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Forms and solutions

Wriggling out of the lockbox at the ICA
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  October 1, 2014

 art_fairusetimeline1_main

HISTORY OF A DANGEROUS IDEA Miljacki and Moreau’s “Fair Use: An Architectural Timeline.”

Whether artists, curators, and museumgoers are openly concerned with them or not, personal identity is the currency of the gallery art world. Whether abstract paintings, technologically enhanced design, conceptual sculpture, or assemblage—the thing often resists description, usually obscuring with it the terms of how the thing was made. Instead, it’s the personal identifier—the who—that remains the most ready classification for how work is considered.

How, then, to think about art when the artists’ identities are removed?

The Wrong Kind of Bars shows roughly a dozen paintings by prisoners within the Maine State Prison in Thomaston, produced in the facility’s art program. Vibrant, a little rapturous, and almost psychedelically colorful, the most interesting thing about these landscape paintings is their particular grain of anonymity. According to ICA director Daniel Fuller, artist-inmates are disallowed from signing any of their work, possibly to discourage cult collectors’ markets from building around those behind bars.

But the prison’s art program—referred to at the state level as the Industries program—remains highly regarded by its residents. Fuller explains that at a visit last summer, he heard stories of inmates protesting their own transfer to facilities with lesser security because their new homes would have inferior art programs.

When inmates leave prison, they’re given $50 from the state to help re-start their lives. While works at “The Wrong Kind of Bars” are exhibit-only, the paintings produced at the Maine State Prison are for sale to the public—with one-third of funds allocated to the state, one-third to the prison, and one-third to the artist. 50 dollars doesn’t travel far; many of those incarcerated save their proceeds to supplement their funds the day they’re released. It’s an unusual (and ethically debatable) sort of art market, but the principle is noteworthy: the work of these anonymous artists almost literally buys back their identities.

Elsewhere in the ICA, two loosely connected exhibits from the Boston-based, husband-and-wife architectural design team Ana Miljacki and Lee Moreau (the latter from Maine) lend an impressive amount of substance to the history of two very different ideas—one immaterial and the other concrete. The scope of the pair’s “Fair Use: An Architectural Timeline” is extraordinarily precise: in rows of neat informational cards and a cache of sculpted architectural forms, the arc of a contentious, legalistic idea drawn over a several-hundred year history. The duo offer a straight, annotated timeline of how fair use has offered culture an evolutionary loophole out of the proprietary notions of copyright, via appropriation of forms, concepts, trajectories, and theories.

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THE MIND CONTAINS MULTITUDES Miljacki and Moreau's "Project_Rorschach." 

In the rear gallery, the duo’s Project_Rorschach (with help from architect Sarah Hirschman) attempt to conjure a visual history of ideas through the psychological litmus of a Rorschach inkblot. Ten prints bear highly saturated images composed from miniaturized forms of dozens of modern architectural buildings—Spain’s Museum of Cantabria; the Vertical City in Jakarta; some flashy Tokyo Apartment complex erected in 2010—its thesis seeming to be that modern urban life wouldn’t be possible without the appropriation of form. Their Rorschach test motif isn’t the most transparent and inviting way to engage with these ideas, but that seems also important: copyright laws can be easily applied to sloppy cut-and-paste jobs; not so with the meticulously assembled transubstantiation of an abstracted idea. In the forms generated by these inkblots, it’s nearly impossible to tell which shapes originally belonged to whom.

The Wrong Kind of Bars, mixed media works by anonymous Maine State Prison Artists + Fair Use: An Architectural Timeline + Project_Rorschach, installations by Ana Miljacki & Lee Moreau | Through Oct 12 | at the ICA at MECA, 522 Congress St, Portland | 207.879.5742 | meca.edu/meca-life/ica

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