Portland’s Contemporary Baroque

By: Debbie Hagan

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The currently untitled mural in the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, 2014, an ongoing evolving painting by artist Elizabeth Kleene, 125 x 153″.

Artist Lauren Fensterstock dashes down Portland’s brick streets, headed towards the city’s new “uber hotspot,” eager to talk about a brand new mural, by local artist Elizabeth Kleene, which excites her.

“Careful,” she warns, referring to the buckling brick sidewalks, as she races ahead in heeled boots. Fensterstock is 40, though she seems younger—fit, energetic, fast-talking, uncomplicated and very quick-witted. Along Congress Street she points out Robert Indiana’s Seven, just installed at the Portland Art Museum, and the Feathered Hand sculpture exhibit, by Alison Hildreth, seen through the Portland Public Library’s windows.

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Details of the mural in the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, 2014.

“Oh, you’ve got to see this,” she says. “This has to be the most bizarre sculpture in Portland,” pointing to an 1898 granite monument, the Fireman Statue, standing like a sentinel in front of the Central Fire Station. “Look at the way he’s holding his hose.” In fact, it looks as if sculptor Edward Souther Griffin made an unfortunate choice in the positioning of the fireman’s hands and hose—very phallic indeed. She giggles like a schoolgirl.

It stands to reason that Fensterstock’s eye gravitates to installations, sculptures and public art. “Most people don’t go into a museum and look at a painting for very long—maybe two minutes,” she says, explaining why she likes art that’s in the public, that’s part of the landscape, engaged in the world in which people live and play.

Fensterstock has built a national reputation on her elegant site-specific installations that mainly consist of flourishing foliage—often black—made from carefully cut and quilled paper. Last summer, she had a solo exhibit at Independent Art Projects, in North Adams, MA. She just participated in Pulse Miami, where Sienna Patti Contemporary exhibited her new shell grotto stalactites.

“Let’s see,” Fensterstock pauses in the middle of Congress and grabs the door to what appears to be an empty storefront, then announces, “Oh yes, this is it.”
This is the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box a brand new craft cocktail bar, just opened by Nathaniel Meiklejohn—more commonly known as Nat’l or the Bearded Lady. The fact that there’s no sign and the front window is blacked out doesn’t matter. Locals hunt him down wherever he is, eager to sample his exotic liquor concoctions—and maybe some of the sideshow too. (He’s known to occasionally squeeze a pink dress over his lumberjack body and shaggy red beard.)

It’s impossible to miss Elizabeth Kleene’s mural inside the bar—more than 10 feet wide and 13 feet tall. At first, it’s a surprise that Fensterstock has chosen this work to have a crush upon. Fensterstock creates art that’s bold, organic, free-form and monochromatic. This painting is rather formal, with two bearded ladies facing each other, playing a board game—possibly chess. Each has a cat. Kleene uses mostly a pastel palette and, at first, the painting conjures memories—possibly of wallpaper at grandmother’s house or maybe a rococo wall mural in a lady’s dressing room.

However, as one sits down and studies it, the painting and its objects become increasingly intriguing and mysterious: What exactly are those board playing pieces? What are all those objects floating in space at the top? What is that trophy that has hands instead of antlers? Clearly we’ve entered a different dimension.

“Notice that they have different cats,” says Fensterstock, pointing to the bearded ladies. “You wonder, what’s that all about? What is the relationship between them? The artist gives you enough stuff to chew on, but I like that she leaves the narrative in the viewer’s hands. For instance, I like that the plant leaves have some symbolic meaning, even if you don’t know what that is about.”

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Parterre (detail of installation with artist Lauren Fensterstock), 2008 installation at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, paper, plexi, charcoal. Photo: Luc Demers.

Fensterstock expresses a certain kinship with Kleene, who lives in Portland and just obtained her MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art in Athens, GA. Just as Fensterstock’s aesthetics are grounded in 18th-century baroque and all of its grandeur and ornamentation, Kleene references the same time period, but with some grotesque design and psychedelia thrown in.

“There’s 16th, 17th and 18th century in it with a little of 1970 all mixed together,” says Fensterstock. “I think my perspective is much messier. I’m a blend of Versailles and Robert Smithson.”

After thinking a few seconds, she adds, “Look at the curtain. It can go two ways—an 18th-century swag or a disco curtain. You know, cutting the paper flowers is not that different from painting thousands of spheres [as in the disco curtain]. It’s a little obsessive.”

Both artists classify their work as installations. In the case of Kleene, hers takes on an almost heraldic dimension using elements from Meiklejohn’s personal life—his collection of bearded lady photos, his kitschy knickknacks and even his cat with its tuxedo markings. She has worked them into the painting. Over time, according to the artist, elements within the painting may come and go, the narrative may shift, and viewers may be sitting at the bar, sipping their sherry-laced Flamencos and wondering, “Is this new or am I just seeing things?”

“I’m interested in the art that can be a site,” says Fensterstock. “This is not a frozen window. It changes as the room changes—that is the beauty of art in an active space. So often we see art in a white box space. Here it’s active with Billie Holiday singing in the background.”

It’s true. The sun goes down, Meiklejohn lights the candles and a warm light fills the room, as Fensterstock notices a celestial orb at the top and asks, “Could that be a disco ball?” Then she shrugs and smiles, “I like how it keeps surprising you.”

Debbie Hagan is editor-in-chief of Art New England.

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