Hannah Secord Wade, “Untitled Props 1,” left; and Richard Yu-Tang Lee, “Rain in a Burning Garden” Images courtesy of the artists

I am a true believer in the words of the eloquent cultural critic Maria Popova: “This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic Zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more whole-heartedness.”

The state of our world these days has made our sense of being overwhelmed and helpless seem always near – so close by that, at times, it can threaten to engulf us. For an arts writer, it’s natural that one way I push against the daily onslaught is to go see art.

A couple of current shows in Portland offer us two ways to do this. You’ll have to hurry to see “Asters & Goldenrod” (through Nov. 12), curated by Hilary Schaffner and Tessa G. O’Brien at Alice Gauvin Gallery. The second is “Liveable Worlds” (through Dec. 15), curated by Julie Poitras Santos and Sabine Malcolm at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the Maine College of Art & Design. The former proffers an oasis of joy and heart and color, as well as reinforces the idea of kindred relationship with fellow species. The latter gives us multiple ways to move beyond that “solipsistic Zoom-lens on life” by prompting us to learn about and contemplate aspects of our environment with ramifications far greater than ourselves.

For “Asters & Goldenrod,” the curators invited five New England artists to contribute work. They, in turn, invited peers with whom they carry on some form of creative dialogue. Another exchange, the symbiotic systems of nature, informs the show’s title. Asters and goldenrods often grow together, sharing the resources of their habitat, but also interacting in ways that enhance it. For instance, their paired growth increases biodiversity by attracting various pollinators that might not be drawn to one or the other plant on its own, and their root systems infiltrate different depths (asters’ shallow roots stabilize the soil, while goldenrods’ deeper roots help moisture retention and prevent erosion).

In this light, the aesthetic couplings become beautiful examples of our own interdependence and the human porosity that’s possible when we remain curious about each other instead of aligning ourselves with what differentiates us.

Take, for example, the exchange between Hannah Secord Wade and Richard Yu-Tang Lee. On the surface, they have little in common. Secord Wade’s work is representational and graphic, while Yu-Tang Lee’s is vaguely calligraphic, but fundamentally abstract. Secord Wade’s iconography of objects seems thrown together in incongruous, at times surreally off-putting ways, while Yu-Tang Lee’s are all movement and rhythm sans content.


Yet both artists share a similar palette, and viewing them together can approximate a process of disintegration or deconstruction, where solid objects in Secord Wade’s works (or, in a larger sense, what we interpret as fixed and categorizable “things”) dissolve into some less graspable essences of themselves in Yu-Tang Lee’s paintings. This serves both artists’ ends. Secord Wade’s work often deals with our futile attempts to control what we cannot control (striving to label, pigeonhole or otherwise rationalize ourselves into understanding things that are essentially mysterious). Yu-Tang Lee proposes a way of coming closer to that mystery by understanding the symbiotic relationship between opposites (fact versus perception, reality versus memory, etc.).

Similarly, Meghan Brady and Jackie Gendel share palettes, but also a fondness for creating a kind of compositional, yet abstract, architecture in their works. Brady does this more literally with what we could characterize as visual building blocks: geometric shapes, arabesque lines, collage-like layering. Gendel uses arches and step forms, grids and the occasional figure present within them. Both create space that feels at once contained and open.

Jennie Jieun Lee, “Wrigley,” left; and Emily Noelle Lambert, “Double Take.” Images courtesy of the artists

Jennie Jieun Lee and Emily Noelle Lambert share a material affinity for ceramic, as well as a subversive way of using it pictorially, the former doing so in two dimensions, the latter in three. And on and on. It’s fun to decipher the similarities and differences between pairs of artists. But it’s also uplifting – and, I would argue, therapeutic in our dissonant, polarized now – to find peaceful coexistence and commonality amid dissimilarity and divergence.

According to the statement for “Liveable Worlds,” it is “an exhibition that uses environmental art and design as a starting point for imagining how we can make liveable [sic] worlds in challenging conditions.” This does not mean it’s all good news, of course. But rather than take the usual dismally catastrophic approach to the subject of human impact on the natural world, the works on display are more invitations to witness and to learn so that we may appreciate how much is in the balance when we consider the interconnectivity of all life.

Mary Mattingly, “Water Clock,” 2023. Steel, vessels, found materials, ocean water, 120 x 120 x 60 in. Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design

In the Congress Street window is Mary Mattingly’s “Water Clock,” a large sculpture that “keeps time” through the conveyance of water around a scaffold structure as it flows through various tubes and vessels. It has the scrappy look of something a castaway might jury rig using parts salvaged from a shipwreck. There is a welcome accessibility in its inelegance. “Water Clock” is meant to call attention to the fragility of coastal ecosystems, requiring gallery staff to maintain it, an act that emphasizes the need of the marine environment for care and preservation.

The urgency of the subject is treated with an optimistic view that implicitly trusts human ingenuity to create solutions rather than simply shrugging off the impending doom. Its tubes, as well as the aural component of running water, evoke a laboratory and a life-support system like our own circulatory apparatus of veins and arteries.


Pamela Moulton/Posey and Patte Loper also draw our attention to marine ecosystems. In “Zostera – Environmental Superhero,” Moulton (Posey is a pseudonymous performance art name) hones in on the dwindling seagrass meadows of Casco Bay, which forestall erosion, store carbon, filter water and provide habitat to vast populations of organisms.

Pamela Moulton/Posey, “ZOSTERA,” 2023. Discarded fishing net, helmet, acrylics, hog rings. Dimensions variable. Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design

The sculptures on display, constructed of tangled, knotted agglomerations of colored fishing gear, appear as elaborate headdresses (imagine colorful marine versions of Chakaia Booker’s tire busts). These are typical of this artist’s obsessive, mostly fiber-based practice. One of these “headdresses” sprouts vials containing specimens of seagrass. Making a “superhero” of an aquatic species not only illuminates the value it provides to our environment. It also finds a sense of heroics in the commonplace that harks back to Renaissance humanism and Gustave Courbet’s exaltation of the common man.

Patte Loper’s “Salt Marsh Deep Time Study Center” is an immersive experience that invites us to contemplate, educate ourselves about and interact with the pivotal role of salt marshes. We are invited to sit at a desk and edify ourselves about the marshes’ archival function, the way its layers of sediment chronicle time and species. It offers us lessons in resilience and regeneration in which we can actually participate.

There’s so much more, including the monumental “Untitled, 2015” by Athena LaTocha, an almost 37-foot-long work that approximates a hike through a landscape where we can intuit the effects of both nature and man on Earth. LaTocha’s primary material is ink, but she moves it around her enormous work using wire brushes, scrap metal and reclaimed tire shreds, thus implying the many elements – human and natural – that shape and change topographies. It can also evoke mass migrations and the intensions, both well-meaning and not, behind the way we alter our physical and mental landscapes.

The spectacular scope of “Untitled, 2015” will shatter you open. In that newfound openness, we might find hope for humanity’s perseverance through its growing consciousness about the unity of all things. The show ultimately feels uplifting rather than apocalyptic.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com 

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