In “Mind, Self and Society,” American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist George Mead argued, “We are one thing to one man and another thing to another … There are all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions.” So, he concluded, “A multiple personality is, in a certain sense, normal.”

This is a theme explored in “Double Trouble,” organized by Director of Exhibitions Julie Poitras Santos at the Institute of Contemporary Art at (recently renamed) Maine College of Art & Design. The show has been up for a while and runs through Sept. 17. It’s only being reviewed now because Portland’s summer art scene has been on fire. But it is well worth a trip. The five artists here – Bianca Beck, Joiri Minaya, Lucy Kim, Sascha Braunig and Sonia Almeida – carry on a fascinating conversation that invites us to reflect on deep assumptions about identity and contemplate the nature of who and what things actually are.

It reveals multiple dimensions far beyond the two-fold nature of the title. The concept origin was the “doubled body” and its cultural implications: our inner Jekyll and Hyde, our doppelgängers, the person society expects us to be and the one we actually are. There can be joy and mischief in this mysterious other self and also deep misgivings about the “possibility that we are not in control of ourselves,” as Poitras Santos writes in the show’s brochure.

Bianca Beck starts things off with a bang. Her “Untitled” sculpture in the first gallery is like the avatar we all dream of becoming, living the unfettered life we deserve but rarely realize. This figure is clearly female, with hands on hips, chest pushed outward, breasts pointing aloft. It lives large in the space, fully embodied, powerful and joyous. The colors, just this side of garish, are unapologetic, the stance uncompromising.

Its monumental proportion is a reference to Plato’s “Symposium,” in which Aristophanes posited that original humans were double beings with two sets of genitalia determining which of the three sexes they belonged to: heterosexual (one of each), lesbian (two vaginas) or homosexual (two phalli). Zeus split these beings, forever launching them on a quest for their opposite or same-sex other.

“Untitled,” as well as another sculpture in the back gallery exuding a similarly commanding presence, celebrate womanhood and fluid sexuality, blithely flouting negative stereotypes thrust upon both by culture and society. The second work appears as a reclining figure with legs open and a knee up. It is fully conscious of its powers and brazenly flirtatious, as if asking the viewer, “Do you have a problem with this?”

Joiri Minaya, “Container #4,” 2020

Minaya’s large-scale photography is visually and formally impressive. Yet we can detect a disturbing undercurrent to their lush resplendence. The stunning settings – verdant jungles and gardens, seashores – are deceptively beautiful. The artist’s own presence in them, dressed in body suits that mimic the surroundings yet constrict her into uncomfortable fixed poses, confront the constructed, mostly colonial-minded tropical cliches we idealize (not to mention the objectified sexuality of women in these “steamy” cultures).

We assume these “paradises” are more pristine and unspoiled, their people purer and closer to some primal force of nature, in harmonious connection with their surroundings. This, of course, denies many realities: a history of colonial repression and enslavement, the despoiling of natural resources for Anglo-European consumption, some of the world’s most impoverished economies and corrupt governments.

Minaya is from the Dominican Republic and knows these tragic histories well. Just consider the exploitation of Dominicans in coffee and sugar plantations, or the ravaged state of Haiti, for that matter, to find emphatically unidyllic counterpoints to our imposed platitudes about “easy island living.”

Lucy Kim, “Auto Synthetic,” 2018

Lucy Kim’s “Auto-Synthetic” works form a series of identical flattened casts of her body suspended within metal frames. From the outset, they have a feeling of violence and deformity about them. The more we explore this feeling, it becomes clear that the deformity relates to their refusal to hew to conventional visual perceptions. Is it a painting or a sculpture? Both? Neither? The violence comes from the sense of a three-dimensional Kim being squashed and flattened to fit into a two-dimensional picture plane.

This, of course, implies two identities. But the series explores many others and records Kim’s ever-shifting self-image. She can be on fire with fury or passion (“Flames”) or incinerated by these emotions (“Conceptual Smoke”). We might be viewing the crumbling of an identity or the exhaustion of carrying around an old identity in “Cracked and Caked.” Two works featuring wooden birds superimposed on Kim’s body might indicate a decoy identity presented to the world for self-protection.

Sascha Braunig’s paintings have always challenged expectations imposed on women, mostly through ill-fitting, even painfully fitting garments into which they must squeeze their bodies. “Medusa” presents satiny green fabric in the shape of a gown with an impossibly restrictive cinched waist and breasts artificially pushed into fullness by the dress. Yet the figure wearing it spills out of the top voluptuously with her broad shoulders and fleshy arms.

Conversely, “The Fitting” sends up the female eidolon of women as soft and pliable by presenting the one being fitted as a skeletal line drawing covered in sharp, pointed barbs. The garment she’s supposed to wear looks like some S&M apparel dreamed up by Jean-Paul Gaultier for Peter Greenaway’s often revolting 1990 crime shocker “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”

Sonia Almeida, “Dancing Score,” 2021

Finally, there are Almeida’s paintings, which question monolithic identities of all kinds and introduce the truer multiplicity and duality of everything – at least on the human plane. Some are riffs on Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Dance Diagram” works, seen by some critics as commentary on the “correct” ways to enter society. In those paintings, as in Almeida’s, they might be metaphors for our highly choreographed personalities. In Warhol’s, they also recalled the ballroom dancing classes that were considered essential to the burnishing of a polished, poised sense of decorum.

Almeida’s dance diagrams and musical staffs also invite movement to a certain music, making us contemplate various dichotomies. Is this visual art or dance instruction? Is the gallery experience supposed to be one of passive observation and quietude, or might it invite us to interact by attempting some moves of our own? Is it a kind of synesthesia, where we experience something auditory and physical (music and dance) through something visual?

In terms of material properties, is this abstract expressionism (as nonrepresentational strokes floating on the surface of “Dancing Score” might intimate) or something more representational, geometric and rational (as the dance steps and a step-like form at upper left indicate)?

The larger admonition in all the work, of course, is that we cannot take anything at face value. Everything has its double – or triple or quintuple – meaning and construction. Failing to heed this will always get us into trouble.

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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