There are many well-known art venues in Portland that appear regularly in this column. But smaller, quieter venues off the beaten path are also worth seeking out. Two of those have been around for a while, but have new forms.
Ocean House Gallery & Frame, operated out of Cape Elizabeth for many years, has just relocated to an attractive new – and much larger – space in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland. Owner Graham Wood is showing “M P Landis – around, about” through May 14.
Mayo Street Arts closed before the pandemic to build a wheelchair-accessible entrance and, while shuttered, mounted their exhibitions at the old Nissen Bakery building on Washington Avenue in the East End. The first show in its “new old” digs is Kifah Abdulla’s “Art – Arabic Calligraphy – And Me” (through May 26).
It would be a stretch to say these shows are related. However, both do have one discernible thing in common, which is the tightrope they navigate between gesturalism and an underlying organizing principle or order.
Michael P. Landis, a Pennsylvania-born painter who moved to Maine in 2015, says his work always has to do with “the dialogue between process and artifact, the doing and the finished.” That process/doing involves imposing a certain order by deploying a grid that is easily visible underneath the surface, either as incised lines or slightly raised ones. I’m not sure how Landis achieves the latter, but it looks as though it might be a kind of wide mesh overlaid with paper and gessoed before he begins applying color – mostly blues – over it.
There are obvious references to horizon lines, ocean and sky in many works, such as “mp13.12,” “mp13.13,” “mp13.14” and “mp13.15.” These numerical titles suggest their series nature and, indeed, they are variations on a similar theme, with some appearing as though the ocean is in the foreground and land masses (represented by black or gray brushstrokes) and sky lay in the distance. Others, such as “mp13.15” with its white foreground, could be snow with the land masses and sky beyond.
A painting like “mp13.10,” however, does not conform to this idea, appearing instead as something more abstract, though its blue tones and sense of movement still seem to indicate water and, perhaps, foam. Paintings like this also convey a sense of greater, more mysterious depth and, because of it, draw one in more seductively (all the works feel sensual in their materiality).
Another in this vein is “18.32,” a triptych that reveals greens and blacks through gaps in the blanket of blue layers. Its centrifugal energy conjures a vortex that suggests oceanic blue holes or occasional eddies. All these paintings have a soothing, liquid effect to them. The underlying grid, in its unchanging regimentation, creates a sense of very subtle tension to that fluidity. That tension comes from the constant back and forth between rigor and freedom, stasis and movement.
The friction gets even more charged with two larger works Wood hung in a corridor: “21.28” and “21.29.” They basically consist, like the others, of the underlying grid and grounds of blue and gray. But atop them Landis has built up levels of repeating circular shapes (in “21.28” they’re rendered in in blues, black, red and beige; in “21.29” also, but also more complexly obscuring glimpses of green, red and pink under the blue and gray grounds).
The contrast between the square grid and the round shapes, the layer upon layer of circular forms, and the tantalizing glimpses of other colors animate these paintings. They feel dynamic and alive in ways the other paintings do not, which is not a criticism of the other paintings at all. These simply have another, more energetic presence.
The calligraphic or graffiti-like quality of “21.28” and “21.29” is, coincidentally, an appropriate segue to Abdulla’s acrylic paintings at Mayo Street Arts. Abdulla is from Baghdad, Iraq. As a young art student, he was exposed to an Islamic art movement called Hurufiyya, which emerged in the 1940s and ’50s and used traditional Arabic calligraphy – a strictly rule-bound art form – but recontextualized it according to the principles of modernist painting. Early progenitors included Princess Wijdan Ali (Jordan), Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan) and fellow Iraqis Jamil Hamoudi and Jawad Saleem, among others.
Hurufiyya’s precepts live on in works by young contemporaries such as El Seed (Tunisia), Fereydoon Omidi (Iran) and Khadiga El-Ghawas (an Egyptian woman whose real name is Khadiga Tarek).
The effectiveness and distinction of these artists’ works depend largely on repeating recognizable calligraphy in a decorative or structural manner. El Seed overlaps characters to create a matrix he fills in with vivid colors. Omidi paints thick forests of calligraphy, layering the letters over one another in a framework for his tone-on-tone paintings. And Khadiga El-Ghawas retains the legible form of the characters, but fabricates them using light – either as projections or neon sculptures.
A few of Abdulla’s paintings share some of these artists’ inspirations. “Beautiful Vision,” for instance, has affinities with Omidi’s work. And some, as in “The Poet with a Dream,” appear clearly as script (almost like something Glen Ligon or Christopher Wool would paint if they wrote in Arabic). As I don’t read or speak Arabic myself, I cannot know whether these paintings legibly communicate something. But by retaining the visual integrity of the lettering and their connection to language and message, these paintings feel almost “readable.”
In most of the works, however, Abdulla parts company with his colleagues by pushing the calligraphy almost to the point of illegibility and complete abstraction. He doesn’t quite get there in “True Love Is Medicine” and “Searching for the Elixir of Life,” where the “calligraphy” appears almost like hieroglyphics. One wishes Abdulla allowed his abstract impulse to fully inform these works. Instead, he adds symbols like hearts or arrows that pull us back into representation and, in combination with the titles, not-so-subtly redirect us toward messages that can feel a little mawkish and contrived (oddly, the titles are different on Abdulla’s site, where they lack this sentimental suggestibility).
But in paintings like “Longing as a Storm” and “Faith,” the artist propels himself headlong into abstraction and, in so doing, creates works that are powerfully gestural. The characters here are practically obliterated, but discernible enough to remove these paintings from the canon of Western gestural abstraction and give it an individuality of its own. In fact, “Longing” visually shoots us far enough East to suggest modern Chinese ink brush painting.
There are two unfortunate circumstances dimming the success of “Calligraphy.” One is the by-appointment-only aspect of the show. Though it can’t be avoided (it’s a pandemic-era staffing issue), I’m not sure how many people will plan ahead in this way. As the only venue in Portland showing art based in a Muslim cultural context, however, it’s worth doing so.
Second is the architecture. Mayo Street Arts is located in a former church, which means heavy woodwork and stained glass. The deep blue of the walls is a terrible foil for the colors in Abdulla’s paintings. Other visual distractions are exits and a concession stand window. These constrict wall space, forcing some paintings to hang one on top of another or higher than optimal eye level. If Mayo really wants visual art to be a vital part of its programming, it might consider giving the whole interior a coat of white or black paint (woodwork included) to mitigate these distractions to the work on view.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]