Thoughts on Promiseland

Essay by Pamela Allara

Mira Cantor’s art is based in the figure, which in turn is rooted in the traditions of caricature and modernist expressionism, as well as the 1960s Pop Art soft sculpture of Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms. Whether in drawing or in sculpture, her figures are encounters, requiring us to consider how we approach others in life. What is our place in this social encounter? Is our initial instinct to be judgmental?


After completing her MFA degree at the University of Illinois in 1969, Cantor has taught studio art, at the University of Hawaii in 1971, and since 1983 at Northeastern University, where she developed introductory drawing and design courses for art and architecture students. She was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT from 1978-80, where she first installed her figurative sculptures and created installations with other fellows at the Institute. The exhibition Promiseland includes both earlier and more recent work, as a way of signaling her long association with Northeastern and with the Boston Art Community. I would argue that Promiseland references the creative promise her teaching has instilled in her several generations of students. For Cantor, the rich diversity of points of view that students bring to the classroom opens them to exploring the world in which they live and feeds Cantor’s work as well. In this way, Promiseland is a positive term, suggesting new knowledge and experience.
However, because Promiseland is deliberately misspelled, the meaning remains ambiguous. The original Promised Land was the land of Canaan, promised to Abraham in Genesis; in colloquial speech it refers to any place where one expects to find happiness. Could Promiseland, as opposed to the Promised Land, be an ironic reference to a country where the ‘dream’, or promise, of personal fulfillment is increasingly denied? Do Cantor’s arresting figures exist in a netherworld between promised dream and current reality?

In an essay on Mira Cantor’s work in 2005, I wrote, “The time is out of joint. As the United States, buffeted by the winds of reaction, swings wildly between the political paranoia of Cantor_Promiseland_Installaton_05_smthe 1950s, the racial bigotry of the 1920s, and the unfettered corporate exploitation of the 1890s, contemporary artists are challenged to imagine how to address the present.” Little if anything has changed in 2018, and so the challenge for today’s artists remains the same. Cantor’s figures, whether from the 1980s or from a year ago, continue to speak to the present moment. As Cantor herself writes in her artist’s statement, “We are in a déjà vu moment. Looking back it is hard to say we have moved forward.” Nonetheless, she adds that she considers Promiseland a metaphor for hope.

The grouping of hanging figures, originally from the “Center Beach and Center Sheet” and “Integrations” series from 1977-80, and subsequently reworked for the “Engendered” series in 1994, have been given a third incarnation for Promiseland. The installation initially evokes a question: “Who are these curious figures?” Were these awkward, eccentric characters once paintings on canvas that in a moment of frenzied inspiration the artist removed from the stretcher bars and stuffed? (In fact, Cantor first got the idea for her canvas figures when making clothes for her young daughter over 40 years ago). Although they appear crudely made at first, each personage has a compelling presence, at one and the same time pitiful and dignified. They are also literally hanging out. Suspended from the ceiling on plastic wire, they are also suspended in time.
Their clothing—suits, dresses, the occasional bathing suit– is from some indeterminate era, origin Goodwill. Surprisingly, a few are naked, but they lack any evidence of the shame and embarrassment we would feel if we found ourselves naked among a group of strangers. All of their faces are less portraits than caricatures; often the individual features don’t even seem to fit. But like all good caricatures, they have character; their outsized features render each an individual, a stranger to us, yes, yet in the end, part of our communal space. As visitors to the gallery space, we are required to join this crowd in order to see the work. And so we must ‘integrate’ with the women, men, and a child or two, white and black, most of whom, despite their odd physiognomies, misshapen physiques, and ill-fitting clothing, maintain the neutral facial expressions we assume when on sidewalks or public transport. And so, we are permitted to stare at these creatures, in all their awkwardness as well as their apparent lack of ability to conform to community standards of acceptable appearance, much less ideals of beauty.

