhibition. The first two put forth a strong collection of women artists. This one updates that effort, said Gael McKibbon, who organized the first two exhibitions in the 1980s.
“This exhibition is a needed follow-up to the two previous ones, illustrating the enormous range and vitality of Maine women artists today,” she said.
When this cycle of four shows is complete next summer, 50 women will have been featured, said Zill.
“These artists should stand the test of time,” she said. “Fifty years from now, when we look back, we’ll be celebrating 50 women artists who are working now, whose work has stood the test of time.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: