University of New England exhibits bring art to the south
You don’t need to get too far from Portland’s Arts District before you remember that plenty of people are just looking for pretty pictures of lighthouses. Each passing year, Portland’s sense of artistic community seems to grow stronger. The congregation is growing, but where are the itinerant preachers? The University of New England campus in Biddeford is a damn long slog out of Portland in this January weather, but that’s exactly why it’s so comforting to see young area artists and their forward-thinking ideas represented.
The work of Hilary Irons, collectively entitled “The Ladies’ Paradise,” is beautifully illustrative yet intellectually demanding, off-the-cuff in its stylization yet remarkably complex in execution. The works featured in the Stella Maris Hall (by the office of the prez no less) range from ornate canvas pieces to scraps of paper with doodles and written notes about B vitamins. All works are characterized by a cartoonish style of figure drawing predominantly focused on colonial-era women in various poses of everyday living. Gouache on colored paper manifests bright, distinct forms such that background and foreground are no matter; Irons’s women explode with drama and activity in a psychedelic flattening of pictorial space.
A mother lies in bed with her naked child surrounded by maids practicing needlepoint and a small child diligently praying. The mother and child reach up to a giant silhouette of a cat looking down on the whole scene. Yes, that’s correct, a big freaking psychedelic silhouette of a housecat with a colorful Eden full of gumdrop-nibbling ponies inside.
Silhouettes are primary themes in almost every work. These outlines of animals often function as windows into magical other-worlds by framing the action itself or breaking the space entirely with a block color. Combine these spirit animals with the busy worlds of Irons’s ladies and we start to see what the artist is getting at. The social hierarchies of women concerned with power structures achieved through mastery of the feminine are at odds, or at least intertwined with, the natural world of the animal, always knowledgeable of something deeper beyond the realm of the social or the barnyard.
This is not necessarily a cry against the patriarchy. These women are in their own worlds, their own paradise, and creating their own subjugation. One gouache work shows a Where’s Waldo? world of women speaking at lecterns, holding boom mics, and generally busy as bees can be in a modern world. Above them sprouts a plant that spirals to the top of the page where emerging Victorian peasants run from an unknown enemy. Conversely, another image shows women from the early 20th century scrubbing toilets, taking baths and coyly passing notes to one another while modern schoolgirls listening to headphones sprout from the top of the plant structure. All the women are united by their detached, almost resigned, expressions.
: Museum And Gallery
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