Mary Hart was teaching a drawing class at Bowdoin College two years ago and decided to include a section on chance and drawing. She and her students burned paper, threw ink at it and played the surrealist exquisite corpse game, in which images are passed around and collectively made.
“It reminded me of how much the unconscious mind surprises and influences creative work,” Hart wrote in an email. “I loved my students’ work, so I started to bring more chance activities back into my own process.”
One of her students, Sophia Namara, manages PhoPa Gallery in Portland, where Hart and Marjorie Moore are sharing wall space through June 9 in “Flux and Form,” an exhibition of drawings.
Hart made drawings in ink and gouache on Japanese printing paper, made from mulberry bush. It’s delicate but strong, and absorbs ink beautifully. Hart doused the paper in water and dripped ink from several feet away, then let it flow. “The next day, when I came into my studio, a surprise always awaited me as I discovered how it had dried overnight,” she wrote. “Then I would place objects from my specimen shelf on it until something seemed right and worthy of painting with ink and gouache.”
Those objects include rubber bands, nails, pins, rope and old spikes, as well as flies, dragonflies and moths.
The rubber bands and pins are designed to suggest order, to tie things together. In these drawings, perhaps they are trying to contain the stains – “with limited effectiveness,” Hart notes. On the other hand, the insects seem to emerge from the ink.
These drawings are a metaphor for chaos and control and are tied to contemporary issues. They grew out of a series of accidental oil paintings that she began in 2015, combining random background surfaces with precisely painted objects. She finished the final series, based on a Medieval book of hours, in 2017. Along the way, she took breaks to draw, especially during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2016. She completed the bulk of these drawings last year and added a few recent ones that incorporate small bits of color.
But it’s the India ink on the Japanese Kozo paper that animate these paintings. Hart has been using and teaching with India ink for 40 years. “I still have a bedspread from high school that I spilled India ink on,” she wrote. “The stain endures. I think of how it reminds us of the Rorschach ink blot test, that psychological window into our souls.”
Hart has been painting precise realism since the early 2000s. Before that, she was an abstract painter and interested in what the unconscious could deliver. “Over the last 15 years, I’ve been teaching myself to paint: landscape, still life, figure. My work got very small as I defined this language and focused on the elements of daily life that interested me,” she wrote.
After all that compression, an explosion was inevitable, she said, and now she is brining abstraction and realism together – thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
The drawings are hung without frames and float off the wall. She tapped white nails partway into the wall and used tiny rare-earth magnets to secure the paper to the nails. “Frames and glass makes a barrier. I wanted this work to be very direct,” she said.
Hart and Moore will talk about their art and process at 3 p.m. Sunday. In this exhibition, their work hangs well together. Moore’s drawings attempt to make sense of a seascape in motion. She transcribes objects that she finds during beach strolls onto her paper, balancing artfulness with nature. Hart appreciates the similarities in their work.
“She’s dealing with natural imagery from Diamond Island and combining it with chance elements created by ink flow. She’s interested in the dialogue between chaos and structure – eerie similarities in content between our work,” Hart said. “I’m intrigued by the dialogue between our drawings: similar, but not the same.”
WHERE: PhoPa Gallery, 132 Washington Ave., Portland
WHEN: On view through June 9; noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; artist talk, 3 p.m. Sunday
INFO: (207) 517-0200, phopagallery.com