“Volta,” sculpture by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen Photo by Dave Clough Photographyy

There are four exhibitions up at Cove Street Arts worth viewing – and reviewing – but here, space and time only will allot a close look at three.

If you can make it to the Portland art space before Saturday, you’ll also be treated to “Gargantua & Lilliputian,” a printmaking show curated by David Wolfe, who gathered important and innovative work by artists from here and around the world.

Meanwhile, the visual display of text in “Things Seemed to Be Breaking” (through May 22) and the soulful photography in “Séan Alonzo Harris: The Space Between” (through June 26) share the gift of powerfully distilling subjects to their absolute essence. This is an important aim of poetry, and both are rich in poetics.

Lastly, the Rockland-based Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, which provides resources to Maine artists through grants, fellowships and more, shows off the work its beneficiaries in “Fellows & Residents” (through June 19).

POEM POWER

“Things Seemed to Be Breaking” marks the publication of outgoing Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum’s compilation of “blackout poems” of the same name, in which he used a Sharpie to heavily redact text, leaving word fragments that then informed the titles of resulting “poems.” The exhibition showcases several framed versions, as well as collaborations between Kestenbaum and his partner Susan Webster, and a solo piece by Webster.

The blackout poems’ ability to convey so much with so little is literally breathtaking. They are like haikus of haikus in their brevity, by turns tragic, politically charged and humorous. In one, Kestenbaum invokes the calamity of food insecurity by isolating the words “Dear God/the/hungry,” then titling the poem “Bible Studies.” In “Give Some Away,” he critiques consumerism’s emptiness with “what’s wrong. I’ve got everything.”

Stuart Kestenbaum, “How Trouble Starts,” blackout poem, ed. 25, 14 x 10 Photo courtesy of the artist

“We had all the authority we needed,” the words of a poem titled “How Trouble Starts,” might be taking aim at Trump’s despotic presidency, right-wing protestors who stormed the Capitol, police brutality or al-Assad’s blood-soaked Syrian mass repression. That it could apply to any of these (and more) induces despair. This makes sardonic, self-effacing poems like “Oxymoron,” featuring just the words “prominent poet,” welcome comic relief. Visually, they explore the territory of Barbara Kruger, Christopher Wool, Glenn Ligon and others who use language as art.

The collaborations are conversations that begin as prints (Webster’s) that are passed to Kestenbaum, who responds with poems arising from his impressions of the imagery, which he applies with rubber-stamps or handwritten letters. Webster then adds more elements or colors for the final work. Of these, “Adrift” feels especially apt as we begin emerging from what has been a very dark year: “In the air/adrift first/blush of spring/we are/alive &/kicking.” We’d have to be aesthetically and emotionally barren for the combination of Webster’s meticulous printing and drafting skills and Kestenbaum’s words not to impact us on various levels.

FOCUSED ATTENTION

For “The Space Between,” Harris spent five years snapping black-and-white photographs around Portland. The monochrome enhances the poetic distillation of their essence, sensitizing us to the spirit of the person or people in each image (color would have been distracting).

There are portraits Harris intended to shoot in his subjects’ homes, but COVID-19 concerns led him to change direction and shoot in a studio at the Indigo Arts Alliance instead. They are redolent with dignity and presence. Frequently, a mottled light behind each sitter’s head transmits the notion of a halo, making them appear as beatific beings floating between worlds.

Their seemingly timeless existence implies a deep connection to their entire lineage of ancestors and all those who proceed from them. Every person is quiet in their constancy, monumental in their bearing and piercing in their gaze, which holds you so rapt that you feel hesitation leaving one for the next.

Harris’s images exalt and prompt concern, crackle with physicality and evoke emptiness and abandonment. “Dangling Keys,” a mother with her boys, overflows with tenderness and love. Next to it, however, is “He’s Wanting,” a youth whose wary, pleading expression asks whether the world believes the message on his T-shirt: He’s Wanted, Broken or Together. American attitudes about race, opportunity and immigration congeal into a single image, their full weight pressing on this innocent soul.

