AART! (Artists’ Rapid Response Team!), “Fifteen hand-painted yard signs” (detail, top row, left to right: Rebuild the Safety Net, Vote Safely, Together We Create Our Future; bottom row, left to right: Healthcare Is at the Heart of Democracy, I Want You to Panic, Poverty Hurts Our Neighbors), 2020, acrylic on primed wood panel. Courtesy of the artists. Image courtesy of Luc Demers

The Portland Museum of Art closed to the public in December for COVID-safety reasons. That doesn’t mean its staff hasn’t been busy. The museum’s first virtual exhibition, “Untitled, 2020: Art from Maine in a ____ Time” (scheduled to run through May 31), recently opened, and as virtual exhibitions go, it is excellent.

In September, the institution put out an open call to Maine artists of all genres for work that was created in that tumultuous year. They received submissions from 900 people, then a jury of makers and artists narrowed those down to the 25 whose work is represented in this exhibition.

Obviously, 2020 had no shortage of weighty topics for artists to consider in their work. The art here ranges widely among a fully loaded field of contemporary anxieties that include Black Lives Matter, a belligerent president trying to affect then recast an election, a harrowing pandemic and the attendant isolation it enforced, multiple environmental disasters, etc.

The best thing about the format the PMA has adopted is the way it delivers information on the artwork. We can click on an artist’s name and see the art on display, as well as descriptive text about the work and its meaning, and a quote by one of the jurors about what stood out for her or him that merited inclusion. Normally wall plaques are not this explanatory or thorough. But in the absence of being able to see the entire exhibition and deduce meanings that come more naturally when one confronts the work in person, this approach makes the art more accessible. In a way, it gives each artist a fair chance at being able to convey a message to people who might not regularly view art by laying a contextual framework for their understanding. From there, the viewer can go anywhere, reading other meanings into the work, seeing something different or taking issue with it.

The Union of Maine Visual Artists’ collective called the Artists’ Rapid Response Team! (ARRT!) is the visual equivalent of MoveOn in this show. The group contributes a clutch of posters that touch on environmental issues, economic insecurity, poverty, racism, the oneness of humanity, the pandemic and so on. They are straightforward, if a bit facile, but offer a kind of table of contents for many of the topics outlined in “Untitled, 2020.”

Giles Timms’s video “Interrupted Dream” does not address a specific problem but captures the general ennui of our current moment in history. His Edward Gorey-like characters include a “Creep” – a bizarre creature with a devouring maw and a hollow space where its heart should be – entering the window of a building where a figure is sleeping. All around the figure are the surreally assembled characters of his nightmare, a few spewing something from their mouths (the hate speech so prevalent over the last four years? the cascade of lies we endured? our regurgitation of it all out of disgust?). The sleeper’s body is sliced open to reveal a spine, suggesting a kind of raw exposure to the corrosiveness of our current condition.

Rachel Church, “Seeing Red #2,” 2020, screen print and acrylic panel, 20 x 27 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Rachel Church is more specific with her “Seeing Red #2,” which appears as a kind of red-white-blue flag, with stripes made from blue and red lettering running over each other to the point of illegibility. They are quotes taken from anti-BLM and anti-immigration protesters, NRA supporters and the former POTUS himself. A red acrylic panel suspended before it cancels out the red type to reveal the blue type, which reads, “America: Where my right to do whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want is more important than your right to live.” In the wake of the Capitol riot, the quote stings even more, perhaps, than Church could have intended.

The pattern of Christopher Dudley’s “Gov’t Benefit” quilt derives from a New York Times infographic illustrating economic disparities that force the poorer among us to depend on government help. It is an indictment of America, the richest country in the world, and implies incredulity over the persistence of it, as well as the way politicians manipulate cliches of “dependence” and “freeloaders” to divide the electorate.

Titi de Baccarat, “Galaxy,”  2020, lithograph print, metal slats, collage, glitter powder, and resin, 40 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Luc Demers 

The BLM movement and Black identity are movingly handled by Gabon-born Titi de Baccarat and Ashley Page. The former’s multi-exposure photograph “I can’t breathe” isn’t hard to decode; George Floyd’s final last words have become a cultural meme. De Baccarat manipulates and overlays images of himself and BLM protests around the country: riot police, headlines, banners, a dove, a cluster of daffodils. The image seems to shift and vibrate with the charged energy of the demonstrations, while also appearing saint-like, floating a bright, purifying light. Page’s “Pupa State” celebrates Black people’s right to claim their own identities, identities free of racist assumptions that are engaged in “local or global conversations surrounding fine art, craft and cultural impact.” The woven and knotted forms suggest bodies in the process of creation and transformation as represented by the pupae stage of insects. They are sensual and beautiful and dangle as a pupa might dangle from a branch or a leaf.

Ashley Page, “Pupa State” (detail), 2020, acrylic yarn, beeswax, and paraffin wax, 38 x 16 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Luc Demers 

Some of the most affecting work in the show is about coping with isolation, particularly those that deal with its effect on parents. They range from despondent to hopeful. Meghan Mitchell photographs herself with children but appears in them shrouded, indicating her sense of invisibility during the pandemic. Celeste Henriquez’s densely layered paintings convey many things about being a parent and a caregiver for a child with severe intellectual disabilities. Individual forms and colors appear almost childlike, but the multiple layers can suggest obscurations that make full access to her child’s state unreachable. Yet they also transmit a kind of optimism and pure joy in their complex bond. Then there’s Rosamond Gross, who locked down for six months with her spouse and children. In that isolation, she took refuge in photographing simple moments and events in her children’s lives. Amidst the backdrop of chaos, protest, illness, death and violence swirling in the world outside, these private moments seem like miraculous revelations of the clarity and openness in innocence.

There is much more, of course. You could spend hours immersing yourself in this time capsule of an exhibition (guilty as charged) and come back to it again and again. It must be plainly stated that this is no substitute for the real thing. Part of seeing art in situ is picking up the vibrationary communication among various works – how they challenge each other, enhance each other’s theses, animate the air around and between them. The site does offer a digital 3-D tour of the galleries. But it is clumsy, and I could not get it to back up or go where I wanted it to go. We can see that Church’s flag and Dudley’s quilt hang side-by-side, but we cannot pick up the sense of outrage the juxtaposition might provoke in person, nor clearly discern their material qualities.

Enrique  Mendía, “Loveshack,” 2020, inkjet prints on construction  paper, 9 x 12 inches (each). Image courtesy of the artist

It’s hard to get at optimum viewing range from some works, too. In the 3-D tool, we are only privileged with an oblique angle on Cuban-born Enrique Medía’s loose-leaf book, which tells a story of what might be a homoerotic relationship or just a very intimate friendship. Even though we can read the whole thing on the artist’s individual page, it’s impossible to get the cumulative impact since we cannot stand right in front of it and take the entirety of it in.

But it is what we have, and the PMA’s presentation is as good as it probably gets. Bravo.

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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