Chiaozza, “Gemels,” 2023. Painted paper pulp. Photos by Ben Gancsos Studio

Nothing quite prepares you for “Rest Within the Wake,” James Allister Sprang’s deeply moving, immersive installation piece (through April 6) at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art & Design. Sited at the rearmost Lunder Gallery, it is the last of a three-show lineup, preceded as you move from front door to back by “Pair, Pare, Pear,” a sculpture exhibit by the duo Chiaozza, and “towels, socks, cats, windows,” a painting show by Ryosuke Kumakura (both through Feb. 17).

Or maybe these first two exhibits actually do, if not prepare you, at least set you up to receive the full impact of Sprang’s multi-sensory work. Director of Exhibitions Iris Williamson starts us off with Chiaozza’s insistently cheery sculptures, she says, “because it’s winter and we need some color.” But a more important intent is to present MECA&D students with the multidisciplinary ways in which art and design can interact.

Chiaozza (pronounced CHOW-zah) is a portmanteau formed from the surnames of Terri Chiao and Adam Frezza, a young Brooklyn couple who works across both fields, exhibiting artwork as well as limited-edition rugs for IKEA, wall hooks for Areaware, socks for craft lifestyle brand Degen, et alia. As might be expected from a duo who met at a karaoke bar, their work is singularly whimsical and indeed lifts your spirits when you spy their sculptures from the street in the window of ICA.

Basically, they have created a small grove of brightly colored fruit trees in “pared” down forms that, though fanciful, is nevertheless grounded in a sincere study of plants, root stocks, grafting techniques and natural plant phenomena they observed in a Vermont apple orchard. The series of sculptures is called Gemels, a title that comes down to us from the Latin gemellus, meaning “pair” or “twin.” This refers to the process of grafting, where plants are combined to create new varieties, and to inosculation, where different plants fuse, flowering in several different varieties of a fruit or fruits (such as a tree that yields both apples and pears).

The title, of course, plays with these concepts, ultimately showing us how all things can work together yet still retain their individuality. It’s a positive message for a bleak Maine winter, the certain polarization of an upcoming election season, and a welcome shot of fun and humor.

Ryosuke Kumakura: “towels, socks, cats, windows,” 2023. Installation view.

Next, we come to Kumakura’s paintings, the subjects of which are listed in the title of the show. The lower-case of the words “towels, socks, cats, windows” is intentional. Kumakura – born in Japan and residing in Rockport – relishes the commonplace. When I first saw the exhibition image in the announcement, I thought it was just two towels hanging over a wooden stretcher and hung on a wall.


Guess what? It is. Well, not exactly. And this is where the chief interest of this show lies. If my initial impression had proved accurate, I might have rolled my eyes and quickly moved on. But the “towels” are actually canvas painted super-realistically to look like towels. Like Chiaozza, Kumakura is playful. In his paintings of cats, for instance, he folds the top corners of the canvas to mimic a cat’s ears. This is not profound stuff. There’s really nothing more to a painting of socks rolled off a person’s feet and left on the floor in front of a window except, well, socks rolled off a person’s feet and left in front of a window.

Nor, in the artist’s mind, should there be. Instead Kumakura is calling attention to the quotidian and the sense of the simple joys and comforts we often take for granted. What elevates these works is the considerable skill of his technique. These paintings lie somewhere between trompe l’oeil, the Renaissance art of creating the optical illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, and the photorealism of artists like Richard Estes.

The cumulative effect of these two exhibits is to leave us all warm and fuzzy inside. And then we walk through the curtain into “Rest Within the Wake.”

James Allister Sprang, “Rest Within the Wake,” 2023. Installation view.

New York artist Sprang’s installation consists of variously sized wall pieces made from cyanotypes that have been shredded into long ribbons, woven together, painted, glued and hung. Initially they remind us of the tapestries of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. However, though their material presence is similar, the association evaporates as the larger themes of the work become clear.

Poetry is written on the deep blue walls encircling the room, and an orchestral “spiritual jazz” score written by Sprang – by turns dissonant, ravishing, haunting and meditative – plays on the only 4DSound system in the U.S. It was composed 60 feet under the surface of the Caribbean while Sprang learned to scuba dive. At whatever point you enter this work (the soundtrack is about 45 minutes and worth experiencing in its entirety), you feel a sense of descent. Bass clef piano notes and the thrumming and plucking of strings on a bass emphasize descent, while the tinkling of the treble clef intimates coming closer to the surface.

The weavings approximate the movement of waves and currents. If you look closely, some reveal writing and, in one instance, a pattern that resembles an ancient language. Clearly narratives are being carried along by the currents. Over the soundtrack, we also hear voices performing chants and intonations. Ah, I thought, we are in the Middle Passage.


While Sprang is certainly evoking the forced migration of the enslaved across the Atlantic, however, it would be unjustly limiting to adhere to this assumption. Of course, the violence toward people of African descent – then and now – is central to the narrative of Black and brown beings everywhere, as it must be. But “Rest” has a more sweeping, layered and, I think, ultimately uplifting tale to relate. Yes, the descent of bodies lost at sea in that crossing is one memory being summoned, but for Sprang it has more nuance. For there is a point where that fatal descent also becomes a beatific state offering us infinite freedom.

Sprang’s epic story does not just dwell in tragedy but rings with self-determination, resistance, resilience and spiritual deliverance. It is instructive to start at the beginning, as the artist narrates the poem on the wall. As we follow his words audibly and visually, we perceive a certain cadence. Inflection is important. “I am floating black skin,” he intones. “My descent and ascent is guided by my breath,” – the emphasis is on “my” breath. “Air floats. My … my body screams, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But I am floating. I am alive. I am descending into the depths of the Caribbean.” It is a metaphor for survival. He refers to his oxygen tank as a life force strapped snug onto his back – a lyrical representation of inner resource.

The 500-page score, written for 17 instruments, induces dissonant sensations of upheaval, of being tossed around on heaving seas, of disorientation and dislocation. But throughout these flat and sharp notes, moments resolve into major chords, suggesting experiences of joy, community and love. The weavings themselves were made cooperatively with youth and, so, represent the weaving and reweaving together of communities away from home.

One of the books that influenced “Rest” is Ross Gay’s collection of essays, “Inciting Joy.” Many of these point up the importance of caring for one another, particularly in trying times. Ross’ essays corroborate and exalt the joy that arises from this act, the palpable sense we elicit in ourselves of unification, spiritual communion, love, solidarity, belonging, compassion. This could not be a more timely message.

“We are not a monument,” Sprang notes elsewhere, which I took to imply our tendency to oversimplify, to look at Black and brown experience as monolithic (i.e., completely about suffering and racism), rather than to acknowledge the rich, infinitely variable and multidimensional truth of it. He aims for an immersion into the entirety of this experience. He beseeches us to listen to our own bodies as we witness this work, sure that, he seems to say, we will understand both the uniqueness of each human soul and the commonalities that bind us. Like these weavings, as beings we are joined forever together in the warp and weft of existence.

No, we are not monuments. But what Sprang reaches for here – and in my opinion achieves poignantly – is a monumental endeavor. If you can open yourself to its multifarious narratives, it is my belief that this can be, as it was for me, the most important show to see this season.

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

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.