March 24, 2013

In the Arts: At PMA, revisit – and interact with – 25 years of Architalx

By PHILIP ISAACSON

Architalx is a phenomenon. An exercise in aesthetic elegance, it exists in a climate of its own making and high purpose. I applaud its intentions and its resilience in a state in which prevailing interest does not make for easy sustainment.

click image to enlarge

From Melonie Bennett's exhibition at PhoPa Gallery

Photos courtesy of PhoPa Gallery

click image to enlarge

From Melonie Bennett's exhibition at PhoPa Gallery

ON VIEW

"VOICES OF DESIGN: 25 YEARS OF ARCHITALX"

WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress St.

775-6148; portlandmuseum.org

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; until 9 p.m. Friday

CLOSES: May 19

"BAD (EXPLETIVE)": PHOTOGRAPHS BY MELONIE BENNETT

WHERE: PhoPa Gallery, 132 Washington Ave., Portland phopagallery.com

HOURS: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday

CLOSES: Saturday

If you're still with me, you probably know that Architalx, which is represented in "Voices of Design: 25 years of Architalx" at the Portland Museum of Art, is a volunteer organization established 25 years ago to offer programs on architecture and related design. But that's not what makes it a phenomenon.

Its exceptionalism lies in the fact that it is devoted to a dialogue of a very high order between noted professionals and an informed and responsive audience.

That audience is primed for the organization's annual lecture series, but even so, its pace can be so fast and the subject so refined that camp followers get tangled up and lose the way. I don't regard that as a flaw. The events themselves are inspirational; they pump you up.

At a lecture, you're listening to a major force in contemporary design in the company of the speaker's colleagues, so the experiential value is high. You're participating in an event that transcends the aesthetic diet that sustains us in Maine.

How much of this is snobbery, I cannot say. I am happy with the fact that Architalx encourages us to elevate our goals rather than give ourselves our customary pat on our backs.

"Voices of Design," organized for the Portland Museum of Art by Architalx itself, consists of a sequence of the annual posters announcing each lecture series, a 17-foot-tall tower and two 10-foot bower-like forms called "sound portals."

The poster series deserves a show in itself. Tight, geometric and architecturally inspired, the work is a fine example of Modernist typographic attitudes. In their sparseness and close focus, the posters are so non-popular that they enchanted me. They, like the lecture series, are aimed at an awaiting audience.

I've seen the 17-foot tower -- the Images Tower -- four times, and have fluctuating reactions to it.

Briefly, it's four-sided and made up of lacquered frames interspersed on two of those sides by a grid of luminous panels.

Images of buildings and related structures, through projection, appear on the panels, and the viewer can change the images in dramatic rolls or sweeps by applying pressure to certain of them.

I'm clumsy when it comes to electronics, but I think I've given an accurate overview. I forgot to count the panels in each of the grids, but I'd say there are about 14 of them.

The images appear as though by stealth: Quietly mysterious and without title or announcement. And, just as anonymously, they fade away.

It's more than a performance; it's an unlabeled scrapbook of photographs, models and drawings that invites observation through an extremely wide lens.

In short, you're invited to jump into a huge subject, but without a guide.

If you accept the tower as a visual wash of Modernist forms and attitudes as I have suggested with some of the lecturers, it will be of high interest. It will testify generally as to the nature and level of Architalx's offerings over the last quarter century and as to the sophistication of its eye. If you're looking for facts, they're not there.

As to the sound portals, it's an individual matter. You are given a touch pad with images and titles, and the opportunity to select spoken extracts from a number of the lectures.

The portals are detached from the visual experience offered by the tower and require an adjustment that I, in the tempo of a museum, couldn't make.

All in all, my admiration for Architalx as exemplified by the ambition of the tower made "Voices of Design" a stimulating experience. The existence of the exhibition, with its complexity and scale within the precincts of the museum, add another dimension to its mission. 

REGARDLESS OF ITS NAME, "Bad (expletive)" at the new PhoPa Gallery in Portland is more than just an exhibition of dimpled tushes.

While there are a fair number of fetching behinds in it, the importance of the event is the appearance again of Melonie Bennett in the world of photography.

Bennett is a prime recorder of antics and, almost paradoxically, does so with the staid and luxurious media of film and silver gelatin printing. The wacky abandon of Bennett's subjects and the gentle play of light on the silvered surface of her prints is an anomaly that is irresistible. It's elegance and clowning.

Bennett waits for the moment when the action is extra-real, when things get extravagant. If, in translating that moment into a print, some quantity of visual energy is lost, there is enough in reserve to keep things at an apparent peak.

Her images use the reservoir of energy to draw the viewer from one print to another in anticipation of what's coming up next. It's a moving feast.

A Bennett show is much more than the sum of its parts. She keeps the viewer guessing; is she swinging her camera around and jumping into the fun, or is she just a shrewd observer?

Her locales are old home day, or something like it, at the Bennett Farm; Memory Lane Music Hall, a popular bar in Standish; and a week-long Caribbean cruise with bad-boy rapper Kid Rock and his fans.

Regardless of locale, everyone rocks for Melonie.

It's all hijinks, people having more fun that I do. And, in every print, they are very real.

This show is an auspicious start for a newly established gallery.

Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 47 years. He can be contacted at:

pmisaacson@isaacsonraymond.com

 

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