Sean Alonzo Harris, “Pointing Fingers,” digital archival inkjet print, ed. 20, 14 x 21 Photo courtesy of the artist

“Pointing Fingers” telegraphs menace. A white person’s hand enters the frame at left, its extended index finger singling out two apparently terrified girls in a crowd; one white, the other Black and dressed in an Islamic khimar covering head and shoulders. They cling together, the white one seemingly protecting her friend, while police officers stand in the background. It’s impossible not to detect danger.

Harris shot many images in Kennedy Park, a low-income housing project in Portland’s most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood. Photos of men playing basketball pulse with athleticism: “Plate 129” is sheer balletic grace, the sunlit skin of “Plate 334” lionizes Black muscularity as well as a flawless jump shot. But “Hoop in the Rain,” while formally beautiful, elicits the melancholy of abandonment and extinguished joy.

Sean Alonzo Harris, “Fence Opening,” digital archival inkjet print, ed of 20, 21 x 14 Photo courtesy of the artist

Chain link fencing feels prohibitive (“Master Lock”) and caging (“Fence #78,” which confines a habitat of destitution). Conversely, “Fence Opening” summons emancipation and escape. The opening is reminiscent of a woman’s head atop a 19th-century-style dress. The indomitable struggles of Black migration – from Africa to the South, then north to freedom – seem, again, distilled in a single silhouette.

RICH ARRAY

The Ellis-Beauregard Foundation’s “Fellows & Residents” exhibition certainly knows how to make an entrance.

Occupying the central space of Cove Street Arts is “Volta,” a formidable sculpture of wood slats by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen incongruously suspended off the ground that is a visual tornado of implied movement. Outwardly, it recalls the organic forms of environmental artist Patrick Doherty. But looking up inside it shows that it streams forth from a skylight, thus also evoking the eye of “Roden Crater,” James Turrell’s transcendent Flagstaff, Arizona, earthwork.

Reggie Hodges, “Electric Mother,” Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Linen, 23.50 x 23.50 Photo courtesy of the artist

It’s a tough act to follow, but several works around it do so compellingly. Reggie Burrows Hodges’s painting “Electric Mother” thrums with intense vibrational brushstrokes. Dylan Hausthor’s unsettlingly beautiful photos – “Bee Swarm” and “Barb’s Mistake” (an image of a line of fire in the woods) – presage a stinging attack and natural disaster. Ian Trask’s “UnEarth” is a huge planet-like sculpture made of smaller spheres of recycled trash suspended from the ceiling. Its cautionary title implies an Earth slowly being consumed by our thoughtlessly discarded garbage.

Considering the diversity of artists, the show covers the gamut of media and mood. Sophie Hamacher’s work explores, according to her statement, “the silences and gaps” of a variety of subjects. Her pen-marked, folded Xeroxes collapse an image to inscrutability, leaving us to fill in the narrative. They are about motherhood, but the painful distortions of the images – one reminded me of Egon Schiele’s emaciated portraits – make it clear we’re not reveling in its more blissful, joyous aspects. Annika Early’s two gouaches handle difficult subject matter, miscarriage, with subtle lyricism. Their netlike markings representing both loss and healing as she knits herself back together.

It’s not all heavy and ponderous. Two videos, for example, alleviate the mood. Anna Queen’s quirky film of a primary-colored plastic sculpture in the snow is light as a feather and at the very end may elicit a chuckle. It might also be commenting on the ephemerality of existence, but it feels too spontaneous and charming for that. Erin Johnson’s “Lake” video is endlessly fascinating – a kind of common person’s water ballet filmed from above. Real – versus Esther Williams – bodies gather on the surface to breathe and stay afloat in various graceful and less graceful ways. Their assorted movements and body shapes make us appreciate the individuality within the whole.

The richness and diversity of offerings invoked pure gratitude for Ellis-Beauregard, which helped make each piece possible and, by extension, Maine’s art scene all the more exciting.

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] 

Erin Johnson, “Lake,” HD Video Photo courtesy of Cove Street Arts


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