Evolving views

Artists use clothing and sticky notes to suggest 'Possible Subject Positions'

Special to the Union Leader
January 03. 2018 12:17PM

Merill Comeau examines memory, family history and identity in her fiber-based artwork. Her creative process and resulting pieces suggests a sense of degeneration, repair and reconstruction. 
If you go...
WHAT: 'Possible Subject Positions' exhibit

WHEN: Through Saturday, Feb. 3

WHERE: Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter Academy


INFO: exeter.edu/arts-Exeter/lamont-gallery; 772-4311

At a new Exeter art exhibit, common materials like clothing and sticky notes are reimagined into works that reveal deep human connections.

The title of the exhibit at Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter Academy, “Possible Subject Positions,” stems from changing viewpoints people gather about themselves and others, said director and curator Lauren O’Neal.

“Many of us can relate to having one ‘self’ around family members and countless other selves at school and at work,” O’Neal said. “These ‘possible subjects’ can evolve, but not always at our bidding.”

The exhibition will run through Saturday, Feb. 3, and will feature Maud Bryt’s plaster sculptures; Merill Comeau’s fiber and mixed-media art; Adriane Herman’s list-based work; Anna Schuleit Haber’s painting installations; video by Elena Kovylina; Tracie Morris’ poetry and sound art; and Alison Saar’s prints.

Piece by Piece

Comeau, who has had her mixed-media and fiber work featured in more than 60 exhibits, breaks down and rebuilds material to symbolize renewal and regeneration. She also helps at-risk youth make art through a program with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

“Since I was really little, I have always made things, and drawn and painted, and I just considered myself a practical person,” said Comeau, a former interior designer.

Her early creations used nature imagery and fabric as a way for her to cope with the death of her dad as well as her daughter’s illness.

“It was really my attempt at puzzling through the challenges of life,” she said.

But the death of her mom turned her art in a new direction.

“I found this series of white blouses of hers. They seemed like perfect blank canvases for some kind of story,” Comeau said. “I decided that instead of using imagery from nature as a representative of the human life cycle, I would literally use human garments to tell stories about human life.”

Comeau set about deconstructing the blouses in order to reassemble them in new narratives. She embellished them, painting, stitching and drawing on each. She calls each a “family narrative that communicates how I learned to be female.”

They are part of Comeau’s larger installation for “Possible Subject Positions,” called “Family of Origin, Cockcrowing,” which includes a wall hanging and a floor fabric that represents different childhood bedrooms.

The three-piece wall hanging, which, Comeau says, resembles “ a very vague cruciform,” contains reds and dark blues to reference the dawn, the rising sun and the darkness of night.

It’s partly toile, a fabric made with repeating pastoral patterns or idyllic childhood scenes. Comeau, who calls herself a “fanatics composter,” put the toile through her compost bin until “nature took its course with cotton.” It was “worm-eaten and torn,” representing nature, the passage of time and fading cherished memories.

Then she washed and reassembled it, mixing up the patterns.

“Then it’s all hand-stitched — stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch. There’s thousands of stitches in it. And it was a symbolic act of rewriting my childhood narrative,” she said.

They symbolize how childhood memories can differ from what our parents or siblings remember.

“We’re experiencing childhood through a child’s eyes. So we have imaginary ideas about things that are happening,” Comeau said. “So the deconstructing of the toile and then the reconstructing of it was like … putting together the ways that you try to construct memory.”

“Merill Comeau’s work stems from a very personal journey, that of the artist’s own understanding of her childhood, and simultaneously addresses broader issues about identity, memory, and family relationships,” said O’Neal.

“I really believe that these materials carry memory with them from having been used,” she said.

Note to self

Adriane Herman, who lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches there at Maine College of Art, displays anonymous love notes and benign laundry lists to shed light on personal relationships.

She uses ripped, wrinkled notes, sticky notes and laundry lists in her 2016 installation, “Inhale/Ex-Hail (Love Is All Around),” at Lamont Gallery.

Herman said after 10 years of collecting, she’s amassed a few thousand notes; some were delivered anonymously, some were given to her by friends, and some she found in retail store parking lots.

In “Inhale/Ex-Hail (Love Is All Around),” the notes and lists are repeated in a pattern across the wall. Some indicate love while others detail seemingly mundane activities. And some are good-faith friendship notes, such as a note for “coupons good for 50 loads of laundry.”

“(Her) work is so intimate and conversational. It makes people laugh, and it also makes them self-conscious,” O’Neal said.

She said rather than display notes that were explicitly about deeply personal moments (“some sort of coding that only is recognizable between the two people because of some kind of intimacy”), she hoped the mysteriousness of words would fill in the blanks.

“It’s interesting to look at the things that … might represent an apology or even a marriage proposal. I wanted to use things that if you spent some time looking at them, (you) had a connection,” Herman said.

According to O’Neal, people see these “subjects” within each other.

“You can try to infer who is speaking — who is the author of that sad love note or the grocery list of junk food. The person next to you will have a completely different mental image in mind. A subject, then, is something we imagine ourselves to be,” O’Neal said.

The notes are like tiny vignettes, romantic and unsettling.

One note says “Meg, I love + want to marry you. Don’t panic.” Another note says “I shall not hate.” A third says “Hey, babe, don’t forget to put the seat down!”

“There’s this funny evidence of somebody’s process,” Herman said.

One item Herman felt compelled to display is simply a list of names.

“It’s wrinkled and it’s kind of dirty at the top, and it says, ‘Lee, Marty, Naples guy, Kevin, Dana, Billy M???, Billy B, Billy Black, Ronny Rich.’”

Herman offered her own interpretation.

“I took this to be somebody making lists of all the people that they had slept with. I’m guessing. I don’t know, maybe you’re drunk and you’re just like, ‘Oh, that guy I met in Naples’ or whatever. Is it Italy, is it Florida?’ She didn’t even know (him),” Herman said.

“We’ve all written many illegible, impossible, or otherwise awkward lists. Part of what makes her lists especially compelling, though, is their anonymity,” said O’Neal.

Herman will hold a gallery talk on Thursday, Feb. 1, from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m., and Comeau will offer an altered-clothing workshop on Friday, Feb. 2, from 6 to 9 p.m. Both are free and open to the public with advance confirmation.

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