Speedwell Projects in Portland did not start out as a gallery dedicated to correcting the inequality women artists suffer in the art world. Founded in 2015 by artist Jocelyn Lee, Speedwell exhibitions were roughly 50/50 male and female until a couple of years ago when the gallery sharpened its vision to “support women of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, classes, and abilities through exhibitions, residencies, publications, and documentaries.”
Speedwell’s current exhibition, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (through Dec. 23), narrows that focus even further, featuring a group of artists who were “asked to celebrate their interpretation and experience of queer existence and love.”
The exhibition had its genesis in a grant from the Crewe Foundation, a Portland-based artist-endowed foundation started by songwriter Bob Crewe, who co-wrote a string of pop hits for The Four Seasons, and his brother Dan. The Crewe Foundation provides “support in the fields of fine arts and music by empowering aspiring artists and underserved youth to pursue, develop and realize their talents and goals as well as supporting the rights of the LGBTQ community.”
Speedwell director Annika Earley asked writer-curator Faythe Levine, formerly of the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and now at the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosedale, New York, to use the Crewe grant to curate “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” an exhibition named after a 1967 hit song Bob Crewe wrote with Bob Gaudio.
Faythe Levine, a leader in the queer feminist movement and in the D.I.Y.-ethic indie craft movement, was asked to place Maine artists in a national context, which she has done by featuring three Maine-connected artists along with several artists from away.
“The range of artists and mediums included in the exhibition,” writes Levine, “is intentional, highlighting our collective survival. The work is a visual fabric of our love, rage, resistance, healing, and grief — amplifying the multitudes of ways queerness can exist.”
The Maine artists in the show are Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan, Heather Flor Cron and Devon Kelley-Yurdin. Beaulieu-Morgan, who now lives in Connecticut and works at Yale, is an embroidery artist. Her “A Brief History of How Music Made Me Queer” is a wonderfully smart and humorous oval embroidery that constitutes a musical autobiography in words and images. Beaulieu-Morgan has also compiled a 229-song Spotify playlist that constitutes a lifetime soundtrack.
Heather Flor Cron of Portland shows postcard-size gouache, pencil and ink drawings of cakes that are described as “space holders to celebrate, mourn, grieve and honor life events we collectively experienced alone during a pandemic.”
Devon Kelley-Yurdin, also of Portland, fills the Speedwell display windows with abstract pressure prints that glow yellow as the sun, expressions which Kelley-Yurdin explains are related to personal and physical pain.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, of Oakland, California and Richmond, Virginia, contributes a trio of sandwich board signs, all four surfaces of each painted with texts and patterns. My favorite bears the words of a Lucille Clifton poem, “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
Caitlin Rose Sweet of Brooklyn shows an untitled corner installation that looks “normal” enough until you get close and see how truly strange it is, claw-like fingers from Sweet’s Hag series of ceramic vessels haunting the arrangement of a chair, rug, books, brooms and framed video that is like a daydream.
Shoog McDaniel, a trans photographer from Gainesville, Florida, is represented by nine color photographs that celebrate their enjoyment of “photographing fat bodies, trans bodies and queer bodies,” as explained in an artist statement. McDaniel’s nude photographs challenge the viewer to see the beauty in bodies that are more often shamed than celebrated.
The show also features a video by Natasha Woods and Marcello Martinez called “Lavender Country” that is an interview with Patrick Haggarty, who produced the first gay country album.
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is a challenging and engaging exhibition that demonstrates the capacity of art to educate, edify, elevate and celebrate lives, especially those that have not been seen for what they really are.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column in these pages.