by David M. Roth
How did I get here? What does it all mean? Questions like these drive Maria Porges’ psychological puzzler of a show, Shortest Stories and Exhortations. It consists of collages, sculptures and one-paragraph stories culled from her unpublished collection, 100 Shortest Stories. The stories themselves don’t appear in the show — only in the exhibition catalog — but they are essential reading. After absorbing them you may, like Alice, feel yourself being pulled down a rabbit hole. Porges, as an object maker, operates as a neo-surrealist, cutting and pasting appropriated images from a variety of sources. As a writer she’s a meta-fabulist. Her impeccably crafted prose shifts back and forth across time, viewpoint (from child to adult) and genre (detective, romantic bodice ripper and more).
Together, the texts and the visuals they make for unsettling adult fairy tales whose free-associative, Dadaist logic treats the line between adulthood and childhood as a permeable membrane. However it's the stories that set the tone of the exhibition. Consider one that accompanies the collage above. “There were piles of salt in the corners of every room in the house. She was trying to get rid of the odd, cold sounds that seemed to seep out of the closets and floors – the memories, she thought, of someone who had lived there because there was nowhere else to go. Not a prisoner exactly, but close enough. Was it something about not being able to love? Or, maybe, live? It wasn’t clear. Finally, she learned that a son of the woman who had sold her the place, a boy deaf from birth, had never been allowed to go to school and learn how to sign. When the others left he had stayed behind, his mother’s companion as she slowly went blind.”
For the collages Porges pulls images from ‘40s-era children’s readers and encyclopedias, 19th century German books, old maps, musical scores and reproductions of old engravings. The resulting pictures, 17 in all, portray children as vulnerable innocents engaged in idyllic pursuits; they’re haunted by villains and ogres, as well as abstract threats posed by, of all things, book fragments, sliced into pointy geometric shapes that function as vectors of unseen evils, poised to strike in the “Shazam! Kapow! Thwack!” mode of vintage comics. The overall look is akin to a fusion of Max Ernst and Dick and Jane.
Porges creates similar shapes from cut-up book covers and turns them into wall-mounted sculptures. These resemble medieval weapons or tools of uncertain purpose, and the metaphor they convey, of weaponized words, is one that Porges, a long-time Bay Area art critic and a contributor to this publication, understands well.
The main difference between these and earlier works is that these carry two-word exhortations debossed on their surfaces: “Calm Calamitously,” “Damn Mundanely,” “Parent Parenthetically,” “Harm Charmingly,” “Fold Dolefully” and “Peak Unspeakably.” The truths expressed – about the dissonances we all face – are self-evident, painfully so. And it’s that longing for paths not taken and possibilities foreclosed, that is the exhibition’s greatest strength.
There are, however, some problems. Too much work is packed into too little space, and the decision not to display the all-important texts alongside the collages and the sculptures is mystifying given how integral they are to the artist’s concept. Luckily, it doesn't end here: Porges plans to publish all 100 stories, each paired with an image, in book form.
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Maria Porges: “Shortest Stories and Exhortations” @ Seager Gray Gallery through May 10, 2016.