‘TORNDADO’ Interactive video, sound, and electronic sculpture by Susan Bickford, 2012.
Though the rhetoric of this election cycle might have cast doubts about other parts of the country, be thankful that in Maine, women are taken seriously. In the first exhibit of "Maine Women Pioneers III," UNE's third occasion devoting nine months of events to women in the arts, this "Vanguard" of artists are worthy of any superlative one could throw at them, and, gender be damned, together comprise one of the most remarkable exhibits of the year.
Outside the gallery's entrance, several unfired clay sculptures are mounted onto a configuration of thick, translucent glass pedestals. Titled "Inner Piece," it's a thunderous introduction by the sculptor and conceptual artist Lihua Lei, who makes breathtaking, labor-intensive installations concerned with the passages of time and the physical body at liminal spaces in the natural world. Her clay forms are like the larvae of a stillborn civilization. Their briny, pinkish skin evolves through various stages of emergence from thick shells of hardened clay, which weather has caused to fall off and collect in rubble on the ground. Were these permanent installations they might risk an uproar. Public sculpture is almost uniformly celebratory, yet there's a nakedness, suggestion of trauma, and irreconcilable otherness in Lei's work, all of which lends an emotional tone traditionalists could find unsettling. It's a shame the gallery is in such a secluded location on campus; "Inner Piece" would be affecting even driving by, where locals could measure its resistance against the unpredictable elements.
Once inside, I found the several wall-mounted pieces of Alicia Eggert no less confrontational, while dealing with the passage of time in a way almost inverse to Lei. Her works are motorized, neon-lit, punny, and sound-equipped, fully inscribed within the terms and pacing of contemporary mediated culture. They act like existential crystal balls, neatly organizing our cultural anxieties and relaying them back to us. "Pulse Machine," a 10-digit numerical counter that counts down the seconds of an average lifespan, is ludicrously dramatized by the mechanized thud of a kickdrum (ask the gallery staff to turn it on — good art's allowed to be obnoxious), which pounds relentlessly in lockstep with the ticking clock, as though time, suddenly absurdly finite, is perpetually running out. Plug in "NOW," and a rig of timing belts and pulleys swings into motion, its wooden arms aligning every second to deliver its titular message. Amid this sampling of one of the most easily relatable and least obscurant contemporary artists working in the state, a possible thesis of Eggert's is contained in the neon message of "Equation": art=(people+place)xtime.
The aesthetic of Vinalhaven artist Diana Cherbuliez, rooted in myth and profoundly personal, spins the exhibit toward the imaginative. Her sculptures and assemblages cull from materials so diverse that their significance is obvious — repurposed wood, dental floss, mirrored glass cut and layered into rippling surfaces, human hair and teeth — while their operations act out a logic as compelling as it is inscrutable. Inside the V-shaped playing space of "Sans" is an Indiana Jones scene gone baroque: tiny painted figures suspend a thin bridge of floss over a treacherous gulch of ribbony mirror. Hanging from each side of the sculpture, their intention is both open-ended and critical. The obsessions governing the ominous "Let Myself Down" are more tangible: from one wall-mounted rung hangs a single braid, "three years of hair combing" woven into a sturdy-looking rope.