“A Field of Blackbirds,” by Abby Shahn. Photo by Kyle Dubay

I needed to see some art.

Weary from the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, grieving for our universal loss, I, like everyone else, was slowly trying to adjust to our new normal. Then came the double gut punch of George Floyd’s torturous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, followed by the president’s incendiary response to nationwide protests demanding an end to our country’s systemic racism. The undercurrent of anxiety over the coronavirus was suddenly replaced by a torrent of emotions that alternated between outrage, disgust and despair. After three months of visiting exhibits online, my desire to reunite with art in all of its powerful physicality suddenly felt that much stronger. I wanted to sit with it. To reflect. To connect with our deeper humanity in the transcendent way that the best creative expressions deliver.

“Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” had been on my mind since it opened at Portland’s Speedwell Projects in mid-March, only to close days later due to the statewide shutdown. Shahn moved to Maine from New York City in the late 1960s, situating herself in rural Solon and maintaining an intentional distance from the art establishment and the influence of current artistic trends. From this vantage point, Shahn, 80, has been creating work that’s hard to categorize. Her paintings are political, but, unlike those of her father, the renowned social-realist painter Ben Shahn, they are not overtly so, the younger Shahn preferring the ambiguity of abstraction for her cultural commentary/protests. Often using titles as an entry or reference point (“Katrina,” “Dogs of War”) Shahn sees her art as a record – a way, she says, to “bear witness” to the torments of our time.

“Ghost 1,” by Abby Shahn Photo by Kyle Dubay

I was thinking about this as I donned my mask and entered Speedwell, slipping in while the gallery assistant was taking out the trash. For a few seconds, I reveled at being alone in the space; then I looked up, and was overwhelmed. Right by the door was a wall of “Ghosts,” a series of 30 small, impressionistic paintings on paper. The uncomplicated, atmospheric silhouettes are unframed and tacked to the wall in a cluster, each huddled grouping trapped in its own 11-by-15-inch notebook page of purgatory, yet connected to the others. Titling them generically as “Ghost 1,” “Ghost 2,” and so on, Shahn hopes that “each viewer adds his own meaning, his own ghosts.” (Shahn’s friend Mark Melnicove did just that, pairing a poem to each painting in a book published in 2018.)

The ghosts I brought with me in early June were not the same as those that would have accompanied me in March. Breathing a little uncomfortably in my mask, I thought about the nearly 400,000 people around the world who had already died from COVID-19, the patients who spent their final weeks on ventilators. I thought about George Floyd, who spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds with a knee compressing his neck. And how could the black ghosts of the series not remind me of the other black lives taken by police or white men seeking vigilante justice? Looking at these pieces online could not prepare me for the visceral shock I experienced standing in front of them.

Shahn’s “Faces” initially prompted a similar reaction, mainly because of their installation. Tacked onto the walls together like “Ghosts,” the groupings of 20 large and 19 small portraits conjured the all-too-routine media images we see following tragedies, the rows of headshots, victims of mass shootings or plane crashes, pandemics or police brutality.

“Large Face 10,” by Abby Shahn Photo by Kyle Dubay

Spending more time with these works, I became engaged with each individually, drawn in by their varying moods and degrees of representation (while some contained recognizable facial features, others were purely abstract), and the gestural, expressionistic streaks of vivid color that often define Shahn’s painting practice. These faces exuded life, had stories to share; socially distanced, I longed to hear them.

While Shahn may not consider her art a political call to action, her war paintings are protest art at its most primal. Standing face-to-face with “A Field of Blackbirds,” Shahn’s wall-sized diptych about the 1998-’99 war in Kosovo (“Kosovo” means “blackbird” in Serbian), I immediately thought of Picasso’s “Guernica,” depicting agony and fear during the Spanish Civil War. Shahn’s work is decidedly more abstract, but the freneticism and dislocation are strikingly similar. “Blackbirds” even features a sister image to Guernica’s flying woman: a face borne from two overlapping birds in agitated flight.

(Seeing this piece amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening across the country, “Blackbirds”– featuring a bird that sometimes symbolizes oppression – once again seemed to speak to current events.)

With its swooping birds and disembodied, outstretched arms, the triptych “La Siren” again calls “Guernica” to mind in its intense anguish, but with color vibrations and compositional rhythms reminiscent of Kandinsky’s apocalyptic paintings. Both pieces display Shahn’s expressionism at its finest. Both pieces display Shahn’s expressionism at its finest.

“Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” also presents the prolific artist’s explorations into other media as a means for political commentary, including papier mâché globes of varying textures – some bone dry and cracked, others delicate and papery and adorned with wasps’ nests – suspended from the ceiling, and painted and collaged accordion books that gallery-goers can handle, the most satisfying reason for wearing gloves since the start of the pandemic. Set off in an alcove, Shahn’s most recent experiments employ a copper-and-vinegar mixture that has a rust-like appearance. Three “rusted” globes hang over a pile of similarly corroded objects in the center of the space – wired phones, an articulated artist’s manikin, random bits of debris – while shadowy, semi-figurative “Rust Apparitions” look on from the walls, mythical (or, perhaps, mystical) observers of our cultural and cosmic dissolution.

It might have been my fatigued frame of mind, but the exhibit’s installation felt overwhelming — and overstuffed. One of Shahn’s bright, expressionist paintings found its way into the alcove, intruding on the otherwise monochromatic space; “You’d Forget Your Head If It Wasn’t Attached To Your Shoulders” and “Dogs of War,” both large, impactful works that are important in Shahn’s oeuvre, were sidelined to the gallery’s window, a mullion splitting the latter and blocking any opportunity for a head-on view. Jocelyn Lee, Speedwell’s founder and director, should be commended for her efforts to bring greater attention to this extraordinary artist, who hasn’t had a significant show in 15 years. But “Abby Shahn: Fifty Years” is overly ambitious; work this forceful needs more space.

After leaving the exhibit, I removed my mask and took a big, grateful breath. I also briefly cried. Art can so often express what otherwise feels inexpressible, can connect us when other forms of communication fail. Some may protest in the city streets, others paint in the woods. But, ultimately, we’re all in this together.

And we must bear witness.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.


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