The two-person show at Aucocisco featuring the work of Lucinda Bliss and Lauren Fensterstock is a study in relating conceptualism and process to art objects. Whatever you think of the work, the show raises key questions about the most important approaches to contemporary art.

Bliss makes pictures. On display are her final, fully-finished and framed works.

Fensterstock, on the other hand, is showing drawings that play various supporting roles to larger works that take form as installations or sculptures. One sculpture is on display, but to fully understand the scope of her work, the viewer needs to compare these drawings to their completed iterations pictured in her available catalog “Radical Sentimentalism.”

This pair sounds less complex – and far less rich – than it really is: finished works versus preparatory drawings. In fact, both sets of works are diagrams seeking to integrate concepts with process and contemporary art objects. The major difference is that Fensterstock starts with the drawings while Bliss finishes with them: Fensterstock looks forward and Bliss looks back. Fensterstock’s work is ostensibly part of the conceptualizing process in advance of building the main event while Bliss’s work takes the form of memoir and looks back on the experiences she combines in her topographical drawings: Bliss, a serious runner, maps the boundaries of properties she treks and includes observed features of those places.

As finished works, Bliss’s pieces are more exposed. Any awkward phrase in the drawing or watercolor is amplified; and her project of incorporating scenes within a topological framework – while following an idiom blazed by illustrated maps – is hardly easy to finesse in a particularly difficult and unforgiving medium like watercolor. For the same reason, when they succeed, they do so on their own terms and find their way to unusual charm – as good memoirs are wont to do.

In one typical work, Bliss places a topographical form in the middle of the folio. The lines within the meandering linear shape echo themselves like a Frank Stella painting but with the clear logic of elevation lines. The jutting end of the strand, however, makes a clear reference to a path. Around the map form are four images of apple trees bearing their red ripe fruits – and the artist in her trail running garb. It’s a sweet and light-hearted painting, but it nonetheless clearly opens the door to the artistic process: Bliss maps a spot and while running the perimeter, takes in the flora, fauna and scenery that most strikes her. Quickly, what first appears as a painting becomes a work of process art since there is no doubt that the sites and running are being driven by a comprehensive artistic process.

This isn’t heavy-handed, but it’s undoubtedly conceptual art. Moreover, its success is based on the extent to which the process, the concept, the execution and the artist’s experience all dovetail. In this context, the watercolor proves to be the perfect solution since it’s an in situ medium that uses the white of the paper as an integral part of the image – like maps. Bliss’s work from the previous year had been meandering through various mediums and the conclusion of watercolor is satisfying.

Bliss’s nine works all follow this blend of map with scenery. I particularly like the image of the artist sitting in profile (it’s a surprising pose in which to best capture yourself) with slop-obsessed unfaced-pigs and a raccoon. While I like the balance of the domesticated pigs against the wild raccoon, the bandito’s way-too-human-like arm is an uncomfortably uncanny detail.

Bliss gives us snowy owls, cows, fences, burls, berries, wild turkeys, dogs, trees and even the accoutrements of a run through what looks like Arizona dessert. The rest, however, make up what looks like an artist genuinely in love with the Maine landscape.

There are still awkward phrases in Bliss’s works, but the general feel is that she has reached the mode for which she had long been searching and is now in the process of refining – a particularly exciting moment to witness.

Fensterstock’s diagrams are more directly tied to the processes of architecture – from concept drawings to marketing products. Most are ink and wash drawings on spare white paper which gives the idea they were made for exhibition rather than as sketches of spontaneous ideas. The black on white presence is echoed by Fensterstock’s all-black work (Fensterstock does inhabit the land of Louise Nevelson after all), an example of which – a floral collection of black paper blossoms in a bell jar – stands as sentry proof of the aspirations of the drawings.

Some read as idea collections: permutations of an idea set as variations in a grid. Others are sketches made with the idea of completing a negotiation, such as commissions, grants or the large-scale installation object(“Ha Ha”) made – based on these drawings – for the PMA Biennial now on view at the museum.

Fensterstock’s works are large, expensive and each requires a huge investment of time and effort on her part. Because of this, the architectural drawing approach is commonsensically required.

More and more, we are seeing drawings in Maine as the preferred medium for concept-driven art. How these relate to ideas or processes is often the key to their meaning and the crux of their success. Maine has always been a place for drawing, but usually in the mode of sketches and now the call is for the capturing of conceptualism – that frustratingly fleeting feeling – in diagrams.

Aucocisco’s return to a series of two-person, two-week shows during what is otherwise Portland’s slack season is a welcome bolt of energy to the local contemporary art community. The pair of Bliss and Fensterstock is an excellent start. 

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

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