In a show that feels both formally radical and historically reverent, Selvedge — on view now at Able Baker Contemporary — grapples with the practice of painting through a new lens. The nine women’s works shown in this exhibition — including Portland painter and muralist Tessa Greene O’Brien, who began curating it last November — share in their effort to sublimate the process of painting through methods and practices associated with textile-making.
This allows an innovation into the form that these welltrained painters deploy affectingly, but the idea itself is hardly new. O’Brien makes studious mention of historical influences, most notably the Support/Surfaces art movement originating in the south of France in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bound together by political disenfranchisement, Support/Surfaces artists sought to deconstruct the medium by isolating and modulating its core components of medium, support, and surface, sloughing off historical references, representation, or intentional expressions of sentiment.
Maria Molteni, Tennis Panties, 2016, sewn cotton, athletic mesh, fringe, tennis balls
Ranging in age from 21 to sixty something and each coming from a strong pedigree, it may nonetheless be a stretch to say this show’s artists share political sentiments as strong as their forebears. On the other hand, any consideration of textiles as a fine art form intersecting with the capital-e Establishment history of painting (clumped together as it is by innumerable male idols) is political in its own right. To employing the medium and process of textile- and fabric-making imbues the show with the historical weight of the labors of women the world over — from those working from factories in Iran during the Shah’s rule to the African-American slave women quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, to women working in textile mills in colonial New England.
Given that historical weight, viewing Selvedge is surprisingly an enjoyable, often playful affair. Maria Molteni’s Untitled (Painted Tennis Net), a 13-foot climbing rope with cargo/tennis knots and vibrantly neon-green acrylic paint, registers as a sort of aesthetic mashup of the works of Alex Da Corte and ‘70s French artist Daniel Dezeuze. Erica Licea-Kane’s series of acrylic pigment on acrylic fabric are busy and linear, their tight webbing striking a balance between earthy mosaics and De Stijl arithmetics. And the light, inventive works of Maine College of Art grad Isabelle O’Donnell nod toward, among others, Portland artist and educator Elizabeth Jabar’s work in this field.
Martha Tuttle, Weather (3), 2017, wool, silk, dye
The handwoven, tactile pieces of Martha Tuttle are some of the shows most inviting highlights. A series titled Like Water I Have No Skin merges wool, silk, and natural dyes in muted, serene color fields, as does the painterly and arrestingly calming Weather (3), a structure of light, free-hanging fabric bound together by weights and pins. Gauzy and ethereal, it’s one of the best representations of the show’s conceit, effortlessly conveying how simple layered textiles can change the way artists approach the medium of paint (and vice versa). Similarly, Beth Kleene’s 4 Eyes in the gallery window, a 50” x 44” tapestry of bright orange acrylic, ink, and hand-dyed cotton fabric, fuses the Portland artist’s typically splashy and jewel-like paintings with the quiet hypnotic finesse of 20th-century quilt work.
A collection of odder, smaller, and less serious-seeming works is peppered along a “salon wall” in the main floor, helping to further articulate the act of textile work through the lens of painting. Notable among them are Cassie Jones’s vibrantly distinct series of acrylic, felt, and staples on panel. To non-artists — and I mean this as a mark of distinction — Jones’s pieces might look as if they’re ripped right out of a Teletubbies episode, but that’s a testament to their playful execution, imaginative coloration, and brilliant deployment of shape and contour. I’m told Jones doesn’t make work like this anymore, but their inclusion here is another helpful illustration of the show’s ideas.
Susan Metrican, Worm Through Here, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 50” X 40”
O’Brien perhaps too modestly includes only two of her own pieces here. A gifted painter and muralist whose use of color typically dazzles, her stuff in Selvedge first seemed to me to be uncharacteristically dowdy and dark. But both pieces — the rugged coveralls-as-color field trick of Bonanza and the dyed canvas cushion flecked with different blots of paint she’s titled Painting for Bella — are impossible to assess without imagining the sweat put into them, and smartly add a bit of grit to the overall palette. After all, having produced a dazzling show that honors art traditions having as much to do with labor as invention, she’s definitely done the work.
Selvedge, mixed media group exhibition | Through August 5 | At Able Baker Contemporary, 29 Forest Ave., Portland | Thu-Sat 1-5:30pm | www.ablebakercontemporary.com
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