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Beyond the frames
UNE exhibits bring art to the south
BY IAN PAIGE
You donít need to get too far from Portlandís Arts District before you remember that plenty of people are just looking for pretty pictures of lighthouses. Each passing year, Portlandís sense of artistic community seems to grow stronger. The congregation is growing, but where are the itinerant preachers? The University of New England campus in Biddeford is a damn long slog out of Portland in this January weather, but thatís exactly why itís so comforting to see young area artists and their forward-thinking ideas represented.
The work of Hilary Irons, collectively entitled "The Ladiesí Paradise," is beautifully illustrative yet intellectually demanding, off-the-cuff in its stylization yet remarkably complex in execution. The works featured in the Stella Maris Hall (by the office of the prez no less) range from ornate canvas pieces to scraps of paper with doodles and written notes about B vitamins. All works are characterized by a cartoonish style of figure drawing predominantly focused on colonial-era women in various poses of everyday living. Gouache on colored paper manifests bright, distinct forms such that background and foreground are no matter; Ironsís women explode with drama and activity in a psychedelic flattening of pictorial space.
A mother lies in bed with her naked child surrounded by maids practicing needlepoint and a small child diligently praying. The mother and child reach up to a giant silhouette of a cat looking down on the whole scene. Yes, thatís correct, a big freaking psychedelic silhouette of a housecat with a colorful Eden full of gumdrop-nibbling ponies inside.
Silhouettes are primary themes in almost every work. These outlines of animals often function as windows into magical other-worlds by framing the action itself or breaking the space entirely with a block color. Combine these spirit animals with the busy worlds of Ironsís ladies and we start to see what the artist is getting at. The social hierarchies of women concerned with power structures achieved through mastery of the feminine are at odds, or at least intertwined with, the natural world of the animal, always knowledgeable of something deeper beyond the realm of the social or the barnyard.
This is not necessarily a cry against the patriarchy. These women are in their own worlds, their own paradise, and creating their own subjugation. One gouache work shows a Whereís Waldo? world of women speaking at lecterns, holding boom mics, and generally busy as bees can be in a modern world. Above them sprouts a plant that spirals to the top of the page where emerging Victorian peasants run from an unknown enemy. Conversely, another image shows women from the early 20th century scrubbing toilets, taking baths and coyly passing notes to one another while modern schoolgirls listening to headphones sprout from the top of the plant structure. All the women are united by their detached, almost resigned, expressions.
Jared Raddingís new show "Something is Going to Happen" is a few paces away at the UNE Campus Center. Five green monochromatic works composed of a matrix of sixteen pages of notebook paper each are displayed in the reception hall. With small variations in tone and frequency of filled lines on the pages, Radding creates an optic display that ideally creates a meditative response. Another similarly styled work is multicolored, a suggestion that the theme is one in progress. Any effect on the viewer is generally discouraged by the haphazard construction of the pieces. This is a surprise from a gifted young artist such as Radding who has proven himself in the past and will undoubtedly continue to represent the Portland artistic community in the future.
These two artists are ambassadors in a land where unframed conceptual works are far from the norm. Surrounding Ironsís paintings in Maris Hall were many office workers (yup, all women) in the process of forming their own version of the pieces on the walls. Judging from their concerned inquiries as to the nature of the work, itís clear their Ladiesí Paradise is unsettlingly stranger for the showís presence. Thatís a pretty good indication that the Portland idea factory has plenty more preaching to do, even as it pollinates mainstream Maine and the lighthouse culture.
Ian Paige can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org