November 25, 2012

Art Review: A bold feminist statement at UNE


I am deeply conflicted about "Maine Women Pioneers III: Vanguard" at the University of New England in Portland. While it's a rare opportunity to see a number of installations shown as a group, it will be an incoherent and potentially off-putting experience for many.

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Work by Diana Cherbuliez in the UNE exhibit.

Courtesy photos

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Ling-Wen Tsai’s “Sitting Quietly.”

Additional Photos Below



WHEN: Through Dec. 16

HOURS: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday to Sunday; 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Art Gallery at University of New England, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland


INFO: 221-4499;

"Vanguard" is ostensibly a follow-up to a pair of 1980s shows, but it's simply not realistic to assume any continuity at that fuzzy distance – especially when there isn't documentation or posted explanation in the gallery.

Nor is it made clear that "Vanguard" is the first of four segments that will mounted sequentially through July 21.

Documentation in the gallery wouldn't matter so much if the works weren't so intentionally evasive.

In some ways, "Vanguard" is a victim of feminism's transcendence from revolutionary ideology to an established philosophical tool for prioritizing cultural perspectives.

Feminism is now not only smarter and more successful, but far subtler. Parsing how "Vanguard" relates to feminism or the cultural role of women in Maine isn't easy.

Alicia Eggert's "Pulse Machine," for example, is a kick drum with a digital display counting down from 2,445,932,354 (when I last saw it) to zero at 60 beats per minute. It is an analog of the lifelong heartbeats of a person – 78 years. What's notable is the focus on an average life rather than an exceptional one.

Eggert's "NOW" is the only piece with a distractingly direct line on women's culture: If you type "now" into Google, National Organization for Women comes up first.

It's what I thought immediately, but I cannot believe it's anything other than chance. "NOW" is a series is red line segments that spin on motors and pause in the digital form of "NOW" every couple of seconds or so. It seems more of a here-and-now Zen idea than a salute to a women's organization. Still.

Susan Bickford's "Torndado" is more about subtle, personal perspective than broader politics. It's a complex group of machines, wires, projectors, speakers, computers, sensors and more that create an incomprehensibly complex work of art that travels from the gallery's main floor to occupy the entire basement.

Supposedly, the piece is about the passing of her father, but just because this is what drove Bickford doesn't mean the viewer will experience it that way. This distinction is why this bewildering work is largely successful.

There is an umbrella over a wishing well, a camera running down to the basement installation, projections making a shadow theater involving you while you move a wire sculpture, etc. It's like "The Wizard of Oz," in which the main character (you) has a key subconscious role in the psychological resolution.

It's great if Bickford's ambitiously crazy complexity is your kind of thing – but it's not for everyone.

Signage indicates that Amy Stacey Curtis' giant, bossy compendium of experience-oriented installations in Winthrop that came down on Oct. 26 ("SPACE") is part of the show. It's an interesting but weird gesture.

Outside the gallery sit Kihua Lei's five sculptures that are hatched/born as the weather washes the unfired clay from their biomorphic pink salt and epoxy forms. They're conceptually great for the show, but their ugliness detracts.

Lauren Fensterstock's long, slender wall piece of black-framed, black paper grass in charcoal replies to masculine minimalism, but it's too slickly hermetic in this context.

The first works you see – Carrie Scanga's drawings – make for a disappointingly workaday introduction to the show. They fail to enter (or create) the conversation despite their quietly smart bits about spaces and perspective.

Julie Poitras Santos' work includes a performance by a feather jacket-wearing young woman who dissembled a heavy black rope and then an installation of such rope in a heap under a video of the rope writhing like black snakes. With references to Icarus' failed escape from Minos and Penelope's outwitting her suitors by nightly undoing her day's weaving to extend her wait for Odysseus, this piece has potential, but it never quite ignites.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Work by Julie Poitras Santos.

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Part of Amy Stacey Curtis’ sprawling installation.

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Detail of a work by Diana Cherbuliez.

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