Lucinda Bliss’ “Tracking the Border” at Common Street Arts in Waterville is a large show featuring scores of watercolors and photographs. As concept-driven art, “Tracking the Border” requires some explanation. But even when you piece the narratives altogether, it is with open-endedness where Bliss finds her best success.
For previous shows, Bliss, an adventurous backwoods runner, would travel to remote properties, run their borders and then make watercolor drawings that included a map and scenes from the experience. The point was to condense process, experience and visual art as tightly as possible into a watercolor drawing that could simultaneously be a painting and an aspect of a larger conceptual art project. For “Tracking the Border,” Bliss took on a truly ambitious geographical entity, the Maine/Canada border, creating works that combine planning, process and the artistic documentation of her exploration: drawings, paintings, photos and so on.
“Tracking the Border” is easier to follow when you know the story. Two watercolors that combine border map details and slices of blueberry pie, for example, reflect conversations with a Passamaquoddy man and a former border patrol officer from Arizona. While the 14-by-10-inch watercolor drawings hang side by side and include similar slices of pie, the images diverge with an unexpected poignancy. The well-rendered pie sits in the bottom right of “Passamaquoddy Bay,” with the jiggled and jumbled lines of a hand-drawn map echoing themselves in various blues, as though drawn with (or by) the blue-shadowed pie. The companion piece is far starker: The pie is more solid and severe, its shadow resolute. Its plate circle is solid and closed. And a razor-like line slices from the top left of the image to the bottom, relegating related water forms to either side. The rest of the paper is white, insistently unengaged, single-minded.
While I preferred the pie works before I knew their narrative details, Bliss is right to tell a story or two to give a sense of scope of the project. In her artist statement, Bliss speaks of her “collaborators,” and we wonder who they are and what have they done. But the idea is basic: For starters, you need to check in with others to go so far on the literal wilderness edge of nations. But conversations over pie will take you all kinds of places.
There are several bodies of work in “Tracking the Border.” There are the 10 watercolor drawings that include the pie images. There are a dozen photographs of nude photos of Bliss posted in the wilderness, or on rusty tough objects like ancient trucks. “Green Blazes” is an installation of branches wrapped in black velvet that are “blazed” with beaded green necklaces. There is a computer displaying images of Bliss building a stone wall (a “border”) that juts into the ocean on a stony beach. And Bliss presents a suite of 81 tiny drawings in watercolor and various media conveying cartological formations that appear like a daily ritual for the project (the title of this group is “Daily Patterns”).
These little drawings clarify Bliss’ assumption of map language – a border, a hill, water, a path and so on. Moving from them to the larger works, we can easily read them as maps with features of local or personal experience. Where this all gets complicated, however, is when we suddenly have to make sense of seeing a nude woman collaged into a few of the drawings. The nude first appears, thankfully, as a nude – and by that I mean an artistic genre. In fact, the genre hinted at is more broadly known as a “pastoral” – and, yes, unclothed women in the landscape was a thing long enough in art history to be recognizable as its own classical genre.
To her credit, Bliss does not oversimplify the nude – an easy and all too common mistake. To repeat a recent phrase, Bliss’ nudes are comfortably gendered rather than brazenly sexualized. Bliss depicted herself in her earlier watercolors, sometimes running, sometimes resting, but always easily recognizable. To see the runner with the map and then elements of an off-road experience provided a clear sense of intent and self-portraiture. The nude, however, is far less obvious, in part because the artist looks like a professional model. But even recognizing her doesn’t provide an instantly self-evident explanation. Bliss’ stated reason to include the nudes was to investigate whether it would be possible to shoot the female nude in the landscape in a way that didn’t echo the assumed (male) gaze associated with “the history of the female nude in the landscape.” But this assertion is a partially misguided placeholder: It properly asserts philosophical and political perspectives, but it shortsheets Bliss’ compelling forays into subjectivity and the problem of the role of the artist in the art experience created by her project, process, painting and performance – the key term being this last one.
Bliss deals with various forms of art (conceptual, painting, process, drawing, performance, photograph), genres (landscape, still life, nude, pastoral, map) and then, rather explosively, with the idea of natural and unnatural borders. This is an idea pursued brilliantly in the work of Harpswell map artist Cynthia Davis, in which a single form would use mixed and various logic. Davis’ map work investigates the abstract notion of a “state shape,” pairing straight lines and natural forms. Bliss discovers this idea on her own (Maine is the ideal state for this: straight lines with New Hampshire and partially with Canada, but then rivers, coast and other natural boundaries) and her inclination to leap from this to the nude, though a bit awkward, is an extraordinary extension of the logic of modes. Despite the long path she followed to produce “Tracking the Border,” its best aspect is the newly opened door and the first fresh-crinkled steps of journeys I hope are still to come.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: