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?

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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.
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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.
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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.)

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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.

Mira Cantor: Promiseland and Judith Brassard Brown: Dreams Within

 

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The installation Promiseland by Kingston Gallery member Mira Cantor is a metaphor for hope. In creating this work, Cantor asked herself, “How do we do the right thing; how do we overcome the insidious brainwashing and lack of education that compromises our judgement? and how can you make a promise in the present for the future, when we have no idea what the future holds?” A New Yorker, Cantor grew up in the 1950s, in what she characterizes as “a culture of separation within a melting pot.”

The figures in the installation were created to stimulate integration reminding the viewers that we are all flesh, while the drawings reflect the contrast between being a viewer and being viewed. There is a gallery talk, framed as a conversation between Pam Allara and Mira Cantor, on December 1, 2018, at 2:00 pm.

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Kingston Gallery member Judith Brassard Brown’s exhibition Dreams Within features paintings and an artist made book, which are responses to traumatic events from childhood and beyond. The work seeks to encourage viewers to join in the narrative through questioning and reprocessing the events in order to heal. The artist book, Dreams Within, is available at lulu.com and Amazon.com.

Mira Cantor: Promiseland is on view in the Kingston Main and Center Galleries, and Judith Brassard Brown: Dreams Within is on view in the Kingston Project Space through December 2, 2018.

Panel Talk: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

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On Saturday, October 13th, Kingston hosted a panel discussion by artists Linda Leslie Brown, Phyllis Ewen and Evelyn Rydz. They discussed what it means for them to make art in the “Anthropocene” – a term used by many to describe our current geological period where our climate and environment is most influenced by humans. Moderator, Samuel Toabe, Director of the University Hall Gallery at UMass Boston, asked the panelists a series of questions about how climate change, human impact, and scale affects their processes and work.

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Visiting artist Ewen discussed how early in her career, she became interested in imagery of the seafloor when artist Marie Tharp drew the first maps of the ocean floor in 1977. Ewen’s pieces in Deep Time were created with digitally altered versions of those drawings. Through them explores the sequences and shifts of an unfathomable geologic time scale and notes how currently those shifts are happening more often due to human pressure.

Scale is also an important aspect Rydz’s and Brown’s work. During the panel, Rydz mentioned that it takes 1000 years for ocean currents to complete their cycle. Over the past ten years, she has collected debris from coastlines along North and South America and though documenting these objects in her magnificently detailed works on paper she highlights the relationship between our everyday, wasteful lifestyles and our long-term impacts on the climate. Brown’s work also comes from plastic debris collected and repurposed into sculptural objects. Brown discussed working smaller in this body of work to get at a human scale, in contrast to the sometimes overwhelming global problem of plastic waste.

Linda Leslie Brown: Plastiglomerate is on view in the Kingston Main Gallery, Phyllis Ewen: Deep Time in the Center Gallery and Nat Martin: New Landscapes is on view in the Kingston Project Space through October 28, 2018.  Evelyn Rydz: Unravel to Splice was on view at Ellen Miller Gallery September 7th – October 20th.

Linda Leslie Brown: Plastiglomerate and Nat Martin: New Landscapes

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Linda Leslie Brown: Plastiglomerate

Gallery member Linda Leslie Brown says of the process of creating work for this exhibition, “This particular body of work is different in a few ways. Part of the process involves a playful collaboration with my husband James Montford, who is a prodigious walker with our hound dog, Red. As they go on their 10-mile jaunts throughout the city of Boston, James finds many of the plastic objects and other fragments I use in my work. I think it’s because we live near to the Children’s Museum that so many toy parts end up in my supply boxes.”

Brown did a residency at Haystack in Maine last year working in the clay shop and worked as an independent study member at Mudflat ceramic studios in Somerville this past summer. Ceramics are relatively new part of her sculpture practice and she plans to continue to develop this part of her work. She says particularly of this exhibition, “The part of me that loves to collect things, combine them, and transform them goes back to childhood. My imagination is sparked by recombination, and by the surprises evoked as objects coax out memories, illusions, and questions. Recently, I have been astonished and concerned, as we all have been, by the proliferation of plastic pollution in our landfills and oceans. Will-we bury ourselves, in a Wall-EE style dystopia? Or will new living creatures eventually evolve who can make use of our thoughtless mess? I want my work to enchant, provoke, engage and disturb viewers. Perhaps they’ll be inspired to undertake some transformations of their own.”

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Nat Martin: New Landscapes

In this recent body of work, gallery member Nat Martin is fascinated with constructing false landscapes from his older photographs. The images are constructions of actual landscapes he has collected which are then altered towards the creation of an artificial or imaginary place.

This work began when Martin was trying to locate a small photograph he had taken as a reference for another project he was working on. As he manipulated the reference image he set challenges for himself, such as changing the mood or lighting of the original. As he worked on this project, he then started consciously adding in layers of stylization based on photographic history. He says of this work, “I want the viewer to be drawn in by the romantic effect of the images… these were intended to be visually seductive. But I ultimately want the viewer to be left in an artificial landscape- taking in a scene that has never existed and not knowing how to categorize it or how it has been altered. I like those slippery spaces.”

Linda Leslie Brown: Plastiglomerate is on view in the Kingston Main Gallery, Phyllis Ewen: Deep Time in the Center Gallery and Nat Martin: New Landscapes is on view in the Kingston Project Space through October 28, 2018.

BADA event: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

 

Please join us for the BADA second Saturday event this month. On October 13, 2018, from 2-4:00pm the Kingston Gallery will host a panel discussion as a part of the Boston Art Dealers Association. The panel will be moderated by Samuel Toabe, the Gallery Director at UMass Boston’s University Hall Gallery.

Artists Phyllis Ewen and Evelyn Rydz will join Linda Leslie Brown will discuss issues of global ecology, with a specific jumping off point of Brown’s exhibition Plastiglomerate and plastic. The participating panelists will discuss issues of confronting recycling, disposal of plastic, consumption of plastic, as they intersect with artistic practice issues of building and decay within personal, art historical, and social narratives.

Linda Leslie Brown: Plastiglomerate is on view in the Kingston Main Gallery, Phyllis Ewen: Deep Time is on view in the Kingston Center Gallery and Nat Martin: New Landscapes is on view in the Kingston Project Space through October 28, 2018.

Steven Cabral: Seeking Balance

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In this work for the exhibition Seeking Balance, artist Steven Cabral challenged himself to learn how to stay still and work delicately with a smaller surface. He is interested in breaking free from his earlier works, which were distinctly geometric, to create a series of paintings which are more organic with only a hint of geometry. This approach of getting out of one’s comfort zone allowed Cabral to enter a hyper-meditative state of mind resulting in the ability to simplify his practice and focus on two elements, line and a limited color palette.

Cabral says of this work, ‘I want the audience to be open when approaching and viewing the work. The body of work is quiet and minimalistic; however, perhaps that’s what the world needs right now. Something simple and quiet. As we become more connected to the internet and with each other, sometimes our brains need a break and simply disconnect. It’s easy to get lost and distracted by the noise. This show allows the viewer to look deeper into the work and find the simple beauty in the interplay of the fine oil filled lines and the deep layers and smooth wax surface.’

For more information on this exhibition please see the Kingston Gallery website.

Luanne E Witkowski and Denise Marika: STRATA is on view in the Kingston Main and Center Galleries and Steven Cabral: Seeking Balance is on view in the Kingston Project Space through September 30, 2018.

Luanne E Witkowski and Denise Marika: STRATA

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Gallery member Luanne E Witkowski and artist Denise Marika present a collaborative work titled ‘Strata’ in an exhibition which highlights the cyclical nature of time and power relationships, while highlighting the interactions between humans and the environment. Included also in this exhibition are a series of works titled ‘Grounded’ which are constructed out of clay, sand, shell, wood, plastics, resins, and pigments by Luanne E Witkowski. These abstract non-traditional works are textural and reminiscent of natural landscapes which entice viewers to consider the ephemeral and physical, the present and past, and the physical and virtual.

Artist Denise Marika created the video works, including the installation ‘Gated’. This video installation addresses the restrictions on humans and animals through such devices as gates and fences, which intersect and interupt the natural landscape. The painted, crumpled paper works resemble topographic maps while the video was shot on the border of Nepal and China/Tibet. Marika’s studio assistant Tom Fahey, an experimental musician and multimedia artist, worked with Marika on these works as a technical assistant and sound designer.

The exhibition and installation piece, Strata, came about through the long-time friendship between Witkowski and Marika, and represents their first fully collaborative work. Sadly, Marika passed away in early July after a long illness. On September 22, Luanne E Witkowski and Marika’s studio assistant Tom Fahey will be doing an artists’ discussion at 3:00pm at the Kingston Gallery.

More information on this exhibition can be found in the Boston Globe in a review by Cate McQuaid and on the Kingston Gallery website. Luanne E Witkowski was also recently featured in the Boston Voyager online magazine.

Luanne E Witkowski and Denise Marika: STRATA is on view in the Kingston Main and Center Galleries and Steven Cabral: Seeking Balance is on view in the Kingston Project Space through September 30, 2018.