Keep your hands dirty

Ant Girls dig up a monolithic statement
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  April 23, 2014

 art_ants_main

'ANT SCROLL' (detail), three scrolls, each 43 inches by 30 feet; by the Ant Girls (Colleen Kinsella,
Rebecca Goodale, Dorothy Schwartz, and Vivien Russe).

The four artists known as Ant Girls — Rebecca Goodale, Colleen Kinsella, Vivien Russe, and Dorothy Schwartz — began working together in 2012, inspired by the complex habits and societies of leafcutter ants: working in colonies, laying eggs and cultivating fungus — not the worst metaphors for the creative process.

Looking at the sprawling, dynamic exhibit they’ve installed throughout the Atrium Gallery at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn Campus and halfway down the college’s hallway, one could draw parallels to ant biology all day. Echoes of the complex societies of leafcutter ants reverberate in the colors, forms, and materials of the exhibit. Amassed on pedestals and adorning walls are the Girls’ material “cargo” — the products of their labor. A “nuptial swarm” of winged paper ants is suspended above the colony, while a “wing pile” in its center — fully wearable by visitors — simulates the insects’ practice of discarding them after mating.

And so on. It’s the sort of exhibit that might be easily confused as decorative — indeed, “Ant Farm” is so playful and colorful one easily imagines some mordant college student rejecting it as kidstuff.

Which raises the question — what’s wrong with that? In many respects, this is truly a testament to collaboration, process, and work. Its practitioners — four hardened veterans of the Maine arts scene — are seemingly invested in exhuming new habits and methods of making work, forming an intricate and frankly fairly enviable arts community whose ideas and labors lie well outside the dictates of any supposed art market or institutional demand.

Any complete catalogue of the Ant Girls’ works would have to be abridged — there’s just too much here to name. Fully immersive, it’s comprised of dozens of handcrafted artists’ books, a few glass terrariums, several framed drawings, and countless screenprints (including, touchingly, several employing “exquisite corpse” practices between the four women) — and that’s not counting the archive of individual works by the four artists mounted in the hall.

Once you’ve seen those independent pieces, it’s a pleasure to trace the stylistic contributions within the aggregate works — Goodale’s techniques of paper cutting and folding; Kinsella’s wispy lines and surrealistic visual grammar; Russe’s hypnotic arrangements of field and color study; and Schwartz’s stark, Leonard Baskin-inspired woodcuts. But ultimately, “Ant Farm” doesn’t belong to the visitor any more than a mound of dirt belongs to the pedestrian. Anyone interested in this sort of culture is going to have to dig.

The magnificence of the Ant Girls exhibit belies two ironies. The first, of course, is that for all the lessons available attesting to the sort of life one could cultivate pursuing the arts, “Ant Farm” could very well be the last visual art exhibit at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn outpost while the facility still offers an Arts and Humanities program.

The second is a little grimmer. Dorothy Schwartz passed away in March at 75, and despite numerous testaments within the exhibit both to her vivacity and the commandment to celebrate rather than mourn, the specter adds a powerful element to an installation so teeming with life. Schwartz’s husband, the avant-garde composer Elliott Schwartz (also a teacher at Bowdoin College), has composed works online with Big Blood, the psychedelic-folk duo comprised of Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin (available at the website antgirlsmaine.blogspot.com).

“Ant Farm: At the Nexus of Art & Science,” mixed media installation by Ant Girls: Rebecca Goodale + Colleen Kinsella + Vivien Russe + Dorothy Schwartz | Through June 6 | University of Southern Maine - Lewiston/Auburn, 51 Westminster St, Lewiston | 2307.753.6500

Nick Schroeder can be reached atnschroeder@phx.com.

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