Plastic Expressions in Particularity: Nature Moves in Tracy McKenna’s Shift at Able Baker Contemporary

Elise Ferguson. Pebble. Pigmented plaster on MDF panel, 2018. Photo courtesy of Able Baker.

“Wisdom was the feeling for what is high, great, broad, sharp, even, heavy, bright, light, colorful . . . Wisdom was the feeling for an essentially shared reality, for the mystical, for the indeterminate indeterminable, for the greatest determinacy of all . . . but art is reality, and the reality we share must assert itself beyond all particularity.” Hans Arp, Introduction to a Catalogue

Hans Arp discusses particularity as the concept that the reality of art must push past. The work in Able Baker’s Shift does just this. A shared reality becomes skewed, distorted, through each piece. Each work acts as a window into its own reality, yet the combination of the work forms new connections between what is illusion and what is real. Animals with stringy hair covered in a resin-like substance, covered in shiny material that flows down onto the platform they stand on; a Carl D’Alvia sculpture sits in front of a large, rectangular surface, gleaming, showing two nude human-figures-turned-trees dancing to the sides of a tweaking out, concave screen being struck by lighting. An Emilie Stark-Menneg painting stands firm and commands the room by captivating the viewer with color and movement. The linework continues to Elise Ferguson’s shifting colorful works that both echo the Stark-Menneg piece and voice their own action. The work in Able Baker’s Shift, curated by Tracy McKenna, speaks to movement, shape, line and color in ways that captivate and motivate connection between fractured realities. Charged palettes, alluring mark making and content provoke an experience of visual struggle to conform, but also to rebel.

Carl D’Alvia. Lop Lop. Cast resin, 2008. Photo courtesy of Able Baker.

There’s a level of darkness to Shift. This collection of work speaks to identity, politics and natural environment in a way that begs the viewer to insert their own perception, their own reality into the mix. Rose Marasco’s photograph Projection No. 5 (2007) literally layers conflicting perceptions on top of one another. A feminine face is projected over the view of an interior, lips coated in a deeply colored lipstick stretch to the left of a Cindy Sherman poster hanging on the wall. A warm fire exists in a fireplace while the room is unoccupied except for the large face obscuring the wall. The scene is inviting yet exclusionary. The viewer could be standing alone in the room, yet not totally alone, as a single blown-up eye meets their gaze. The piece questions identity and existence, perception and occupation. Are we ever really alone if we are looking upon something that gazes back at us?

The reality of visual art moves with each space it occupies. Mustard’s Yard (2018), a piece by Catherine Haggarty, confronts the space it inhabits by mirroring it and altering it. Collaged elements separate themselves and combine with airbrushed elements of a mirrored figure in the center of the panel. The figure moves discriminately through a field of yellow, the profile of the figure reminds one of a Rorschach test, its movements billowing and its insides glowing. It mirrors a Caetlynn Booth piece, Synchronized Mirror III (2018), which depicts human-like bodies dancing together in a field of gray. What appear to be legs move to form different symbols of movement, the Gestalt of the image comprising forms that synchronize.

Jen Hitchings. Hey Losers. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2018. Photo courtesy of Able Baker.

Jen Hitchings’ Hey Losers (2018) appropriates text to communicate a shifted reality. The shadows of trees reflecting onto a warm umber body of water spell out the word “loser” in all capital letters while rolling fuschia, cadmium and mauve hills populate the background. Piet Mondrian, in an interview with a critic titled Dialogue on the New Plastic, states that “I expressed myself by means of nature. But if you carefully observe the sequence of my work, you will see that it progressively abandoned the naturalistic appearance of things and increasingly emphasized the plastic expression of relationships.” Mondrian’s sentiment translates to Hitchings’ utilization of mirror and nature to convey a struggle between an inspiration of nature and the screen that simultaneously distracts and immortalizes it. The starlit sky in the ground of the piece seems simulated, the bluish flecks of star not vibrant enough to be reflected, yet they stand strongly in a pattern that references nature, but deters from it. The “plastic expression” of the relationship of stars to ground, of trees to reflective water analyzes a subjective perspective that emulates an artificial relationship. A relationship that is not contrived, but not natural.

In the upstairs portion of the gallery the viewer is greeted by a language of color, action and vibrance. Work by Stark-Menneg hangs on the back wall, four colorful pieces whisper a language of creation and emotion relative to the human form, but also nature outside of the human realm of influence. Wild Face depicts flowers growing out of the cavities of an uninhabited human visage. The face is vibrant, adorning a bright red lipstick while airbrushed blooms thrive from their home holes. The forest green ground makes the figure pop out, undeniably echoing Paolo Arao’s A Deeper Love (2019) which also stands out visually upon entering the upper section of the gallery. The stitched fabrics of A Deeper Love, a diptych that references geometry and abstraction, as well as space and form through color blocking and textured surface, simultaneously orient and disorient the viewer in a space that is not usual.

Emily Mullin. Astral plane. Ceramic vessel, painted steel, flora, 2019. Photo courtesy of Able Baker.

The work that comprises Shift simultaneously envelops and disavows a shared reality. Emily Mullin’s astral plane (2019) dances within the personal space of the viewer, capturing a shared, empathetic moment with a twisting plant emerging from a raku vessel positioned on a metal shelf. The plant’s instinctive, yet oddly symmetrical curved shape emulates nature in a way that is like Mondrian’s notion of a plastic expression. astral plane sits next to Jason Rohlf’s eight pieces that all carry their own universes, like the viewer does within themself, carrying a weight with buoyancy. A contradiction with contingency, the work speaks to movement and place, causing the viewer to feel at one with the space they occupy, but question the place they may end up.

Able Baker Contemporary is an artist-run gallery space in Portland, Maine. They feature rotating group shows in a variety of media. Able Baker focuses on elevating artist voices of Maine and Northern New England in conversation with voices nationally and internationally. Able Baker Contemporary is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1-5:30 and by appointment.

Julien Langevin (he/him) is a writer and painter based in Portland, Maine. He writes about art and theory surrounding it, as well as critical theory and sociology. Langevin holds a BFA in painting and art history from the Maine College of Art. Instagram: @theprofessionaljulien