"You'd Forget Your Head," by Abby Shahn, now at Speedwell Projects in Portland. (Courtesy Speedwell Projects)
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When photographer Jocelyn Lee opened Speedwell Projects at Woodfords Corner in Portland in 2016, her stated aim for the gallery was “to support and elevate the work of mid- to late-career women, LGBTQ+ and artists of color who we feel are masters of their discipline but are not receiving the attention they deserve.”

As such, Abby Shahn is the perfect artist for Speedwell.

“Abby Shahn – 50 Years” (through May 9) is a major retrospective (with catalog) of an artist who has been a key player on the Maine art scene since 1969.

Shahn, who turns 80 this year, is also part of a storied artistic family with roots in the Skowhegan art community. It’s rare, however, that we get to see a large body of her work in Portland.

Abby Shahn’s “Dogs of War.” (Courtesy Speedwell Projects)

“Abby Shahn – 50 Years” is a retrospective look at the artist’s works through paintings, drawings, hand-made books, three-dimensional objects and a site-specific installation.

What all of Shahn’s work has in common is an underlying political agenda articulated in an abstract vocabulary of color, form and gesture. Shahn is a protest artist with a distinguished family provenance. Her father, Ben Shahn, was a noted social realist who once worked with muralist Diego Rivera. Her mother, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, was also a progressive realist.

“Much of my art is inspired by political events,” Shahn explains on her website, “but it’s not political art in the sense of trying to move people into action. I think of myself more as a witness.”

Shahn moved to Solon in 1969, the year her father died. Ben Shahn had taught at the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture from 1954-1965. Bernarda Shahn became a member of the school board and summered on the school campus for many years.

Shahn became a central figure in the Central Maine art scene as a co-founder of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, a member of the guerilla theater group In Spite of Life Players, a musician in the avant-garde band Unintended Consequences and the host of a world music program on Colby College radio station WMHB.

As a fine artist, Shahn is part of a local art scene that includes her partner James Fangboner, fresco artist Barbara Sullivan and sculptor Wally Warren, among others. As a political activist, she has often been seen standing with others on Skowhegan’s downtown bridge to witness against social injustice.

There is an explosive urgency about Shahn’s abstract expressionist paintings that almost seems to set Speedwell Projects aflame. The gallery’s display windows are enlivened by two large egg tempera-on-paper paintings, “Dogs of War” and “You’d Forget Your Head If It Wasn’t Attached to your Shoulders.” Both paintings feature the bold, slashing strokes and embedded images for which Shahn is known. 

The exhibition also features a selection of Shahn’s artist’s books, suspended globes like wasps’ nest (some with real comb cells), paintings of heads large and small that coalesce out of the energy of her brushwork, a series of ghostly figures emerging from chromatic space, and an alcove for her newest work entitled “Rust World.”

Figures, heads, globes and debris on the floor are all painted with rust, as though the art is in decay. Or perhaps the art is decay.

Some of the same issues her parents dealt with explicitly in their art – racial injustice, war, women’s rights, repression – form the subtext of Shahn’s abstract and conceptual work. 

Something I wrote back in 1982 is still true today:

“The beauty of Abby Shahn’s art is that it operates at many levels simultaneously, from the purely ornamental through the personal and social on to the spiritual.”

Like so much else that makes life worthwhile, the opening celebration of “Abby Shahn – 50 Years” had to be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. But as we hunker down and practice “social distancing,” I take solace in knowing that way up in rural Solon, art, a form of social sharing, is still being made and very soon Abby Shahn will be planting her garden. 

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He is the author of “Maine Art Now.”

“Abby Shahn – 50 Years” is at Speedwell Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland. The gallery had intended to operate on a limited schedule, but is now closed in keeping with mandates from the city and the state of Maine. In a March 25 email, Managing Director Marci Spier said “We are working hard to create an online viewing of the work as well as rolling out ‘Speedwell Live!’ (weekly interviews with artists, and poetry and prose readings). We want nothing more than to keep the art community engaged and connected.” For more info: https://www.speedwellprojects.com.