Cantor_Promiseland_view03_sm.jpgCantor has written that because she grew up in the Bronx where the racial diversity in her neighborhood unfortunately did not result in racial integration, she decided to bring the races together in her art to demonstrate the importance of an integrated society to a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, we are now in a period where some of these unconventional-appearing people might be asked to leave restaurants, or suffer perhaps far worse indignities. Simply put, these helplessly suspended creatures are vulnerable. Contemplating that vulnerability leads to empathy and in turn to an acknowledgement that they belong in this space as much as we mobile gallery visitors do. Cantor’s hanging figures require our making room for them.

The life-sized drawings on the wall bring a different sort of interaction/integration. There are two series: portraits of police officers that she produced in 2008-9, and the “Barbie Doll” series from 2015. In the former, she invited the local police who patrolled in her neighborhood in Jamaica Plain to come into her studio and pose. Most agreed, and the result was “Uniform” a one-person exhibition at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston in 2009. Given the number of innocent black people shot and killed by police in recent years, the public perception of those who uphold law and order has often been negative. However, these drawings of human beings wearing officer’s uniforms undercut such preconceptions. They are male and female, black and white everyday individuals—not a ‘uniform’ or a single type at all. Nor would they pose a threat to the sculptural figures hanging out adjacent to them. During the 2008-9 exhibition, the sitters brought their friends to see the portraits and to interact with their two-dimensional counterparts. And they maintain their humanity and accessibility in the gallery context as well. Notably, Cantor has included recorded interviews with her sitters in past portrait series, so that the images were not simply objects of contemplation, but instead, of conversation. (Kenyan artist Phoebe Boswell has recently done the same in her expressionistic portraits.)


Joining these civil servants is a second series of life-sized portraits of a tall, willowy young woman, often posed with her back to us. She appears to be in undergarments, which have the unsettling appearance of viscera. In any event, the woman is self-absorbed, and the empathy we feel for the artworks in the “Promiseland” and the “Uniform” series is impossible to summon here. These are portraits of bodies: the perfect tall, thin body presented as an ideal to young women from the moment when as children they are presented with their first Barbie Doll. The ideal presented here is not without its curious imperfections, however. The tan skin of the woman has green and brown projections that might be leaves or twigs, or perhaps some sort of camouflage. I am reminded of the long-forgotten model who represented the hip, swinging London of the 1960s. Because of her complete absence of body fat, Lesley Hornby was nicknamed and achieved fame as Twiggy. And here before us is her latter-day descendant, as obsessively concerned with appearance as she once was. Twiggy was an early media phenomenon, and I would argue that that remains the goal of many young women in the digital age. The adult Barbie Doll’s milieu is the internet, a placeless locale where the embodied, material world is exiled. The contemporary Doll must perforce become as insubstantial as possible to inhabit it. But as the glimpse into her internal organs reminds us, and the “Promiseland” figures confirm, we cannot escape the material world, or do so at our peril.

The figures in Promiseland urge us to think about the human condition at present and our place in it. When we stand in the gallery and ask “Who are these people?” we must acknowledge that we are part of this group. Time to get over ourselves and join in.

Pamela Allara, 2018
Emerita, Brandeis University

Join Mira Cantor and Pam Allara on Saturday, December 1st, at 2pm for a conversation focusing on the topic of integration as a white artist creating this powerful body of work featuring people of all colors. Promiseland is on view through December 2, 2018.

Pamela Allara is an art historian, curator and critic. The author of a monograph on Alice Neel, Allara taught modern and contemporary art for over 30 years at Tufts and at Brandeis. Her recent research has investigated social activism in contemporary South African art. In 2012, she organized “The Boston-Joburg Connection: Collaboration and Exchange at Artist Proof Studio, 1983-2012 for the Tufts University Art Gallery. In 2018, she co-curated with gallery director Joe Ketner “William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments” for the Emerson College Urban Arts Gallery. Her articles have been published in African Arts, Nka and de Arte, among others. She is Associate Professor emerita of Brandeis University and currently a Visiting Researcher in the African Studies Center at Boston University.

Essay reproduced with permission from the author.

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