by Renny Pritikin
For her 35-year survey, consisting of 28 objects shoehorned into this small gallery, Maria Porges employs the tongue-in-cheek title Microspective. Given that she has a parallel career as an art writer (including 60 reviews for this publication), she could have aptly called the show a collaboration between these two sides of her professional life, as almost every object on view employs words or phrases. Textuality and meticulous craftsmanship establish a decorous aura, nailing the roots of her work in the late 20th-century image/text school.
Twenty Questions (2016), a digital print of white sentences on a black ground, hangs high above the entrance, invoking old-fashioned icons like horseshoes or embroidered homilies. Its speculative queries recall the feminist writings of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, merged with Porges’ own mordant sensibility. One of its lines, “When are we drawing and when are we writing?” alerts us to the artist’s ongoing interest in the relationship between language and art.
Squeeze (1993-2001), an hourglass-shaped glass object, probes what scientists call the “observer effect,” the notion that merely observing something changes it. In Porges’ rendition of that idea, wall text behind the object becomes illegible due to the distortions created by curved glass. Thus, the act of trying to see it changes it to something indecipherable. The words on the wall begin with the phrase “Time filled in,” a poetic evocation of time as an empty vessel filled by our experience.
Porges addresses time in two other pieces. In Telling Time (1997), she replaces clockface numbers with words that alternately evoke tranquility and trauma: peace for noon, famine for three, war for six and so on. In Time Heals All Wounds (1992), a tri-part wood sculpture consisting of images on glass, screenprint-on-blackboard sketches of bandaged wounds and the image of a healthy body are accompanied by a text that belies the title: It reads, in part: “No incision will ever reveal the Bruised Core of hatred, vena cava of Desire. No machine will ever take a picture of the Organ that plays old memories of grief.” That organ is, of course, the human brain, which, independent of the body, may harbor wounds that never heal.
Anodyne (2000), part of a series Porges made around the turn of the century consisting of vessel-like works in cast wax, shows a lineup of bottles in the manner of Morandi. They remind me of workers posed for a portrait at an old-fashioned company picnic and how, like the bottles, each person has their own morphology, stance and personality. This group enumerates a variety of human needs in the manner of superhero logos: single words (Balm, Elixir, Salve, Aphrodisiac) emblazoned on the spaces where brand-name labels would typically appear. Hidden in Plain Sight, another collection of word-bearing bottles, suggests a visual paradox but, in fact, shows how one word can be embedded in another: rage within tragedy, for example, called out letters in contrasting colors.
Bedtime Stories derives from Porges’ experience reading to her twin girls, now adults. On each cast-wax vessel, Porges includes a first or last line from stories she read to her daughters as they went to sleep. Sororal Sleepers (2008) shows two bronze and cast-glass children’s heads on a cushion, simultaneously touching and eerie in their disembodiment. Sororal twin screamers (2008), a graphite-and-chalk drawing, depicts two girls, their hair tangled in a gigantic vortex, a disturbing sight as the twins struggle to establish individual identity. (C)hair (2012) also utilizes hair run amok; it forms the outline of an antique chair as though it were the superstructure of a baroque French wig. Shortest Stories #22 (2016), one of a series of collages made from imagery Porges culled from ‘40s-era children’s readers, encyclopedias, 19th-century German books, old maps, musical scores and reproductions of old engravings, shows two boys and a girl headed in opposite directions, a duality echoed by the prominent text, “open, shut, open, shut.”
Her most recent Mashup series (2020-present) — dense, black-and-white drawings and bulbous, protuberant ceramic figures — combines design elements from Southwest Native American, Chinese and Gaelic cultures: a fitting culmination for the exhibition and the artist’s ongoing journey, still provocative and inquiring after more than three decades.
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Maria Porges: “Microspective: 35 Years” @ Fourth Wall through October 21, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.