If we can’t count on art students to liberate us from mass political confusion, then we’re in trouble.
Luckily, the Maine College of Art’s annual MFA Thesis Exhibition—first of the Trump era—finds the state's most supple art minds up to the task. With video, installation, performance and multimedia work, these nine MFA students not only confront the stultifying, oppressive, and boring-ass norms of American cultural life, they also embrace the avenues by which identity and physicality is developing political bite.
Queerer and more boldly physical than years past, the collection shows that for all the stupidity and nonsense in American political life, artists are making personal and discoveries from the repression and the haze, recognizing that body and identity can be powerful tools for political agency.
Exhibit A of this is Shelby Wynne Richardson’s Will You Pet My Pussy?, a handmade mixed-media artist book which fuses the visual vocabulary of illustrated pop-up stories with a queer feminist ethos and the language of consent-based sex education. Drawing, as she states, from the “Instagram-famous, those who wear their ‘plastic-ness’ on their sleeves,” each spread displays a hand-rendered vagina rendered in materially discrete forms. Some are kitschy, some cute; many are indeed fun to pet (which Richardson invites). Alongside each is a dictum of pussyplay the artist spells out in blocky nursery-rhyme verse (“First tickle on my inner thights / With foreplay please be slow not shy”). During my visit, a mid-fifties male security guard approached Will You Pet My Pussy? with what looked to be curiosity and bemusement, wearing a uniform and the thin armor of a smirk. It reminded me of the Instagram phenomenon of viewing a familiar feed (yours or another’s) imagined through the eyes of an interesting friend. What did that person think of that image?
It was Foucault who believed that society was a grid of ideological planes stacked incongruously atop one another, never fitting properly, and artist Dayna Riemlind makes no less vivid a statement. She stitches patterns and embroidered design onto dye-sublimated prints of photographs of distinct places, drawing out historical and personal meaning by contrasting spheres of time, geography, and memory. Her Watcher (2017, hand embroidery on cotton, 34” x 40”), arguably the show’s most vivid image, conjoins two hands in embroidered red fabric pocked with teary blue eyes, a sign that the artistic terrain Riemlind works in expands beyond the physical world and into dream.
A loud piece by Jose Rodriguez, Jr. builds on queer theorist Lee Edelman’s principle insight from the landmark 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Edelman’s theory of “reproductive futurism” identifies that the common American political platform of being “pro-children” and “pro-future,” which both party’s figures adopt as unassailable rhetoric during political campaigns, is intrinsically and problematically heteronormative and assumes the supremacy of procreative families above other citizens. (In the book, Edelman cites a GOP operative complaining in the New York Times about a 1997 Bill Clinton photo-op beside wife and daughter: “This is the father picture,” says the Republican media consultant. “This is the daddy bear, this is the head of the political household. Nothing helps him more.”)
Rodriguez wants to fuck with this. With campy humor and nods to Edelman, This Land Is My Land erects a mock political rally—complete with original political branding, a lot of bear imagery and cosplay, and one hypnotically repetitious speech, all of it a satire on the politics of family values and its latent homophobia. As the show’s only piece wiith sound, Rodriguez’s looping audio track (and its recurring fugue of “This Is Our Time”) can dominate the atmosphere. But in a world where prominent right-wing figures formed Gays For Trump coalitions and recast the real estate mogul as “Daddy,” there’s much to explore here beyond Edelman.
I can’t remember a gallery experience as visceral as I had viewing the work of Sarah Emch, an artist whose three video pieces attempt to reconcile past experiences of self-multilation and the methods of confronting personal trauma. In one, a five-minute video titled Recollection, we see the artist’s bared upper chest repeatedly sliced with a small blade (presumably by her own hand). Though the blade cuts at bare surface level, her skin’s response—the slowly forming scars and dotting pockets of blood—effectively conveys a rhythm of pain far deeper than skin. In the disquieting Involuntary, we witness the artist seeming to attempt (and fail) to condition herself to the reflexive physical response to a red-colored fluid periodically dripping onto her forehead. Viewed as she lays supine with eyes closed, it is an agonizing and intimate 17-minute ritual. As challenging as they are to watch, Emch’s artful, vulnerable explorations of the body’s relationship to trauma and abuse are tremendously affecting.
Other standouts include Seed, a stratified woman, in which Louise Coupar-Stamat evokes themes of birth and emergence through the material history of clay, a substance she entombs and cakes around several women over video. Three large material sculptures by Benjamin Spalding, collected here as Bacaloo, fuse discrete, transregional cultural signifiers (like Santeria altars, hockey gloves, and New England flannel) into ecstatic figural representations of the amalgamate identities of the artist’s cultural heritage. They’re kind of glorious. I missed the live performance by Crystal Gale Phelps, said to summon political agency through contemporary dance and circus arts (though viewers can catch her again on June 9 from 1 to 4 pm).
There may never have been a stupider, more cynical time to be alive. But look at these folks. They’ve found a few ideas worth holding on to.
MECA MFA Thesis Exhibition | Through June 9 | ICA at MECA, 522 Congress St., Portland | www.meca.edu
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