Kelly McConnell, “SPLAY: Self Portrait Under Gaslighting,” butcher paper, duct tape, chalk, graphite, sumi ink, acrylic paint and mediums, 120 x 92 inches (diptych), 2020. Photo by Golaleh Yazdani

When artist Kelly McConnell began conceiving “Splay,” the show she curated with Ashley Page at Able Baker Contemporary (through Jan. 16), it was 2019. There was no COVID, George Floyd was still alive, and the presidential election was more than a year away (though pundits were already promiscuously pedaling their predictions). Yet there was enough dystopia in the air already to inspire McConnell to explore the idea of asking artists to take, as she explains in her curatorial statement, “what has been splayed, stripped and extracted to mend and reconstruct a new vision of themselves, and for us. We disassemble the harsh, psychological landscape to envision fresh possibilities for a new way of being, reformed in collaborative spirit and solidarity.”

Then the world self-combusted. McConnell had to reconceptualize the show in a way that would feel relevant in our New World Disorder. Reinvention and transformation became the exhibition’s central thread, though one that meanders widely, and sometimes more darkly than originally conceived. Save for a few works, the art on display was made in 2020. But all of it considers the many ways humanity is trying to pick up the pieces of its former identities – particularly identities about the American dream, race and gender – that have been directly challenged by the cataclysmic events of this momentous year.

McConnell’s own “SPLAY: Self Portrait Under Gaslighting,” gives the show its title. Rather than a direct representation of her visage, it is a psychological portrait of her state of being under the stress of our corrosive contemporary reality. Many of her recent works spring from her disgust at the paralysis and “us and them” mentality of our Balkanized government. To wit, the gaslighting of the title refers to a type of emotional abuse so damaging that it leads victims to question their own sanity. Its palette is a bruising black-and-blue, and its bottom half is, literally, frayed at the edges.

Danielle Scott, “Trunked and Charred in the Fray,” from the series Heavy and Loaded, Mixed assemblage, 36 x 48 inches, 2019. Photo by Golaleh Yazdani

One of the most powerful pieces is Danielle Scott’s mixed-media “Trunked and Charred in the Fray.” It is a threadbare American flag onto which she has superimposed the upside-down silhouettes of her children. Upon closer inspection, however, these visions of innocence are rendered in spent bullet casings and shotgun shells. They and the flag unravel toward the bottom, while under them is a writhing pile of rope, its loose ends tied by a Black sailor acquaintance of Scott’s into hangman’s nooses. It is a searing indictment of a country where innocence is squandered, and violence has become mundane. Scott herself is Black, so the nooses’ reference to lynching is inescapable. “Trunked and Charred” seems to ask: Is this the country we want to leave our children?

Athena Lynch’s “Fit the Description” is similarly cautionary. It is a freestanding, empty-bodied figure made of a hoodie, jeans and tennis shoes. Projected onto it are points of light that look like bullet holes through the body, while behind it is a video of several African American men, implying that the ghostly figure in the hoodie could have been any one of these friends of hers. Two years ago, Lynch also created “Requiems to Sepia Existence” in Congress Square – chalk outlines of two youths, Tamir Rice (12) and Aiyana Jones (7), who were killed by police during a mistaken raid (the actual suspect lived upstairs). Subtle her works are not. But there’s no chance you won’t get the message.

Sascha Braunig, “Clutches 1,” oil on linen over panel, 42.5 x 60 inches, 2020. Photo by Luc Demers

Other pieces ask viewers to confront society’s images of women. Sascha Braunig is an acclaimed Canadian-born, Portland-based artist best known for her surrealist imagery, which she paints in glossy, lurid colors from still lives she constructs in her studio. In “Clutches 1,” a fleshy female form expands beyond the confines of the blue satin dress she is expected to fit into. The dress is impossibly cinched at the waist by the skeletal clutch of a broad-shouldered figure limned with a barbed yellow line. The early surrealists (most notably Salvador Dalí) often reveled in misogyny and pain. Similarly, the slickness of Braunig’s technique belies an unsettling sadism intertwined with the objectification of women.

Less charged – and, admittedly, a bit of a relief – are the tufted yarn works of Kiana Thayer. The subject matter is joyful. “Love Letter No. 1” depicts a smiling purple woman, legs splayed of course, with a big heart covering her genitals that’s inscribed with the message “Mon Chéri.” The image is as inviting, charming and sweet as it is sensual. In one fell swoop, it demythologizes the sex that is so incomprehensibly frightening to so many. Yet the work also represents a personal transformation. Thayer is a graphic artist. Bored with the flat digital commerciality of the tools of her trade, she learned to hook rugs to create the works.

Ashley Page contributes “Self Portrait No. 1,” which is the bust of her head and neck made of woven reeds. Page, who is also African American, explores Black portraiture and expression through mixed media. This self-representation at first glance appears innocuous. But aside from woven reeds, the gallery handout lists other “materials” involved: tension, gravity and fragile connection. Her seemingly autonomous view of herself, in other words, is necessarily affected by elements beyond her control, which can in turn influence how others see her and, by implication, other Black people.

Annika Earley, “Cloak,” faux fur, embroidery thread, gold leaf, PVA glue, acrylic paint, 8 x 4 feet, 2019. Photo by Golaleh Yazdani

Annkia Earley’s “Cloak,” also initially appears straightforward enough. Elementally it is a garment created with faux fur, embroidery thread, gold leaf and paint, and it has the richly draped presence of Nigerian artist El Anatsui’s work. But it is inspired by a short story about a king who intends to marry his daughter, who tries circumventing the eventuality by imposing a condition: He must kill his prized gold dung-producing donkey. To her dismay and horror, he follows through, presenting her with the animal’s pelt, which she uses to escape under the cover of night.

Of this work, Earley has written: “By turning into a lowly animal, she is free from the male gaze. This extreme method of self-defense is not a fairy tale. Women throughout history have protected themselves from violence by making themselves repulsive to others.”

There are several other artists in the show who comment on these and other contemporary social issues in inventive ways. Some arrive at a sense that real transformation is happening, while others feel less hopeful and implore us to continue pushing for the dismantling and reimagining of old systems and societal structures.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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